As Andrew Belli walked the halls at Ward Melville High School on Monday, the situation felt a bit unfamiliar. People recounted the events of the weekend with excitement and anticipation for the next one. They showered the senior with congratulations. There was a tangible buzz.
Belli is the starting quarterback on the football team. He, his teammates and his coaches captured the school’s third Suffolk County title and first in 35 years with a 34-19 win over Longwood on Saturday. And now the Patriots venture into uncharted territory: their first appearance in the Long Island Championships.
“It’s been one of the best feelings,” Belli said. “We’re not [considered] a football school. And it means everything to be a part of doing something that’s never been done before.”
“Nothing compares to what this feels like,” said senior running back Nick Gaffney, a three-year letter-winner. “Every season it’s been ‘what if we’d won this game’ or ‘what if we win that.’ Now we’ve finally put it together.”
Ward Melville (8-3) will face Nassau champion Farmingdale (11-0) in the Long Island Class I title game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Stony Brook’s LaValle Stadium.
The Patriots have given something new to a school that has had great athletic success in — among other sports — lacrosse, field hockey and track and field.
Joe Tasman, a linebacker and guard on the 1987 county champion (before the 1992 advent of the LIC) can feel the buzz, too. Now a deputy superintendent in the Hauppauge school district, Tasman said the good feelings about the football program have reverberated not only around the school but around the country.
“We’re all over the country now, but we were texting throughout the game and [afterward] on Saturday,” he said, referring to his former teammates on the title team. “Ward Melville is culturally a lacrosse school and it’s had big wins in a lot of other sports, but there is something about football and the school pride it brings out.”
The Patriots entered the Suffolk I playoffs as the fourth seed after dropping two of their last three games, one a 38-0 blowout by Floyd, the other a one-point upset by Patchogue-Medford. Coach Chris Boltrek points to the latter as the turning point in the Ward Melville season.
“It was a wake-up call for us and I saw the kids became a lot more selfless,” Boltrek said. “Up until that point, people were talking about statistics and touches and all this kind of nonsense that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Now? That sort of talk never comes [up]. The only thing they talk about is winning championships, and they’ve definitely put that out there on the field.”
After Ward Melville dispatched Whitman, it pulled off what might be the upset of the season with a 14-7 takedown of top-seeded Floyd and redeemed itself for an earlier loss to Longwood in the county final.
“Losing to Pat-Med hurt us and made the road more difficult, but it also refocused us,” Belli said. “When we lost that, we came to understand what it would take. Beating Whitman cemented that.”
“It brought out the desire to win,” Gaffney said. “It was our last chance to play football and we wanted to keep it going.”
And they have.
Belli is, as Boltrek said, “the Joe Cool out there” and has thrown 23 touchdown passes. Gaffney has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Junior Mike Riccardi is playing with passion and a nose for the ball, combining with hard-hitting senior Dan Cosentino to form a great linebacking duo.
There is a chance that this season ultimately will be transformative for the football program and Boltrek, a Ward Melville alum.
“He has the program going in a great direction,” Tasman said. “It’s never been a football school, but [Boltrek] and this team have made it seem possible.”
“It’s pretty crazy that we have a chance to make history,” Riccardi said. “And it’s so great to have a chance to do it with all your best friends.”