There’s something special about the Northport football program this year.
It could be the new head coach as long-time assistant Pat Campbell takes over the program. It could be the beautiful brand-new turf field. It could be the new look navy and white uniforms.
It could be all of that. But it’s much simpler.
What makes Northport special — is the special teams units.
Two long kickoff returns for touchdowns by Ryan Smith and Max Napoli between the end of the first half and start of the second half sent Northport on to a 47-28 win over Half Hollow Hills East Saturday in a Suffolk Division II football game before a crowd of more than 1,200.
“You can’t put enough practice into special teams,” said Smith, Northport’s kick returner. “We work on them all the time.”
Smith broke a school record 99-yard kickoff return for a score with 25 seconds left in the first half to give Northport a 33-14 lead. The big play came moments after Half Hollow Hills East had cut a 27-0 deficit to 27-14 by scoring two late first-half touchdowns in a 2:43 span.
Quarterback Brett Martin scored from a yard out with 39 seconds left in the half to breathe life into the Hills East sideline and give the Thunderbirds needed momentum into the locker room.
Or so it seemed.
The ensuing Hills East kickoff sailed toward the end zone before Watson sprinted to his left and made the catch. He went straight up the middle behind a wedge of blockers and burst into the open field for the long touchdown.
“I followed some great blocks and Max [Napoli] just cleaned the kicker and then it was open field,” said Smith, who also returned a kickoff for a score in last year’s playoffs against Floyd. “We were so in the clear we high-fived each other inside the 10-yard line.”
The special teams breakdown halted Hills East’s comeback attempt.
“Total backbreaker of a play,” said Hills East coach Mike Maratto, who led the Thunderbirds to a school record eight wins a year ago. “We’d had some rhythm, the offense was moving the ball and we were back in the game. And then we had a special teams mistake at the worst possible time.”
And what happened next will certainly have the Hills East coaching staff focused on special teams units this week.
Napoli, Northport’s electric halfback, who gained 107 yards on seven carries and a score, received the second half kickoff and used the same GPS route as Smith for a 91-yard return for a touchdown and a 40-14 lead.
“We didn’t think they’d kick it deep again,” Napoli said. “Ryan and I talked about it during halftime. We were surprised. And this time he made the final block to set me up for the touchdown.”
“We haven’t put as much time into specials as I would have liked,” Maratto said. “That’s become a priority.”
The back-to-back kickoff returns for scores was demoralizing, but Hills East didn’t quit.
Martin led the Thunderbirds on an 11-play, 65-yard drive capped by a 1-yard scoring run to make it 40-21 with 2:18 left in the third quarter. It was the third touchdown for Martin, who finished with 102 yards on 16 carries.
Northport responded with a six-play, 70-yard march, capped by a 12-yard run from bruising halfback Justin Gerdvil, his third score of the game. Gerdvil rushed for 63 yards on seven carries as the offense totaled 378 yards.
On Tate Atherton’s ensuing kickoff, the ball bounced off a Hills East player and Atherton recovered the fumble. Ah, special teams!