Call them “The Promise Keepers.”
The end of the 2018 Plainedge season was shrouded in pain – both literally and emotionally – when quarterback Dan Villari suffered a broken arm on a hit in a close game and the Nassau County champion could no longer stay with Half Hollow Hills West in the Long Island Class III championship game. As time expired on the 34-6 defeat, each of the Red Devils made a promise to each other and themselves that they would return to the LIC and not be denied.
They all kept that promise. Plainedge left an indelible imprint on the 2019 season by owning it – all of it. The Red Devils (12-0) repeated as Nassau champions and capped the perfect season with a 56-20 rout of impressive Sayville for the Long Island Class III championship. One of coach Rob Shaver’s favorite stats from the season was that Plainedge trailed in games for a total of less than five minutes or, as he said, “less than the window of time to get from one class to another at school.”
Shaver had taken three other Plainedge squads to the Long Island championship, but hadn’t won there. “We wanted it for us and we wanted it for him,” senior Luke Lombardi said. “I was honored to be a part of this championship team and getting [him] his first Long Island championship made it extra special.”
“It was really satisfying to win the last game,” Shaver said. “To win [at] the LIC is tough. You have to be a great team and, as we learned last year, things have to go right. Last year might have been the one that got away, but to win one with this group was incredible. It’s nice to see a team finish what it started.”
How dominant was this Plainedge season? The Red Devils averaged 44.9 points and had a 35.3-point average margin of victory. The catalyst for it all was Villari, who rushed for 1,495 yards and 25 touchdowns and threw for 1,315 yards and 13 more scores. But Plainedge had a constellation of senior stars. Dion Kuinlan rushed for 14 touchdowns, Lombardi rushed for five scores, caught two more and led the team with three interceptions. Donovan Pepe caught six touchdown passes and Doug Elsesser caught five more. Braden Clark had a team-best 87 tackles and kicked 62 extra points.
“This championship truly involved contributions from everyone,” Villari said. “It started with all our work in the offseason and it showed up on the field. We [became] brothers and winning with your brothers and for your community? There is nothing better.”
Most seasons have moments that shape their direction. Shaver said Plainedge’s biggest came well before the first game. “We needed an offensive line because we had no one who had even started a game there,” he said. “Starting practice with no line was an adversity to overcome.”
Junior Jason LaSacala agreed to move from tight end. Sophomore Tom Everding was drafted from the junior varsity team. Senior Chris Gentile was moved from reserve to starting tackle and then to guard and finally to center. Senior Alex Abrams had to switch positions to become a starter. And junior Pat Whidden moved from reserve to starter.
Together they became the chassis of a high-octane offense that averaged 440 yards per game.
“They heard the doubters on social media and proved themselves to everyone,” Kuinlan said. “You’d like to have experienced players on the line in big games, but the way they played – keeping composure and rising to the occasion – you wouldn’t know the difference.”
If Plainedge had a turning point in its season, it was its 61-13 victory over unbeaten South Side in Week 7. As Villari explained “it was the moment we saw we were on top and were capable of winning it all.” But it also earned Shaver a controversial one-game suspension for violating a county rule intended to prevent teams from running up the score, even though Cyclones coach Phil Onesto felt Shaver had done nothing wrong. The decision brought the county national scrutiny yet proved only a shallow pothole on the road to the title.
“It was such a hyped game and we played so well,” Kuinlan said. “We came out of it feeling like no one could play with us, that the goal we set for ourselves was in reach.”
Shaver looked into the faces of his players in the run-up to that game and saw something very different in them, something that would bode well for the weeks ahead.
“Faces changed and the intensity level was different,” Shaver said. “There was a tenaciousness and determination to face a challenge. I thought all season they’d rise to meet every moment. They did there and in every other one the rest of the way.”
RED DEVILS' ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Floral Park, 56-20
North Shore, 60-21
South Side, 41-13
Long Island championship