The foundation for a championship run was cast two years earlier. Whitman football coach Robin Rosa elevated a large group of sophomores to the varsity with the hope that the experience would benefit the program in the future.
He was spot on. Junior quarterback Nicholas Bottoni completed nine of 11 passes for 180 yards and two scores as Whitman upset top-seeded Lindenhurst, 35-14, late Sunday to capture the Suffolk League II football title. It was Whitman’s first league championship in 37 years. The Wildcats last claimed the League II crown in 1984.
"I could see this coming with this group of players," said Rosa, in his 11th year at the helm. "We battled through a 2-6 season where we lost three games on the final possession and it was heartbreaking. We were right there at the playoff door and ready to kick it open. In all my years we’d never beaten Lindy and I’m so proud of our guys."
The win also earned Whitman (3-1) a home playoff game in the Suffolk Division I semifinal round. The Wildcats will host Longwood either Friday or Saturday.
Bottoni opened the scoring with a quarterback sneak and then added to the lead with a 40-yard touchdown strike to junior Brandon Ivy.
"We audibled out of a running play because coach [Mike] Buck, our offensive coordinator, liked the defensive matchup with Ivy," Bottoni said. "And Ivy ran right at the safety and then broke the route off into the corner and I put it over his shoulder for the score. It was such a great call and set the tone for the game."
The well-placed throw gave the Wildcats a two-score lead in a steady rain. The elements didn’t seem to faze Bottoni, who was nearly perfect. "We worked out Saturday in the rain purposely using wet footballs to get comfortable with them," Bottoni said.
After the Bulldogs (3-1) cut the deficit to 14-7, Whitman wasted little time to grow the lead. On the ensuing play from scrimmage, Ivy ran a post pattern right and got behind the secondary where he hauled in a Bottoni pass for a 78-yard touchdown and a 21-7 halftime lead.
"We have special receivers and we have so many options where we can throw," Rosa said. "We have athletes all over the field. And Nicholas had quite the game."
Lindenhurst tried to cut the lead in half driving into Whitman territory before the Wildcats defense led by cornerback Tim Hunter halted the march. Hunter made three straight tackles, including a big fourth down stop to turn the ball over on downs.
"They were trying to run the ball down our throat," Rosa said. "And in the past, that’s happened. But we’re much bigger and stronger and very tough up the middle with senior linebacker Sean Bock."
Hunter added a five-yard scoring run to make it 28-7 with 5:03 left in the third quarter. And an Ivy interception and long return set up A.J. Evans five-yard touchdown run for the final margin.
"We have all the respect in the world for Lindenhurst," Rosa said. "I knew a win would be huge for our program. It feels great."