|WELCOME TO HUDSON VALLEY SPORTS REPORT!|
|WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 17|
By Ted Remsnyder
MIDDLETOWN – At the conclusion of a wild 55-47 shootout win over Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in a Section 9, Class A semifinal playoff game Friday night in Middletown, Wallkill needed the rarest of things on this night to secure the win – a defensive stop.
Trailing 48-47 after a Justin Hopkins 4-yard touchdown run with 40 seconds to play, Roosevelt boldly decided to go for the 2-point conversion and the lead. It was a logical decision considering Hopkins had racked up 324 yards on 44 carries and three touchdowns up to that point.
But with a spot in the Class A final against Cornwall on the line, the Panthers stuffed Hopkins at the 1-yard line to hold the lead.
“The defense made plays in big situations,” said Wallkill senior quarterback Joe Pillitteri (9-16, 215 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT). “That’s how you win a football game. They made a huge play right there and won the game for us.”
The Panther’s goal-line stand came at the end of a contest that was an offensive clinic by both teams.
“That felt great,” said sophomore running back Zach Slater, who paced Wallkill’s ground attack with 109 yards rushing on 11 carries with 2 TDs. “We wanted the defense to step up, and they stepped up and made a big play.”
Senior receiver Brandon Purdy followed up the big stop by recovering the ensuing onsides kick for Wallkill and returning it 53 yards for a touchdown score with 30 seconds left to seal the rollercoaster win.
“Our last game against FDR we went into overtime, and I’m glad we didn’t go into overtime this time,” Purdy said. “It was back and forth and they’re a great team. I’m just glad we got the win today.”
Pillitteri was quick to answer when asked if he’d ever been a part of such an amazing game. “I’m going to say definitely not,” he replied. “Especially the 53-yard return at the end, that was the icing on the cake, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Wallkill (6-3) coach Brian Vegliando was somewhat stunned after the contest, but relieved to secure a matchup with the two-time defending Class A champion Green Dragons.
“I’m still kind of in a little decompressing mode right now,” Vegliando said. “That was a wild, crazy, back and forth game. Our kids persevered and the defense stepped up when they had to. We got the 2-point stop and I talked to the team about being a little smarter with that onsides kick and just going down and ending the game right there. But that was a good play, and though we made some mistakes, we were able to battle through some things and get the win.”
The two teams traded touchdowns right from the get-go, as Slater broke through for a 59-yard touchdown dash to make it 7-0 Panthers only 28 seconds into the game. Hopkins then scored the first of his three TDs on a 2-yard score to tie the game with 4:45 left in the first.
“Justin’s been a long time coming,” FDR coach Brian Bellino said. “He’s been one of our hardest workers. He’s had a couple of injured years, but last week he had 260 yards and it’s been a couple of great weeks.”
The clubs went back and forth throughout the first half, with Roosevelt (4-5) senior quarterback Matt DuPilka (6-13, 75 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) connecting with Jordan Jones on a 10-yard reception to tie the score at 27-27 with 44 seconds left in the second quarter.
Wallkill senior Sean Puleo (57 yards on 7 carries) opened up the second half scoring with his third TD run of the day, a 33-yard sprint to make it 34-27 at the 7:18 mark of the third. Puleo combined with Slater to reach the end zone five times for the Panthers on the evening.
“They made some nice things happen so that the air attack and ground attack were working together,” Vegliando said.
After DuPilka (48 yards rushing on 9 carries) tied the game on a 1-yard run (his second rushing TD of the game) with 2:13 left in the third, Roosevelt made their push. After FDR senior Mike Bryan picked off a Pillitteri pass on the Presidents’ 44-yard line, Hopkins capitalized with a 35-yard TD run to put Roosevelt up 41-34 with 11:09 to go in the game. Trailing for the first time, Wallkill struck back quickly as Pillitteri found Purdy on a 34-yard touchdown reception to tie it at 41-41 with 9:52 left.
“He was running a post route and I had some pressure in my face,” Pillitteri said. “I just stepped out right and I trust him to go up and catch a ball like that, so I just put it up and he got it.”
A Will Ryder interception then set up the Panthers at FDR’s 36-yard line with 6:49 to go, and Slater soon burst through for a 5-yard score to make it 48-41 with 5:51 left in the fourth. Hopkins then gained 66 yards on 10 carries to lead the Presidents down the field, eventually running the ball in from four yards out with only 40 seconds left on the clock.
Down 48-47 and with Hopkins on fire, it was a no-brainer for Bellino to try for the two points and the win.
“It wasn’t only that Justin was a monster all game, but also that we couldn’t stop them to save our life,” Bellino said. “So I decided we were going for two before we even got the ball. We went down and took care of it and he just came up a little short. We wanted to go with what’s been working with our senior guys that have hit the weights for four years and he just fell short by a couple of inches.”
After the critical defensive stop, Purdy’s 53-yard return put the Panthers up 55-47 and set up a rematch of last year’s Class A title game. Wallkill lost 53-0 last year to the Green Dragons in that contest, but dropped a 42-35 nailbiter at Cornwall this season on October 11.
“The last time we played them it was a great game and we lost by a touchdown,” Purdy said. “We had a lot of chances. I think we have a great chance against Cornwall this year.”
After a wild win like this semifinal victory over FDR, Wallkill’s star quarterback feels confident going into next Friday’s title game.
“We’re going to go out and have a great week of practice,” Pillitteri said. “We’re just going to give it everything we’ve got. We want this. We’ve been working toward this since day one, this is what we think about.”