There’s no substitute for being tested in the cauldron of a nip-and-tuck playoff football game, and Marlboro proved its mettle on Saturday afternoon at Faller Field in Middletown with a 35-27 comeback win over Liberty in a thrilling Section 9, Class B semifinal game.
The top-seeded Dukes (8-0) have been so dominant this season, they had the luxury of making it through the entire regular season without trailing in the fourth quarter. But the fifth-seeded Indians battled Marlboro all day long and actually held a seven-point lead early in the final quarter.
With the season on the line, Marlboro turned to senior quarterback Phil DeSantis, who bulldozed his way into the end zone for two touchdowns that gave the Dukes the lead for good. “We focused up,” DeSantis (117 yards rushing on 22 carries) said of the comeback. “The first half was shaky cause we just weren’t on our game. We weren’t focused or thinking of our assignments and all the things that you have to do to make a great team.” With no room for error, the Marlboro defense shut down the prolific Liberty (4-5) rushing attack on the team’s final two possessions to seal the win. “We really just manned up and did our assignments,” DeSantis said. “We really should have been doing it the whole game, but it’s great that we did it by the end.”
Marlboro will now face off with New Paltz in the Class B final in a winner-take-all showdown for division supremacy, as the two will square off in a rematch of last year’s championship game. While the Dukes fell 33-17 to the Huguenots in the final last season, when the teams take the field on Friday night at 7 p.m. in Middletown, the memories of Marlboro’s 21-7 win at New Paltz on Oct. 13 should be fresh for both squads. New Paltz will likely come out with fire in their bellies after losing at home to Marlboro three weeks ago, while the Dukes are determined to reclaim the Class B trophy after the Huguenots ended their streak of five straight championships last year.
“It’s going to get downright nasty again. It’ll be a great high school football game,” Marlboro head coach Rich Ward said.
Marlboro pounced on Liberty early as the Dukes sacked Indians’ senior quarterback Carter Harmen on a botched punt attempt to force a turnover on downs on the Liberty 23-yard line on the team’s first possession. Moments later, Marlboro junior quarterback Sam Mongelli (122 yards rushing on 19 carries) faked out the defense and bounded in for a 9-yard touchdown run to put Marlboro up 7-0 at the 9:13 mark of the first quarter. “We had a lot of our linemen square on their linebackers, so I just hesitated a little bit and I got a good block from one of my pullers, so I just saw a hole and tried to get there as fast as I could,” Mongelli said. With the game only minutes old and the Dukes already on the board, it appeared a rout could be in the cards, but Liberty held tough and evened the score at 7-7 only 40 seconds later when sophomore running back Kymanni Dennis (158 yards rushing on 24 carries) broke off a 62-yard touchdown run.
Marlboro soon went cold on offense, as they struggled to find a rhythm and Mongelli missed a pair of field goals. Liberty capitalized in the second quarter, as senior running back Roy Penn-Cosentino (253 yards rushing on 28 carries) barreled into the end zone for a 7-yard score to give the Indians a 14-7 lead with 6:38 remaining in the first half, a margin the Indians would carry into the break. While the Dukes downed Liberty 44-20 in a home win on Sept. 23, the Indians also led that game at the half, and they hold the distinction as the only team to lead the Dukes at the intermission this season, a feat they accomplished twice.
“They had a good scheme, they’re well-coached, they’ve got good athletes,” Ward said of Liberty. “I thought today in the first three quarters they had more passion than us.” Despite their halftime lead, Liberty also missed a golden opportunity at the end of the second when Harmen (1-3, 9 yards passing) overthrew a wide open receiver in the end zone on a third-down play that could have given the Indians a two-score margin at the break.
The Dukes were forced to begin the playoffs without the services of wide receiver John Perugino, after the senior leader received a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against New Paltz that earned him an ejection from that game, along with a mandated one-game suspension for the Liberty tilt. Trailing at the half, Marlboro used Perugino as inspiration for its second-half comeback. “When we got into the locker room, we pretty much talked about passion and heart,” Mongelli said. “We didn’t want to end the season with our teammate John Perugino out, so we did it for him. We played hard, every kickoff, every huddle, we did it for John.”
Marlboro came out on fire in the second half, as Mongelli (3-4, 105 yards passing, 1 TD) found wide receiver Eric Borchert for a 29-yard touchdown reception to knot the game at 14-14 with 8:32 left in the third, as the junior hauled the ball in amidst traffic and subsequently sliced into the end zone. “They didn’t have a safety over the top, so I figured if I dropped back he (Borchert) would be able to burn by their linebackers and I just tried to put it in a good spot and it worked out,” Mongelli said. The game remained tied heading into the final frame, but when Penn-Cosentino ripped off a 39-yard touchdown run only 14 seconds into the fourth, the Indians suddenly had a 21-14 lead.
Faced with potential playoff elimination, DeSantis connected with Borchert for a 41-yard reception for the senior’s only completed pass of the day, which DeSantis quickly followed up with a 7-yard touchdown run, as he charged through the middle of the defense and reached the ball across the goal line with his outstretched arm to tie the game at 21-21 with 10:45 remaining. “I saw a small hole and a linebacker, and I thought ‘It’s me or him,’ so why not make it me?” DeSantis said.
Liberty quickly answered, however, as Penn-Cosentino turned the corner on the Dukes’ defense and zoomed into the end zone for a 8-yard TD run to put the Indians up 27-21 with 9:51 to go. But the Marlboro defense pressured Liberty kicker Jerry Olmo on the extra point, which sailed wide left and well under the crossbar. “It was tough, my hat’s off to Liberty because they fought, but we found a way to win,” Ward said. “We found a little crack when they missed the extra point, we got a little life. It was thrive and survive time.”
With the game in the balance, the Dukes once again turned to DeSantis, who careened into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown run to give Marlboro a 28-27 lead with 7:17 remaining in the contest. With a slim lead to protect, the Dukes’ defense stiffened, as senior linebacker Billy Williamson walloped Harmen on a fourth-and-five play from the Indians’ 25 yard-line to force a turnover on downs. Marlboro then went for the kill, as DeSantis charged down the middle of the field for a 19-yard touchdown run to give the Dukes a 35-27 lead with 4:28 remaining in the game. “It was a huge hole, so I just made one linebacker miss and that was it,” DeSantis said. When the Dukes snuffed out the last Liberty drive as the Indians failed to cross midfield, Marlboro was headed to the Class B final after a hard-fought victory. “I wish we did that the whole game, so whatever the secret was they better let me know because that’s how we gotta play next week,” Ward said of his team’s late defensive stands.
The Dukes will now turn their attention to New Paltz, as they look to bring home the Class B championship. “I think it’s going to be another great game, maybe even closer than the first,” Mongelli said. “I think it’s going to be all heart. I think both teams are really good, so it just comes down to who wants to win more, who hits harder and no trash talking this time.” Marlboro expects the Huguenots to come out looking for revenge for the loss in regular-season finale, but DeSantis says the Dukes have to concentrate on playing their own game at an optimum level. “We try not to focus on the other team, we try to focus on us,” he said. “We’ve gotta come out strong in the first half like we did in weeks past and we’ll be successful.”
By Ted Remsnyder