Steven Casali was lying on the turf, dizzy and grasping for air, having just carried Sachem East into West Islip territory.
The junior running back took four plays off while he gained composure and picked up where he left off, carrying the Arrows on his back while they charged down field in the school’s most crucial offensive series to date.
As seconds ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter, Casali carried six more times and finally blasted through the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown run that gave Sachem East the game-winning score in a 21-14 win over West Islip in the Suffolk County Division I quarterfinals Saturday afternoon.
No. 6 Sachem East (6-4) will play No. 1 Sachem North (8-1) Friday in the Division I semifinals, making for a game of mammoth proportions in the Sachem community. It will be the fourth time the schools have met on the gridiron since the school district split in 2004.
The win is Sachem East’s first playoff victory in school history and also set the program record for wins in a season.
Sachem East rode its workhorse Casali as usual, giving him the ball 40 times for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
“How he goes it how we go,” said Sachem coach Mark Wojciechowski, who as a player for the Flaming Arrows in the 1980s never beat West Islip, including in the 1985 Division I championship his senior year. “He’s a role model and the kids all look up to him.”
The team was looking to him in the first quarter when he opened the game with an 11-yard touchdown run at 10:12. This came after Sachem quarterback Anthony Riggi hit Brian Balsalmo with a 60-yard pass on the second play of the game, signaling that East came to play.
“Balsalmo wouldn’t be denied,” Wojciechowski said, “he didn’t care if the guy was holding him, tripping him, it didn’t matter, he was going to catch the ball.”
West Islip answered back on its next series when Nick Aponte scored on a 7-yard run three minutes later in the first quarter.
Casali put Sachem ahead 14-7 with a 10-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
West Islip opened the second half with a sizeable kick return to Sachem’s 20-yard line, allowing quarterback Anthony Santo to score on a 16-yard touchdown run two pays later to tie the score.
Sachem put together a 16-play drive that brought the Arrows to West Islip’s 11-yard line, but Aponte killed the momentum with an interception.
Sachem, however, put the game away later in the fourth quarter on another 16-play series that resulted in Casali’s memorable touchdown run to win the game.
“The offensive line played great today and got a great push off the ball,” Casali said. “We brought it today.”
Next week is a different story. Emotions will be swirling around Sachem, especially for Wojciechowski and his staff, many of who work at Sachem North.
“They’re the best,” he said. “To be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Fourth and Long
- Other stats: Anthony Santo finished 5-for-10 passing for 19 yards and 1 interception and he rushed 15 times for 84 yards and 1 touchdown. Sachem outgained West Islip, 273-168, in total offensive yards.
- West Islip previously beat Sachem East during Week 6, a 36-7 drubbing on Sachem's homecoming. Wojciechowski on that game: "The first time defensively they did some things we weren’t expecting. They took us out of our game a little bit."
1........ 2........ 3........ 4........ F
Sachem 7........ 7........ 0 ........ 7........ 21
West Islip 7........ 0........ 7......... 0 ........ 14
-S: Casali 11 run, Neri kick
-W: Aponte 7 run, Woodburn kick
-S: Casali 10 run, Neri kick
-W: Santo 16 run, Woodburn kick
-S: Casali 2 run, Neri kick