By MIKE SMITH
With an undefeated regular season and one of the top defenses in all of Section I last year, the Rye Neck Panthers enjoyed a spectacular resurgence, the payoff for a couple of lean years in the early 2010s. The scary prospect for other Class C team this year? The Black Hats look to be even better in 2013.
With roughly 80 percent of last year’s team returning, Panthers fans—and players—are looking to recapture, and surpass, last year’s phenomenal campaign.
“The excitement level has been unheard of, everybody has been so enthusiastic,” head coach Nick Ianello, whose team finished 7-1 last season, said. “There’s something about winning that does that to a team.”
And most of the players that spurred on the winning culture will be back in uniform this year. Senior Thomas Pipolo will once against be under center with a supporting cast in the backfield that might be one of the deepest in the section. All-State running back Jakob Calvini will be back, as will fellow runners Ryan Morningstar and Dom Brescia, giving the Panthers a very balanced running attack.
“Last year, we had four running backs and they all got about 25 percent of the carries,” said Ianello. “We’ve got power backs, a couple of finesse backs so that’s pretty tough to stop.”
The Panthers lost two guys up front on the offensive line, prompting last year’s fullback, Pedro Cueto, to switch positions. Cueto is penciled in as the team’s center.
“He knew we needed help on the line,” said Ianello of his new center. “He made that move to help the team.”
In general, Ianello has seen a willingness for players to abandon their natural positions for the betterment of the team, something he said started with Calvini’s willingness to play all over the field in his four years on the varsity.
“He’s a great role model for the rest of the kids,” said Ianello of his captain. “They see how hard he works, how humble he is, and that pays off.”
Calvini’s leadership will be especially important on the defensive end, as the Panthers defense–which posted five shutout wins last year–is again expected to be dominant.
The quest to see if Rye Neck can duplicate last year’s success starts off with a tough test on Sept. 7, when the Panthers will travel to Tuckahoe to take on last year’s Class D runner-ups in the Tigers.
“We’re just looking at one game at a time this year,” said Ianello. “Tuckahoe’s a good team, made it to states last year and they have a great coach in [John] D’Arco. It’s going to be a great game.”