By MIKE SMITH
The Rye Neck Panthers saw a dream season come to an excruciating end on Dec. 1 as they fell in the Class C state finals to Chenago Forks by a score of 28-27.
The back-and-forth game saw the Black Hats come within one point of a tie after Jake Sevean hauled in a nine-yard touchdown pass from Tom Pipolo with just 4 minutes left to play, but Rye Neck’s decision to go for two proved costly as fullback Pedro M. Cueto was stopped short of the goal line on the conversion attempt.
“This was a tough game,” Panthers head coach Nick Ianello said. “They’re a storied program and we knew this was going to be difficult.”
The Panthers drew first blood when Pipolo found wideout Matt Garcia in the end zone in the first quarter and traded blows with the Blue Devils throughout the first half, which ended with the two squads deadlocked at 21. Chenago relied heavily on halfback Isaiah Zimmer, who earned game MVP honors with three scores and 175 yards on the ground. His last score came in the fourth quarter to give the Blue Devils a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“They really got off the ball fast,” Panther lineman Pedro J. Cueto, who was named the game’s most outstanding defensive lineman, said. “Number 45, he had a great game.”
Trailing by a touchdown with 8:05 left on the clock, Rye Neck responded by marching 80-yards down the field for a score, but the inability to convert for two all but sealed the deal for the first-time state title hopefuls.
“Our offense played well today,” quarterback Tom Pipolo, who finished with 113 yards passing and three TDs on the day, said. “It was just that a few plays didn’t go our way.”
Rye Neck was plagued by some penalty issues on the afternoon, as a host of flags brought back some big plays–including a touchdown pass that would have put the Black Hats in the catbird seat to start the second half.
After the game, Ianello preferred to reflect on his team’s ability to respond to those setbacks.
“It really is a special team,” he said. “This is a team that never stops fighting and they showed that today.”
With an 11-1 record on the season, the Panthers have undoubtedly written the most compelling chapter in their football program’s history, reaching the state finals for the first time.
“This is always going to sting, no doubt.” said Pipolo. “But we’re going to look back on this someday fondly because we wouldn’t have gotten here if we weren’t so close with each other.
And whereas it’s often said every cloud has a silver lining, for Pipolo, this one doesn’t.
“We say it all the time, but this is a family,” he said. “The worst part about this is I know we’re never going to play together again.”