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Thunderbirds are Long Island Champions (Newsday article)

Posted Saturday, November 29, 2008 by Michael Konsevitch


Kicker Justin Bertone had witnessed the scene before. Instead of lining up on fourth down for a likely three points, Connetquot coach Mike Hansen elects to go for it, risking turning over the ball on downs for a new set of downs or possibly a touchdown.

It just so happens a few of those decisions -- seven, to be exact -- were made for everyone to see during Friday's Long Island Class I championship game at Hofstra University. In its 21-13 win over Freeport, Connetquot converted on fourth down six of seven times and scored all three touchdowns, one passing and two running, on fourth-down tries.

The risks resulted in a huge reward: The T-Birds' first Long Island title since 1992.

"We get lucky like that all the time on the fourth downs. Coach spontaneously comes up with these plays and we get touchdowns," Bertone said. He said he wouldn't mind the opportunity to provide three points but "it's OK. I can kick the extra point anyway."

Freeport (10-2) actually outgained Connetquot 233-197 in total yardage, but the T-Birds (10-2) dominated time of possession (30:10 to 17:50), and the fourth-down conversions proved to be the difference. Three of them extended drives and other three resulted in TDs.

Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Connetquot capped an 11-play, 49-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Anderson to Jon Sternbach on fourth-and-6. Sternbach ran a slant and made the reception between three Freeport defenders, falling on his back near the front of the end zone.

With the score tied at 7 in the third quarter, running back Joe Zuco (148 yards and two TDs on 33 carries) surged past the goal line on fourth-and-1. The run ended a 15-play, 59-yard drive that lasted eight minutes.

Ahead 14-7 early in the fourth quarter, Connetquot faced a fourth-and-1 at the Freeport 2, and the T-Birds lined up for a field goal. But Hansen said he "reevaluated the situation" and called time out. He decided Connetquot's offensive line and Zuco were more than capable of picking up the first down, and probably even the touchdown.

"I was on the sideline and heard them yell that we're going for it," Anderson said. "I went out to the huddle, told them what play we were running and we got pumped."

The plan called for a run left. Zuco and the line delivered with a 2-yard score. "I gave everything I had left in me," Zuco said.

Bertone added the extra point to put the T-Birds up 21-7 with 7:52 left. When Freeport's Erick Lapice scored on a 1-yard run with 53 seconds left, the T-Birds still led by a touchdown. Then Connetquot recovered the onside kick, clinching the title.

"The way our line plays and how Zuco runs, it's not that much of a risk. I know we can get the fourth downs," Hansen said. "We know once we get past the 50, we have four downs to get a first down."

They sure used all four Friday.

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