Short yardage? It's a long story.
For Connetquot junior Joe Zuco, the 2008 season began with a sprained foot suffered in the team's first scrimmage in August and a limited role when he did return to action in time for the first game. "We knew he was going to be our short-yardage guy," Thunderbirds coach Mike Hansen said. "But then his abilities expanded and he showed some speed."
He also showed remarkable endurance and by Week 4, guess who became an everyday back having fun, fun, fun for the T-birds? "I gained 120 yards in the second half against Brentwood [in a 35-21 Connetquot victory] and that's when it kind of clicked in," Zuco said.
Zuco had everything clicking Friday at Hofstra in the Class I Long Island Championship game against Freeport. Zuco carried the ball on seven of Connetquot's first nine plays on the opening drive. Even though that drive ended with a sack and lost fumble, a message had been sent. That message was simple and direct: Zuco is going to run left, right and up the middle. Here he is, stop him if you can.
Freeport couldn't. Zuco carred 33 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the T-birds' 21-13 victory. "This is amazing. The best feeling I've ever had," said Zuco. "I don't get nervous before games. I thrive on this atmosphere."
It appeared that Zuco thrived on hard work, too. He carried six times for 22 yards in an 11-play drive that culminated in a Ryan Anderson TD pass that tied the game at 7 with 4:27 left in the second quarter. That was a mere warmup for Zuco's third-quarter workload.
He carried 13 times for 50 yards on a 15-play drive that he finished with a 1-yard carry that gave Connetquot a lead it would not relinquish. He saved his best moments for the fourth quarter. On a second-and-9 from the Connetquot 48, Zuco burst up the middle and race 41 yards to the Freeport 11. Time for a breather, right?
Not a chance. "After three or four carries, you get into a rhythm and you can see who's getting tired on the other side of the ball," said Zuco, who acknowledged that he's fresher than some runners because he does not play defense.
So Hansen called Zuco's number three straight times immediately after that 41-yard dash. That brought the ball to the Freeport 1. On fourth down, Hansen sent out his field-goal kicker, then called a timeout to reconsider. All the while, Zuco was hoping to hear his number called again. "The line was blocking well the whole game. I thought it was a good call," said Zuco who indeed did get the carry and burrowed his way into the end zone. The extra point made it 21-7 and effectively put the game away.
Connetquot, thanks to Zuco's durabilty, controlled the clock and the line of scrimmage all afternoon. Though the Red Devils had a late scoring drive that gave them more rushing and total yards than the T-birds for the game (233-197), the time of possession was one-sided. Connetquot had the ball for 30:10; Freeport for 17:50.
"They're a spread team so we wanted to keep them off the field," Zuco said. "Ball control, that's our game."
Refusing to go down after the initial hit, that's Zuco's game. "Yards after contact is key for him," Hansen said. "I knew he was good, but he kept better and better. He's got some breakaway speed and he had a bunch of long runs for us lately."
Zuco didn't start until Week 7 against Floyd. Once the full-time job was his, no way was he giving it back. "I hate being on the sideline," Zuco said.
He much prefers the end zone, where his story ended, quite happily.