There’s pain inflicted on the football field. Then there’s the emotional toll life’s hardships deliver. Sachem East and senior running back Steven Casali have experienced both in heavy doses.
Casali and his teammates play a bruising brand of football. That’s something they can understand. But when Hurricane Sandy blew through the region nearly two weeks ago, pain took on a whole new meaning.
“Hurricane Sandy was a horrible event,” said Casali, whose uncle was forced to evacuate to Farmingville after his Nassau home flooded. “It’s just really sad.”
His uncle is now in an apartment in Holbrook as everyone struggles to find normalcy in the storm’s aftermath.
Casali and Sachem East got back to football Sunday. The sixth-seeded Flaming Arrows unleashed a physical rushing attack to upend No. 3 Northport, 18-7, in a Suffolk Division I quarterfinal. The Flaming Arrows draw No. 1 Connetquot in a semifinal Saturday at 1 p.m.
Casali ran for 174 yards on 30 carries and scored twice to power Sachem East (5-4) on to the semifinals for the second straight season. Then the rugged running back dedicated the win to the community’s storm victims.
Sachem East Coach Mark Wojciechowski, whose home was gutted by a fire in April, could empathize: “These guys and this community have supported us to the nth degree,” Wojciechowski said. “Now it’s my turn to try to help as many people as I can in our community who have lost homes, have lost cars. I know exactly how it feels.”
Sachem East jumped in front 6-0 when Kenneth Whigham recovered a fumble and returned it 66 yards to the Northport 1-yard-line. Casali scored on the next play.
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Northport (6-3), winners of six straight after an 0-2 start, took the lead when Brett Hall caught a Sean Gilroy screen pass and weaved down the right sideline for a 51-yard touchdown. Matt Smith’s extra point put the Tigers in front 7-6 with 1:29 left in the first quarter.
That’s how it remained until just before intermission when Sachem East capped a 15-play, 95-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown strike from Danny Wolff to a leaping Brian Balsamo. Wolff’s two-point pass attempt fell incomplete as the Flaming Arrows took a 12-7 advantage into halftime.
Casali opened the third quarter with two straight carries, each more impressive than the next. Then he found the edge and rumbled 20 yards down to the Northport 26. The line blew a hole in the Tigers’ front on the next play and Casali jetted 26 yards for the score. That’s four carries for 65 yards.
“We call it the beast,” Wojciechowski said of his star running back. “He just turns it. He changes into this guy who won’t be denied. I don’t know how many times he got hit in the backfield. I don’t know how many times he ran guys over.”
The Flaming Arrows, who combined to score 27 points over the previous three games, accounted for 270 yards in the win. Physical play up front defined the second half as Casali ran for 127 yards and the defense held Northport scoreless.
The Tigers drove to the Sachem 5 with 1:58 left, but Danny Corbett tipped away a fourth-down pass in the end zone to deny Northport.
“It was for the people affected by Hurricane Sandy,” Casali said of the win. “That one was for them.”
Suffolk Division I Football QuarterfinalTeams 1 2 3 4 F Sachem East 6 6 6 0 18 Northport 7 0 0 0 7
SE – Casali 1 run (kick failed)
N – Hall 51 pass from Gilroy (Smith kick)
SE – Balsamo 18 pass from Wolff (pass failed)
SE – Casali 26 run (kick failed)