The wind chill dipped to an uncomfortable 17 degrees last Friday night at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium, but Mepham’s offense cranked up the heat in the second half of its Conference II football semifinal against Carey to lead the program to somewhere it hasn’t been in nearly 25 years.
Behind senior quarterback Mike Proios and the backfield tandem of Michael Estevez and Nah’jel Sands, the Pirates scored three touchdowns in the second half and pulled away for a 33-13 victory and advanced to the county championship game for the first time since 1993. Proios rushed for 104 yards and one touchdown and threw for a pair of scores as No. 2 Mepham improved to 8-2 and set up a date with top-seeded defending champion Garden City (10-0) this Friday at 7 p.m. for the title.
“Once we get rolling, it’s hard to stop our offense,” said Proios, who on the second play from scrimmage raced 66 yards for a touchdown following a fake handoff and the Pirates led from the 54-second mark to the final horn. “It feels amazing to be in the finals,” he added.
The fifth-seeded Seahawks (5-5) answered Proios early score on the ensuing possession — junior Nick Giacalone turned a quick slant over the middle into a 54-yard touchdown — but failed to convert the extra point and couldn’t get their defense off the field in the second quarter as three punts into a whipping wind set up Mepham’s offense in prime real estate.
Carey’s defense bent but didn’t break until just before halftime when Proios found senior Jack Gibbons for a 31-yard gain on a screen and then junior Anthony Paolino for a 9-yard touchdown with 57 seconds remaining in the half for a 13-6 lead.
“Our defense carried us for a while but we just asked too much from those guys tonight,” Carey head coach Mike Stanley said. “Mepham played a strong game. They ran the ball really well and hit on some passes.”
The Pirates, who enjoyed a 390-173 advantage in total yards, increased their lead to 25-6 in the third quarter. Proios zipped a 12-yard touchdown pass to junior Anthony Novello for a 19-6 lead, then Estevez capped a drive he and Sands stood out with an 11-yard scoring run.
“Estevez and Sands ran huge tonight and provided us with outstanding balance,” said Mepham head coach Anthony Cracco, who credited linemen John Aliberti, Kyle Bowers, Michael Osorio, Connor Molloy and Ryan Hegi for opening holes and protecting Proios. “Carey has a great program and is always a tough opponent,” he added. “We have a special group of kids and they played their hearts out.”
Carey closed within 25-13 by the end of the third quarter on junior Patrick McGrath’s 1-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat and were in position to make things interesting after senior Nick Matzelle recovered the ensuing squib kick.
However, Mepham’s defense, led by linebackers Matt Hegi (6.5 tackles, one sack) and James Hatcliffe (6.5 stops), forced a punt that was nearly downed at the Pirates 1 but rolled into the end zone. An 80-yard game-sealing touchdown drive followed, capped by a 2-yard run by Sands.