MAHOPAC — It was over before it started, an already arduous climb turned nearly vertical.
How could it not be? Even a team as skilled as Newburgh can ill afford four turnovers, including three fumbles in their own territory. And against a team like New Rochelle, on a stage as treacherous as the Class AA regional final? Nearly a death sentence.
It proved to be one on Saturday, as the Goldbacks (9-2) fumbled early and stumbled late against the Huguenots (10-1) in their 42-7 loss at Mahopac High School — a year after reaching the state semifinals and a week after winning their fifth straight section title.
“We didn’t take care of the ball, we had blown coverages, we did a couple of different things that were not indicative of us lately,” coach Bill Bianco said. “With a team like this, you can’t do that.”
Turnovers had nearly cost this team before — namely in the regular-season finale against Monroe-Woodbury, when Newburgh overcame three fumbles in a four-point win. Yet this entire season, it always seemed as though the Goldbacks could fight their way through the turmoil: through injuries, through slow starts, through turnovers.
But the margin of error was already so small against New Rochelle, a team with a state title two years ago and an arsenal of weapons unlike any team in the region. Newburgh fumbled the opening kickoff but managed to stave off the Huguenots for four straight plays. They weren’t so lucky after quarterback Derek Lane bobbled the snap on the team’s second offensive play, giving New Rochelle a second chance it didn’t need.
As expected, the Huguenots capitalized. Two touchdowns in the first quarter. Two more in the second. Four different players — Jordan Forrest, Kayshaun Thomas, Jessie Parson and Halim Dixon-King — found the end zone before halftime, while Giani Hill scored Newburgh’s lone touchdown on a possession that took four goal-line tries to do so.
“We tried to do the same things we always do: keep the offense on the field and the defense off the field,” Hill said, “and it didn’t go our way today.”
On the first possession of the second half, Newburgh stalled in its own territory before a botched punt gave New Rochelle possession on the Goldbacks’ 19-yard line. That set up Thomas for his second touchdown of the day, as he skied over three defenders for a 22-yard snag.
Hill answered with a 50-yard catch and run on the subsequent drive, but he ran out of gas as the field opened up with blockers ahead. Three plays later, Lane lobbed it into triple coverage right to senior Omari Walker, who followed a parade of Huguenots into the end zone for an 81-yard interception return in the final score of the contest.
Walker's teammates started dancing on the sidelines as the third quarter came to a merciful end for the Goldbacks, who could only wish the fourth quarter could end before it started. Another fumble with three minutes to go and a kneel-down with seconds left spelled the official end to Newburgh’s season.
“I think the kids have hung together through all different games,” Bianco said. “I think they’ve played as hard as they could.”
By game’s end, the Goldbacks’ helmets showed a season’s worth of damage, the gold finish chipped away to reveal the pale yellow shell underneath. Their weaknesses had been exposed against the sixth-ranked team in the state, and the shine of their fifth straight section title had been tarnished.
But it needn’t be, not in Bianco’s mind. Before his players left, he pleaded for them to avoid blaming one another or forgetting their accomplishments to this point. The sun will come up tomorrow, he said, even if it didn’t feel like it now.
“Stay together; you'll be a family forever,” he told his players, some of whom fought back tears. “I'm proud of you guys.”
The season was over, bits of gold littering the field they’d leave behind. But the seniors had reached worthy heights. And for the rest? The climb will start again soon.