This won’t be the first time the Sawyers meet the Panthers. Earlier this year they lost 43-7. Though the final score appears lopsided, head coach Mike Melville saw signs of life in that game.
“We moved the ball on them in the first half of that first game,” said head coach Mike Melville. “I was really pleased. It was 10-7 at halftime. We were right there. But in the second half we had the turnover bite. We ended the half with a turnover with an interception, we started the third quarter with an interception and they took it in and scored. They blocked a punt and took it in for a touchdown, and that’s where we looked up and were down three touchdowns.”
If the Sawyers are going to overcome those lapses, they’re going to do it by tightening up everywhere, both physically and mentally. On a gray Monday afternoon, we found the team practicing hard on a worn and rutted field next to the program’s crown jewel: the still-new looking and feeling gridiron they play on Friday nights, the field that would have sat fallow if not for a massive community fundraising effort over the summer to restore athletics funding.
The Sawyers had already made the postseason by the time they took the field last week against Section 9, Class AA opponent Washingtonville, a team from a much larger school not unlike many others who the Sawyers have had to face this season. They had to be encouraged, at least at first.
Early in the second quarter, Saugerties was up 10-0 thanks to a 50-yard pass by quarterback Pat Maloney to receiver James Zmiyarch midway through the first quarter. Jon Hindes extended the lead with a field goal early in the second period before the game began to unravel.
The Washingtonville onslaught which resulted in a 24-10 halftime deficit for the Sawyers included a safety and a combination of passing and rushing touchdowns which at the very least pointed out to the home team that they had plenty to work on before the rematch against Wallkill.
“We had a tough time putting four quarters together,” Melville said. “We played really well at times, and we’d play really good quarters. We’d have a really good half and then a couple of minutes tailspin and we’re not good enough to recover from that. When we play tough teams like Wallkill, we can’t have those four or five minute lulls where we drop our heads then look up and it’s 21 points they’ve run off on us. That’s the difference between playing teams that aren’t going to make the playoffs and a playoff game.”
To the untrained eye, some football practices seem to be happening in slow motion. In fact, Melville spent much of Monday afternoon’s 90-minute set walking the team through plays and trying to tap into a unique collective mindset in an effort to get them focused for what lies ahead.
“We’re just trying to correct mistakes from last week,” Melville said. “That’s the way we try to approach every Monday. We just try to go over things we did not so well and correct them. A lot of it is mental, I think. A lot of it when things go bad against us we’ve got to have that mental toughness that we’re going to turn it around. We’ve done that a couple of times this year.”
Melville, too, is having to adjust mentally to a team which, at least on the surface, seems quite a bit different than teams from years past.
“This is a tough team for me to read this year,” he said. “It’s unusual in that they’re very loose all the time. They don’t take things maybe as seriously as I like, but maybe they play better that way. You can’t force them to be what they’re not. But they seem focused and they seem up. They’re happy we’re playing Wallkill, because the last two seasons we played Cornwall and it’s nice to see somebody different for a change.”
On paper, the Sawyers did just enough to make the postseason in a league where finishing at least even against league opponents is worthy of a playoff berth. But they also did enough good things on the field to make it believable they can play David to Wallkill’s Goliath on Friday. In addition to playing a half’s worth of excellent football against Wallkill earlier in the season, Saugerties won its own 40th annual Mum Bowl with a 16-6 victory over Port Jervis. If they can create consistency from the moments during the regular stretch where everything came together, they’ve got a shot at advancing beyond the postseason opener.
“We’re working on basic football essentials: Tackling, blocking,” said junior Ethan Stanley, a center on offense and tackle on defense. “We just need to get better at the things that are most essential. It wasn’t a good feeling to lose to (Wallkill) after being ahead in the first quarter. Just to have another chance to play a team we felt we could beat feels good.”
Patrick Mullen, a senior middle linebacker and fullback, agreed.
“It’s a new start for us, and I feel like everybody feels it now,” he said. “Physically, yes we’re ready. Mentally we’ve got to get there. Once they score people start putting their heads down. We need to mentally bring it together as a team and finish it.”
Nick Gruccio, a senior running back and outside linebacker, said he feels the team is coming together at just the right time.
“I like our attitude,” he said. “We’re building up towards this game and we’re getting ready for it. I think we’re mentally prepared for it. We’re even more focused now. At the beginning of the season, you’re young; you’re trying to figure out who goes where. Now we know our roles and what we have to do to get better. We’re going to get there if we just keep our heads in the game.”
The Sawyers have their shot at redemption on Friday at 8 p.m. when they take on Wallkill at Faller Field in Middletown.
“This was our goal at the beginning of the year, to make the playoffs,” said Melville. “I told them after the game on Saturday that we should focus on the playoffs. This is our reward for the season.”