They’re partying like it’s 2001 in Rockville Centre.
Clinging to a three-point lead in Friday night’s Nassau Conference III championship game after Floral Park found the end zone with 5:21 remaining, South Side’s offense made sure the Knights never touched the football again.
Seniors Michael Melkonian, Owen West and Jack Lozito all produced clutch first downs on the final possession as the second-seeded Cyclones sealed their first county title in 22 years with a hard-fought 17-14 victory before a crowd of more than 3,500 at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium.
“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” said senior two-way lineman Bobby Galindo, who paved the way for Lozito’s game-clinching 12-yard run with less than 90 seconds left. “We’re a close-knit team and most of us have been friends since elementary school,” he added. “We’ve been dreaming about this moment for a long time and to make it come true is incredible.”
Lozito rushed for 114 yards and scored the eventual winning touchdown on a 4-yard run with 9:24 remaining. West threw for 87 yards, including a 25-yard scoring strike to freshman AJ Magaraci on the game-opening drive, and rushed for 59. Seniors Michael Aiello (8) and Will Barrett combined for 14 tackles and junior Brayden Gamberg had a fumble recovery to lead a defense that’s allowed only 81 points in 11 games.
South Side (10-1) will look to win its first-ever Long Island championship next Friday when it faces East Islip in the Class II matchup at Hofstra at 4:30 p.m. No. 4 Floral Park (7-4), which was seeking its first county crown since 1976, got a touchdown run from Chase McLoughlin and a touchdown reception from Kevin Hehir.
Head coach Phil Onesto was a senior captain and wide receiver/safety the last time the Cyclones celebrated a county championship more than two decades ago. That team was defeated by Bellport in the LIC.
“The best way I can compare the 2001 team and this year’s team is the cohesiveness,” Onesto said. “They play for each other and push each other. They never lost focus and I couldn’t be happier for the kids and our coaching staff.”
South Side also defeated Floral Park by a field goal in the regular-season finale Oct. 28, 15-12.
“They’re probably the toughest team we’ve faced,” said Melkonian, who made a shoestring catch on third-and-4 to keep the chains and clock moving on the last possession. “Two years ago we beat them in overtime and then they beat us in the playoffs. We knew this was going be another four-quarter battle and we were ready for it,” he added.
In a game with few big plays, Melkonian and West connected on the longest midway through the third quarter to set up sophomore kicker Nick Papadopulos’ 21-yard field goal for a 10-6 lead.
“It was something we practice every day and after we had some trouble moving the ball in the second quarter, we took a shot,” Onesto said of the third-and-7 deep ball.
Early in the fourth quarter, Lozito and junior Justin Singh advanced the offense back in field-goal range and Papadopulos nailed a 26-yarder that didn’t count. But it was for good reason as far as the Cyclones were concerned. Onesto accepted a roughing the kicker penalty that took points off the board but produced a first-and-goal that Lozito cashed in immediately for a two-score cushion at 17-6.
“It’s so surreal,” Lozito said. “It feels much better than I thought it would, to be honest."