By Tom Pedulla
At least for this year, there is a changing of the guard in Section 1 Class C football.
Valhalla, which had not advanced this far since 2001, toppled defending champion Dobbs Ferry 21-7 on Saturday at Mahopac High School to advance to the state playoffs.
The Eagles, after playing for the state championship last year, encountered adversity throughout this year. First, they had to adjust to a coaching change when James Moran resigned to spend more time with his family and was succeeded by Joe Cox, one of his top assistants.
Then injuries came. And they kept coming.
“We had a lot of guys who were big on this team go down with injuries and then just having no depth was really an issue,” said senior captain Thomas Palicz, honored as the top lineman in the title game. “But we fought hard. We played until the last second of the game. We just played our hearts out. That’s all we could have done.”
With everything on the line, senior captain Jack Fessler provided inspiration when he attempted to return from a broken collarbone suffered earlier this season.
“Seeing 34 run on the football field is a big deal for us,” Cox said. “He’s a tough kid and a fantastic, special football player.”
The spark the gritty Fessler provided did not last long, though. He fractured his collarbone again and watched glumly from the sidelines while his team fell behind 21-0 early in the third quarter.
The team was also without dynamic running back Thomas Ritch for much of the regular season after he sustained a high ankle sprain. Ritch ran for all he was worth and paced the offense in the last game of his career with 11 carries for 70 yards, but that was not nearly enough against more explosive Valhalla.
The Vikings, led by sophomore quarterback Michael Dawson and a number of other talented underclassmen, won for the sixth consecutive game after an 0-2 start. Dawson, advanced far beyond his years, emerged as the game’s Most Valuable Player. The Eagles, accustomed to flying high, closed 5-4.
The Vikings focused on stopped Harry Dann, Dobbs Ferry’s junior quarterback, after Dann ran here, there and everywhere in amassing a team-high 197 yards and scoring all four touchdowns in a 27-26 thriller against Woodlands in the Class C semifinals. This time, Dann was stuffed repeatedly and held to 31 yards on 15 rushing attempts.
After a failed onside kick at the start of the second half helped to position Valhalla for a scoring drive that stretched its advantage to 21-0, Dann provided a desperately-needed lift with a strike to James McGovern, a junior who sped down the right side for a 50-yard score with 7:33 left in the third quarter.
“We asked them to believe at halftime and keep fighting and they did,” Cox said. “We figured some things out.”
Dobbs Ferry began a promising drive at the start of the fourth quarter that went from its 3-yard line to first and goal at Valhalla’s 2. But Dann’s pitch to the right side went astray and Valhalla recovered with little more than six minutes remaining.
That was a long, painful and emotional six minutes for Fessler, Ritch and Palicz.
“Fess and Tommy and Tommy are really a special group of kids. They are like the gold standard for how to lead and work ethic on the field,” Cox said. “Their commitment to the program through the years is, like I said, the gold standard. It’s just sad that this is the end for them.”
Palicz was still struggling to control his emotions as he walked toward the team bus while the young Vikings celebrated in the distance.
“I didn’t think my last Dobbs Ferry football game would have been this way. But it was a great four years of my life. I will never forget it,” Palicz said. “And the young guys will pick it back up next year.”