By Tom Pedulla—
Minutes before Irvington’s Tommy Flanagan led the charge onto Meszaros Field bearing an American flag, minutes before a moment of silence to salute 9-11 victims, new coach Jeff Michael left his football players with one last thought.
“To turn the program around,” he said, “it starts right now.”
After a series of mediocre to poor seasons, the Bulldogs performed as if a turnaround may indeed be at hand by overwhelming visiting Peekskill, 34-14, on Saturday. With Morgan Balkin and Alec Schrader alternating at quarterback, they built an insurmountable 27-0 halftime margin that allowed reserves to gain valuable experience after that.
Michael, a veteran high school coach, could not have scripted his Irvington debut any better.
“Just to understand the process and trust the process and coming out and executing our game plan, the success of the hard work is monumentally important,” he said. “I can’t place enough emphasis on how they carried out the game plan and trusted us as a coaching staff and, in turn, we trusted them. This lays a very strong foundation for the rest of the season.”
Players know much more challenging opponents lie in wait. The Red Devils were mistake-prone, lacked depth and did not appear to be nearly as well conditioned as the Bulldogs on a sun-splashed afternoon that spoke more of summer than autumn. But this was the kind of complete game they have been longing for — and perhaps the coach they have been longing for.
“It’s incredible. It’s an amazing feeling to get a win. We’ve got this new leader here and he’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do. He’s changing the culture of Irvington football,” said Schrader. “And, you can see, we’re off to a phenomenal start.”
The Bulldogs asserted themselves from the beginning. Drew Cortese’s strong return of the opening kickoff positioned a 10-play, 41-yard drive that culminated in Balkin’s nine-yard strike to newcomer Finn Cleary. Senior running back Ethan Pakola, a co-captain with Flanagan, displayed his explosiveness when he took a pitch from Balkin and dashed 33 yards for a score with 1:13 left in the quarter.
Schrader, viewed as a better passer than runner, showed he has some legs with a 22-yard scoring run with 7:03 to play in the opening half. Balkin’s extra point made it 20-0.
The lopsided margin allowed Michael to give an opportunity to Marcus Canton. The sophomore running back used that opportunity to show how important he can be to a bright future by racing 22 yards down the right side for a touchdown. Balkin again tacked on the extra point. Canton excelled during the second half, to the delight of the new coaching staff.
“You talk about a coming out party for a kid who has worked hard since Day One? That was very rewarding to see,” said Michael. “He ran like a senior as a tenth grader. Going forward, I have Ethan Pakola and now I have Marcus Canton.”
Canton is optimistic that even better days are ahead for him. “There were a few plays where maybe I could have gotten a few more yards,” he said. “Overall, I feel I had a good performance.”
Michael very much wanted for everyone to be part of this special victory. No role was too small, including that of Ast Ingmar. He literally jumped with excitement in exhorting his teammates on the kick coverage unit.
“We started subbing right at the very end of the first half and then we talked in the locker room about goals for the second half. That was one of our goals, to get our younger guys, some of whom had never played before, some playing time,” Michael said. “That was encouraging as well – let them hit, let them run, let them play. That’s the name of the game, having fun.”
It will be interesting to see how the quarterback situation works out. Typically, teams that alternate passers do not fare well over the long haul.
For one day, at least, it could not have worked much better. “We both got the job done. We both threw a touchdown pass. We both ran the ball,” Balkin said. “We’re buying into Coach Mike’s system and we got a huge win today.”
It appears Balkin and Schrader will continue to switch off. The next game is against Edgemont, a much stiffer opponent. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?” Michael said. “Anything we can do to keep Edgemont guessing. I’ll make their defensive coordinator prepare for two different styles of quarterbacks.”
Given all of the positive elements that surfaced to begin a new era, Irvington looks to be well-armed for the future.