By Adam Martini
Trailing 13-6 late in the game, the St. John’s Red Storm appeared on its way to a heartbreaking loss at the hands of Northeast Conference rival Stony Brook. But in a contest that featured a series of wild and clutch plays, St. John’s rallied to tie the score in regulation and rode a wave of emotion to an overtime victory, 16-13.
The drama unfolded at the end of the final period. With the score 6-6, a special teams meltdown by St. John’s allowed Stony Brook to block and return a punt for a touchdown with 4:18 remaining. Eric Martinez recovered the block and ran 11 yards for the score.
“I thought we were going to win the game at that point,” Stony Brook head coach Sam Kornhauser said about the big play. “We just couldn’t close the deal.”
St. John’s third-string quarterback Marc Saracino engineered a game-tying drive on the next possession. The freshman capped a 49-yard scoring drive by hitting Matt May on a three-yard touchdown pass with 1:46 remaining in regulation. Ironically, Saracino, also the team’s punter, was the victim of the blocked punt moments earlier.
“Saracino is the third-string quarterback on the depth chart, but not in our thinking,” St. John’s head coach Bob Ricca said. “He proved he’s a winner.”
Energized by the comeback, the St. John’s sideline literally was hopping with excitement prior to the start of overtime. Its defense pressured and intercepted Scott Bard on the first possession of overtime, setting the stage for the offense.
“We had no doubt we’d win,” May said. “We were confident all game, even after the block.”
St. John’s managed to drive to the two-yard line, setting up a short, but nerve-racking field goal attempt by Tom Gavenonis, who had missed a 24-yard kick earlier and had an extra point blocked. But the kicker completed the school’s first-ever overtime game in style with a 20-yard field goal, sparking a jubilant celebration on the field. After the game, Gavenonis acknowledged the importance of the kick, but downplayed the pressure.
“I’ve done it a million times in practice,” Gavenonis said. “It’s really not that different in the pressure of the moment.”
“Sure, the kids made mistakes, but they played with heart,” Ricca said. “I’m really proud of them for coming back, especially after punt block.”
The third quarter was sloppy, if not entertaining. Stony Brook had and lost golden scoring opportunities, starting with an odd turnover on downs by St. John’s. Back to punt, Saracino fielded a low snap and his knee inadvertently touched the ground. Stony Brook took over at the St. John’s four, but Bard promptly fumbled away possession.
On its next possession, Stony Brook fumbled again, this time at the St. John’s 12. Strong safety Orion Sykes, a former star at Christ the King, who earlier recovered Bard’s fumble, knocked the ball out of Londre Blocker’s hands after a pass completion. As players scrambled to recover the fumble, the ball was knocked out of the back end zone for a touchback.
Stony Brook turned the ball over a total of six times — five fumbles — and was penalized 12 times for 137 yards. The Seawolves also missed a field goal and extra point for good measure.
“We made too many mistakes to win the game,” Kornhouser said. “St. John’s was opportunistic and deserved to win the game.”
Late in the third, Stony Brook stopped its sting of bad luck with a goal-line stand. The defense stuffed St. John’s on two plays from the one. It appeared to turn the tide. Stony Brook caused another St. John’s fumble on its next series and soon after the special teams unit blocked the punt and scored.
St. John’s starting quarterback Kyle Lauver left the game early in the third quarter after aggravating a bone chip in his right foot. Before departing, Lauver looked perfectly healthy, scoring on a five-yard touchdown scramble at 7:42 of the second. He completed 6-of-10 passes for 81 yards, including a 44-yard strike to May, which set up his touchdown run. His status for next week’s game is questionable.
Matt Millheiser initially relieved Lauver, but failed to move the ball. The Seawolves defense sacked him four times on three possessions. Saracino took the field next and drove his team to the goal line, where the Seawolves’ defense made a stand.
Bard completed 13-of-25 passes for 176 yards. Most of his completions went to Blocker, who finished the game with nine catches for 133 yards. The duo hooked up for 57-yard touchdown pass with 1:46 remaining in the first half. The speedy wide receiver took a screen pass and sprinted away from the St. John’s secondary to make the score 6-6.
The Red Storm defense, which surrendered 31 points in a loss to Albany two weeks ago, held Stony Brook to 247 total yards. Joseph Maietta and Chris Posillico helped shut down the running game and pressure the passer. Each had nine tackles.
Contributors on offense for St. John’s included May with 117 yards on nine catches, Matt Conners (five receptions, 59 yards) and Derek Jones (34 yard, 27 carries).
It was the first home game of the season for the Red Storm and the team’s first game since the World Trade Center tragedy. Last week’s regularly scheduled game at St. Francis (PA.) was postponed and rescheduled for Nov. 21 at noon. St. John’s hosts Wagner on Saturday at 1 p.m.
A spirited crowd of 2,214 cheered the playing of the national anthem by the St. John’s pep band. Outside the gate, St. John’s cheerleaders collected donations for the families of the city’s fallen hero firefighters.
Reach contributing writer Adam Martini by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.