Senior quarterback Colin Gillespie takes the snap for Port Chester in the opening game of the 2016 football season. Cool under pressure, he was the unsung hero of the season.
File photo
Senior quarterback Colin Gillespie takes the snap for Port Chester in the opening game of the 2016 football season. Cool under pressure, he was the unsung hero of the season. File photo

The Rams winning football season has long since come and gone, but the memories linger on. Coach Paul Santavicca relived the highlights of that grid season to remember this past Monday (3/6) after a team awards dinner at Port Chester's T&J Italian soul food haven. The team celebrated the turnaround of a losing football program in Santavicca's second year as a head coach who molded a close-knit group that became a kind of band of brothers with a soul of its own.

In a kind of thanks for the memories salute, junior Jason Wiley was named the team's offensive player and special teams player of the year while hard-hitting senior running back/linebacker Erlin Duarte was honored as defensive player of the year.

Honor grid feats

And that's not all: Wiley, the Rams' major breakaway running back, was recognized for making the All-Section team, senior guard/defensive lineman Aldair Angel made the All-Conference team and Duarte and fellow seniors Brandon Defreitas, Jonathan Fingold, Bryan Gonzalez and Xavier Tyson all made the All-League team as the anchors of the best Ram offensive and defensive two-way line in years.

Their grid exploits came to life during a highlights film shown at the celebratory dinner that brought it all home starting with the season's opening game, a close 19-12 loss to Fox Lane Sept. 3 and the season's first win, a 24-0 away romp over Ossining Sept. 9 under the Friday night lights with speedy junior running back Jordan Lewis that game's top offensive player and Duarte the Rams’ best defensive player.

Upset over Ketcham

The film lingered over the season's first upset over Roy C. Ketcham, a 15-14 win Sept. 17 over a large school ultra-competitive Double A up-county powerhouse with sophomore tight end/linebacker Melvin Molina named that game's best offensive player and Duarte once again coming through as the Rams’ best defensive player.

If there was any doubt that the resurgent Rams were no longer the league's doormat, the film showed why during the team's 3-0 loss to league champion Spring Valley. That club came into the Rams’ homecoming game undefeated Sept. 24 but barely escaped with a last minute field goal after a Wiley touchdown off an interception was called back following a questionable illegal block downfield.

Next came the Rams’ biggest offensive display of the season during a 35-21 away win over Horace Greeley Oct. 1. Junior Shawn Blackburn was the team's major breakaway running threat this time around while senior tight end/defensive end Bryan Gonzalez walked away with top defensive honors.

Let down, bounce back

There was a letdown during early and mid-October losses to up-county Double A stalwarts Carmel and John Jay-East Fishkill (28-7 to Carmel Oct. 7 and 19-3 to JJ-EF Oct. 14). But the injury-riddled Rams nonetheless accomplished what no other P.C. team had done in years. They made the playoffs and wound up winning three back-to-back post-season games on the road against perennial rivals Mount Vernon, White Plains and Mamaroneck by the scores of 30-16, 28-14 and 23-0 on Oct. 22, Oct. 28 and Nov. 3 respectively.

While Wiley was the top offensive player in all three games, racking up a lot of O's with his running and pass-catching, different defensive players won honors for the top D performances: Fingold and Quinonez against Mount Vernon, Tyson against White Plains and Aldair in the Mamaroneck game.

The Rams wound up with a 6-4 record overall and finished 2-2 in league games.

But what was most impressive was that different players stepped up as the team MVPs in just about every game. What was also impressive was the fact that the Rams’ three outstanding running backs—Wiley, Blackburn and Lewis—are all juniors and will all be back next year. So will quarterback heir apparent Michael Boccarossa who got extensive playing time as a defensive back and pass receiver during the season.

Wiley may well have had the Rams’ most impressive statistics with 776 rushing yards gained on the season on 159 carries that resulted in nine touchdowns. He was also the Rams’ leading receiver with 217 yards on 16 catches leading and a TD.

Duarte led the team in tackles with 54, 43 solo, with 11 assists, a sack and a fumble recovery to lead the team in the greatest hits department. And Lewis actually led the team in yards per carry, averaging 6.5 yards per carry to Blackburn's 5.54 and Wiley's 4.58, all adding up to a strong one-two-three punch following the lead of Duarte, the team's blocking back as well as the Rams’ heart and soul, a heart and soul aided and abetted by a virtually all-senior line that is going to be hard to replace because the only juniors who got any real playing time were Max Araneo and Keyshawn Ellis.

The unsung hero

It was the player whose stats didn't exactly jump off the charts who may have been the Rams’ unsung hero. Senior quarterback Colin Gillespie passed for just 622 total yards, hitting on 43 out of 96 passes (44.79%) good for just two touchdowns mixed in with eight interceptions. It was Gillespie who was always cool under pressure, flawlessly handing the ball off to his running backs and directing the offense with a flair that refused to be extinguished no matter how many times he was all but buried during fierce rushes by rival lines that frequently outmuscled but never completely outplayed their smaller, grittier and well-coached Ram counterparts.

No matter what happened, the Rams never seemed to get flustered with a single play, perhaps best illustrating how cool the Rams could be. It happened against White Plains away under the lights. Quinonez dropped back to kick an extra point when the game was still close only to see the snap soar over his head. He raced back to retrieve the bouncing ball around midfield, looked downfield as his line kept blocking charging opposition linemen and spied Gonzalez running alone towards the end zone. Quinonez, ordinarily a guard and defensive lineman, proceeded to throw a perfect strike as though he had been playing quarterback all his life, hitting Gonzalez in stride for what may go down as the longest extra point in Port Chester history.

The season highlights film had lots of moments like that. But none better although each one of the coaches--Santavicca and his assistants--Mike Bruno, Frank Girdauskas, Joe Plato and Ron Santavicca, a high school Hall of Fame coach in his own right who came out of retirement to work with his son—had his own favorite moment.

Go down in history

So did each member of a Ram roster that will go down in P.C. history as the team that turned around a losing program with a smallish, undermanned team of around 30 players, frequently going up against bigger teams with rosters almost twice the size. In one memorable game they were so banged up they showed up to play with just 19 players who weren't hurting and still gave as good as they got.

That was no accident because the Rams put a lot of effort into becoming the team that turned around a losing program, from grueling pre-season summer practices and scrimmages to long hours in the weight room off-season to going the extra mile during arduous in-season practices heavy on repetition with lots of focus on the basics.

In an ironically symbolic way, Wiley and Duarte, selected as the team's best two players on O and D respectively, are also two of the smallest players on the team. They are also flesh-and-blood symbols of a Ram squad that personified the little engine that could when it came to winning games against bigger teams.

"I have a feeling we are going to surprise a lot of people and I guarantee we are going to make the playoffs," Duarte said at the start of the first practice way back in September, the sweat running down his face, an eloquent testimony to the fact that he and his fellow Rams meant business.

"We've been playing together like forever, we really have each other's backs, we feel like family, cliché though that that may be, and we have the ability to be a really good team this year, actually better than good, a lot better than good," added Lewis.

Both turned out to be prophetic.

Roster worth remembering

Their sentiments were echoed up and down the roster, that number including seniors Gillespie, Gonzalez, Giovanni Zanetti, Charles Vasquez, Christian Perez, Duarte, Fingold, Cody Caputo, Defreitas, Angel, Nicholas Campos, Angel Flores, Quinonez and Tyson. Wiley, Blackburn, Lewis and Boccarossa headed a junior contingent that included Cole Russo, Araneo ,Tyler McCook and Ellis with Molina the only sophomore to make the team.

Each and every player thrived on the ultra-demanding practices run with the precision of an intensive program that was more collegiate than high school, those practices run by a coach who has been there, done that and virtually lived football from the cradle. Paul Santavicca grew up in a familial atmosphere that served up Xs and Os along with the antipasto. Regular visitors at the Santavicca table in Yorktown included the DeMatteo brothers, Dom and Tony, both High School Hall of Fame football coaches who palled around with Paul's dad. As a troika, they were known as GOATS, the acronym for greatest of all time, so it seemed almost fated that their youngest disciple should become a Ram in time.

Seemed to be destined

On his way to P.C., Paul seemed to be pre-destined to be an All-Section running back who also made All-American as a Yorktown high school lacrosse player, played ultra-competitive Division One collegiate lacrosse at Marist, and coached LAX at Pelham before he became a math teacher at the Port Chester Middle School, coached modified football there and made the jump to becoming the Rams’ head grid coach two seasons back at age 30, the youngest head coach in Section One Class AA football, a rough and tough league nobody thought P.C. belonged in until the young Santavicca molded a team that proved otherwise.

Double A athletic teams play schedules according to student population, and with a student body of around 2,000, P.C. belonged in there with the area's largest schools, schools with football programs more like the scholastic equivalent of the collegiate Big 10 than the step-above-developmental league football the Rams were more suited for.

In over its helmet

It looked as though P.C. was in over its helmet when they found themselves scheduled to play Double A football against the Carmels, John Jays, Ketchams, Fox Lanes and their more established football programs until Santavicca tossed the Rams a life preserver and helped breathe new life into a losing grid culture.

Each and every Ram bought into the streamlined Santavicca program. Each and every Ram believed him when he said they could be the team that helped return P.C. to its former football glory days. Each and every Ram player gave it his all. Each and every Ram player was feted at the celebratory dinner at T&J. And each and every Ram player walked away thinking this year's team will be a tough act to follow. But the returning players think they have what it takes to carry on what they hope will be the start of a winning tradition when it comes to football at P.C. Santavicca and his coaches certainly agree. And they hope to serve up more winning portions next year at T&J.