On a night when Fordham Prep quarterback Matt Valecce made history, Kellenberg signal caller Matthew Sluka and the Firebirds' defense managed to steal the show.
"I heard all week, Matt Valecce's great, and he is great," Sluka said. "After playing against him, he's great. He's definitely someone different. But it really came down to our team effort."
Kellenberg's effort was evident on both sides of the ball in a wild, back-and-forth game that may have been a preview of the CHSFL Class AA championship. In the end, Kellenberg defeated Fordham Prep, 34-24, under the lights at Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale Friday night.
Sluka had three rushing touchdowns in the game, including an 80-yard score with 9:57 left in the third quarter that put his team up for good. On 1st-and-10 from his own 20, Sluka ran down the left sideline and eluded the Fordham Prep defense to put the Firebirds ahead 27-24. He scored again on a run up the middle with 3:28 remaining in the game to put the finishing touches on the win.
"The kid is one of the best athletes I ever coached," Kellenberg head coach Kevin Hanifan said of Sluka, who also had an 11-yard touchdown on the ground and finished with 205 yards on 18 carries.
While Sluka came up huge to keep Kellenberg (5-0) undefeated, Valecce threw his way into the record books. The Boston College-bound signal caller surpassed Lawrence's Joe Capobianco (8,013) for third place all-time in passing yards in New York state and became just the fourth player in state history to reach 8,000 passing yards.
"I've been here 29 years," Hanifan said. "I've never seen anyone like that."
Though it was a historic night for Valecce, the Kellenberg defense spoiled the party. The pro-style quarterback was sacked four times and intercepted twice.
"We knew we had to prove a point," said Kellenberg lineman Daniel Wilson, who sacked Valecce twice. "We knew it was going to be a tough game, so we had to come in hard and we did what we had to do"
The first interception came late in the fourth quarter with Kellenberg clinging to a three-point lead. On first down from the Firebirds' 27-yard line, Jake Deakin notched his first-career pick and the Firebirds scored on the following drive. Then, with 1:44 left in the fourth, Alain Telfort picked off Valecce on 4th-and-9 from the Fordham Prep 17 to ice the game.
"I said to Alain, 'listen, trust yourself and make a play,'" Hanifan said, noting that it was also Telfort's first career interception. "It's high school football. If you screw it up, you screw it up. If you don't, you make a big play. Just trust yourself.' And he did."
Fordham Prep's defense also had some big moments, including a safety in the third quarter, which put it ahead 21-17.
Though there were some uncharacteristic struggles for Valecce, he found tight end Tommy Walsh through the air for two scores, including a 20-yard touchdown pass over the middle in the first quarter. It was followed by a successful two-point conversion rush by Justin Ancheta to put Fordham Prep (4-1) up 8-7. Walsh added a 44-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter to give Fordham its final lead.
With a full, orange October moon burning brightly above Mitchel Athletic Complex on an unseasonably warm night, the game began in unusual fashion. During Kellenberg's opening kick-off, the ball bounced off of a Rams' lineman and careened back toward the Firebirds, who pounced on it and gained possession. Hanifan said it wasn't a planned play, but it led to Ryan Tyznar opening up the scoring to give Kellenberg a 7-0 lead on an 8-yard carry.
Frankie Roder also reached the end zone in the game for Kellenberg, while Jack Goodkin had a touchdown for Fordham. Roder had eight carries for 62 yards and helped fill the void left by an injury to sophomore running back Jordan DeLucia.
In a game that included unusual plays, historic moments and back-and-forth action, Friday's contest could have easily been a preview of the CHSFL 'AA' title game.
"That was a really good, hard, clean football game from both of us," Hanifan said. "If you know high school football, you got your money's worth tonight."