Justin Zotto turned around and saw a wide open field.
The Lindenhurst senior defensive back hauled in a late-game interception, turning on the spot and sprinting right into the end zone, cementing the Bulldogs’ victory as the squad defeated Oceanside 40-23 in the Long Island Class I championship at Stony Brook University on Sunday.
It was the first-ever Long Island championship in program history.
“My defensive coordinator yelled from the sideline 'Coming your way' and I took my read steps, reacted quick and took it for six,” said Zotto of his 19-yard defensive touchdown. “I knew I was going end zone, right away. I didn't see anyone in my way and I ran as fast as I could.”
The squads exchanged points in the first half, with four lead changes, but Lindenhurst (12-0), ranked No. 17 in the Tri-State by News 12 Varsity, took a 23-16 cushion into break after marching down the field in the waning minutes of the second quarter.
The Bulldogs, already nursing a four-point lead, originally planned on winding down the clock with 2:08 left in the frame, but Lindenhurst’s offense wanted one more crack at first-half points. Senior star Jeremy Ruckert made sure the team got them.
The Ohio State-bound receiver hauled in a 35-yard and 16-yard pass on the drive before connecting on a 35-yard field goal with seconds left on the clock.
“Coach was deciding whether or not to run the clock out, because we had the ball to start the second half, but I screamed over to him, 'Give me the ball, I want more points,'” said Ruckert, who finished with 128 all-purpose yards. “ It was just a great feeling and a great drive.”
The field goal gave the Bulldogs a bit of second-half breathing room and, more importantly, a renewed confidence heading into the third quarter.
Lindenhurst opened the second half with another scoring drive, as Nick Anzalone connected with Zotto from 10 yards out, and, suddenly, the squad found an extra burst in its collective step.
“I think adding those points right before half was big for us as far as momentum goes heading into the second half,” Lindenhurst coach Nick Lombardo said. “But we have so many players, I could go on and on and they all contribute and they all had the will.”
Of course, Lindenhurst still had to lock in on defense.
Oceanside (11-1), ranked No. 18 in the Tri-State by News 12 Varsity, was not about to go down without a fight and Tommy Heuer, who set the LIC single-game completion record in the first half, made it a 30-23 game on the very next drive, finding Dylan Judd for a 14-yard touchdown pass.
The senior quarterback finished 43-of-63 with 461 passing yards and two touchdowns.
“He's a great quarterback and they have some great, talented receivers,” Lombardo said. “They're a very good team, they have a very diverse offense and they were tough to defend for us.”
The Bulldogs didn’t flinch.
Lindenhurst made a handful of halftime adjustments on the defensive side of the ball and, heading into the fourth quarter, implemented them. Zotto picked off Heuer on the first Oceanside posession of the frame, running the route as if he were the receiver, and Ruckert followed up with his own interception on the next Sailors’ drive.
“We fixed all the mistakes we made in the first half and came out even stronger,” Zotto said. “We decided that we needed to disguise more and trick his mind a little bit. That's exactly what we did. We executed well.”
Ruckert did a bit of everything in the championship tilt, adding another 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and, by the final whistle, the Bulldogs standout hauled in a 12-yard touchdown pass, blocked an Oceanside field goal attempt and made three tackles.
“He came in with a mission and he stepped it up,” Lombardo said. “He was awesome. He did everything. He just did it all.”
The Bulldogs came into the season with their sights set on a Long Island championship and the final victory was even sweeter than they imagined during two-a-days in August. It wasn’t an easy win, but it was an emotional win and, as far as Lindenhurst was concerned, absolutely perfect.
“You can't write a better story than this,” Ruckert said. “It's everything and more. We expected this, it was a legitimate goal we had for this season and we knew this group of guys could get it done. I can't even describe it. I've got chills.”