It was fourth down, the clock read 1:08 in the fourth quarter, and Fieldston needed two yards to grab the first down and seal the win over Pingry. The kicker, however, was the Eagles were stuck on their own 37-yard line, clinging to a one-point lead.
It was a situation that made punting the obvious call.
Or was it?
“The kids were like, ‘Let’s go win it here,’” Fieldston head coach Gus Ornstein said. “They wanted it, and I’ve always been a guy who listens to the kids. I thought we were crazy to go for it. But I love that they wanted it. That’s who we are, man. That’s who we are.”
And with the Senior Day crowd on their feet — some amazed at the play call while others were stunned — Fieldston quarterback Jesse Cooper-Leary gave the handoff to Josh Thomas with the hopes he would take care of business. And when Thomas hammered his way into the Pingry line and picked up three yards, Ornstein’s riverboat-gambler call had paid off, and Fieldston was able to hang on for a 27-26 victory.
It was the fourth straight victory for the Eagles, who will now face Rye Country Day in the semifinals of the Metropolitan Independent Football League playoffs Saturday at 3 p.m., in Rye.
“What we learned the last couple of weeks, playing in dogfights, is that you got to make a play to win the game,” said Cooper-Leary, who passed for 273 yards and three touchdowns in the win. “You don’t play it safe. You go all out and get the win, and that’s what we did. We had faith in ourselves, and we got it done.”
The fact that the game came down to that pivotal play was something of a surprise as Fieldston seemed to be having its way with Pingry early in the game. The Eagles needed just two offensive plays to take an early 14-0 lead when Cooper-Leary connected on a 20-yard touchdown toss to Ben Rosen-Cappellazzo on Fieldston’s first play from scrimmage. Then, following a Pingry punt, Cooper-Leary teamed with Henry Herzog on an 86-yard touchdown pass on first down, and just like that the Eagles had a two-touchdown cushion.
Pingry pulled within 14-6 when Nate Hefner scored on a one-yard plunge, but Fieldston was able to answer with a five-yard touchdown run from bruising senior running back Alexander Thorpe for a 21-6 lead.
But then things took a decided turn for the worse for Fieldston. Pingry clawed its way to within 21-14 after Hefner returned a Cooper-Leary interception 80 yards for a score with quarterback Joe Shilts adding the two-point conversion. But on the Eagles’ next possession, a post-whistle scrum between Thorpe and Pingry’s Zach Dobson led to both players being ejected from the game and leaving Fieldston without one of its top players.
“He’s one of the kids who does so much for us,” Ornstein said. “He’s our middle linebacker, fullback, kicker and punter. He does it all. And it was his last home game, too. That was brutal.”
Pingry pulled within 21-20 after a two-yard run by Shilts with 1:50 left in the third quarter, and then took a 26-21 lead when Brian Benson scored on a three-yard run as time expired in the third. That score was set up by a fumble return by Pingry to the Fieldston three-yard line.
But Fieldston was not about to roll over on Senior Day.
“We just fight,” Cooper-Leary said. “We’re fighters. The mental toughness of this team is something that is unbelievable.”
The Eagles responded by using an 11-play, 57-yard drive on its next possession that was capped by Cooper-Leary’s second touchdown pass to Rosen-Cappellazzo, a 17-yarder, for a 27-26 Fieldston lead — and one which held up thanks to some gutsy play calling with 1:08 left.
Thorpe, who was forced to watch the second half from both the stands and then the sidelines, said it was a bittersweet experience in his final home game.
“It was hard sitting out,” Thorpe said. “I definitely thought about it being my last home game. It sucks, but it is what it is. But I’m proud of us for fighting back.”
Now it’s on to the playoffs, and Thorpe says Fieldston is ready for any challenge coming its way.
“Our train’s rolling,” he said. “We don’t care about what they’re doing up there. We’re the fourth seed and they’re the one seed. So what? Everyone is going to expect them to win, and they’re going to come in cocky and expect to win.
“But hopefully we’ll give them a good show, and show them what we’re all about.”