One by one seniors took turns hugging Kip Lukralle, his assistants and then each other. It was emotional to the core, a solemn goodbye to a lifetime of Northport football.
There were tears shed in the wrestling room, where the team gathered one final time after falling to West Islip, 41-0, Sunday morning.
You couldn’t have scripted a more stunning end for the Tigers (3-5). So as players filed into the chilly morning parking lot, they were understandably red eyed and upset.
“It's amazing when you see a bunch of big tough football guys just crying their eyes out,” Northport senior linebacker / guard Joe Gueits said. “They know what we put into it.”
There were dozens of scenarios heading into Week 8. Only one – the most unlikely by a longshot – had Northport on the outside of the Suffolk Division I playoffs. And yet that worst-case scenario came together in a wild 24-hour stretch.
Northport faced off against West Islip in a steady and ice-cold downpour Saturday afternoon. The Tigers fumbled away the opening possession and West Islip safety Tom Moore returned it 22 yards for an early 6-0 edge.
“Third play of the game we fumble and they run in for a touchdown,” said Lukralle, who called the extreme weather some of the most difficult he’d seen in 26 years as the Northport coach. “At that point we knew it was going go be difficult and the weather conditions just got worse and worse.”
When Northport went into the locker room down 22-0 at the half, Lukralle hoped he could get his players refocused. Only then did he realize the true magnitude of the problem. Players from both teams were suffering from hypothermic symptoms.
“We didn’t expect the weather to play such a role,” Gueits said. “It turned out to really hurt us. For lack of a better description, it was painful and hard to play in. It was unlike anything I’ve ever played in. It was hard to adjust to.”
It was no longer about the game or a playoff berth, but the safety of the participants. Players from both teams ran for the showers in hopes the hot water would warm them up. That’s when athletic directors from both schools huddled and agreed to stop the game.
“The decision was made at halftime after we had some kids experience hypothermia [symptoms],” Northport Athletic Director Drew Cronin said. “We put them in the showers. We had medical staff there. We had a doctor and trainer. We got them warmed up in a warm shower. We put them in the training room and my office. They recovered fully and came back to play today.”
In the mean time, underdog Bay Shore upset Floyd, 24-7, a feat Marauders Coach Jim Giattino called the program’s biggest win in 24 years. Considering Floyd has played in eight of the last 10 Suffolk title games, this might go down as the biggest regular season upset of the last decade in Suffolk.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Lukralle said. “When we’re sitting around saying, 'What else could go wrong?' we get the phone call about Bay Shore beating Floyd. We knew the hill just got a lot taller.”
West Islip and Northport agreed to play the second half Sunday morning. The grass field at the high school proved unplayable, so the game was moved to nearby . Because Bay Shore leapfrogged them in the standings, Lukralle and his staff knew Northport needed to win to earn the final playoff spot.
But West Islip (7-1) never let up, scoring three more times to secure the victory.
Rather than prepare for a playoff game, Northport coaches spent the aftermath of Sunday’s loss giving seniors long embraces and words of encouragement. Goodbyes are tough, but this one was like a bucket of cold reality.
“It’s always difficult the last day,” Lukralle said. “Especially for the seniors. I told them, ‘You feel this way, you feel this bad because of everything you put into it.’ That’s why I’m proud of them. That’s why they represent Northport football.”