BY RICK REMSNYDER
Senior quarterback Mat Shea is hoping that Saturday afternoon’s season-opening 21-6 victory over Burke Catholic is just the beginning of a turnaround campaign for the Wallkill football team.
Wallkill’s abbreviated 2021 spring campaign started with the tragic death of 17-year-old Miguel Lugo following the first day of practice. Although the Panthers valiantly continued the season, they finished with a 1-4 record.
“That spring season helped me grow a lot just because of the adversity we had to go through,” Shea said. “It was heartbreaking at the beginning of the year. It’s matured me and it has matured our team a lot. It wasn’t a great season for us. It gave us a perspective on how hard we had to work to win.”
Shea had a hand in all three touchdowns for Wallkill in the non-league clash. He connected on two TD passes and rushed for the other score. Shea completed 10 of 16 passes for 232 yards. He also topped the Panthers in rushing with 45 yards on six carries.
Burke (0-1), a perennial Class B contender, took the opening kickoff and drove inside the Wallkill 15. But the Panthers’ defense held on downs and Shea and company wasted little time taking the lead.
Shea drove the Class A Panthers 85 yards on nine plays to take a 6-0 lead as he swept around left end on a 16-yard TD run. Jayden Torres made the first of three straight conversion kicks for a 7-0 lead with 32 seconds left in the rapidly played first quarter.
The visiting Eagles went on another long drive that had them inside the Panthers’ 30 until a poor snap from center forced the Eagles to punt.
This time Wallkill (1-0) only needed two plays to find the end zone. Following a 5-yard run by Sean Perrin, Shea hooked up on an 85-yard score on a post pattern by senior wide receiver Jack Rauschenbach to make it 14-0 with 3:42 left in the second quarter.
Rauschenbach led all Wallkill receivers with 104 yards on three catches. Shea said he has many skilled players at wide receiver and running back who get open and can make plays.
“I have so much confidence throwing to these guys,” Shea said. “The athletes that they are and the plays that they can make on the balls that I throw to them is really a beautiful thing to watch and to be a part of.”
One of those players that Shea has so much confidence in is senior wide receiver Ty Crowley.
After Burke closed to within 14-6 on a 6-yard TD jaunt by Chris Leahy with 5:12 remaining in the game, Wallkill made sure there wouldn’t be any comeback by the visitors by putting together one final scoring drive.
Once the Panthers moved inside the Burke 25, Shea scrambled to avoid several rushing linemen and found Crowley with a pass just short of the end zone. Crowley caught it and put on the brakes to let the defender go by and danced into the end zone for a 24-yard TD reception to give the Panthers a 21-6 lead with 2:30 left.
After getting drenched by his players in a post-game celebration, coach Brian Vegliando was satisfied with his team’s performance on a sunny day with temperatures rising to nearly 80 degrees.
“I thought we did a lot of good things,” Vegliando said. “Just like with any opener, we have a lot of things to clean up. I’m happy that we came out and started fast. We executed really well at times, especially offensively. The defense made some huge plays. I’m really proud of the way the whole team played.”
Senior linebacker Eric Blackshear, who was all over the field for the Panthers, drew special praise from Vegliando.
“He’s a baller,” Vegliando said. “We expect him to make great plays because he’s that talented. So we put a lot on his shoulders and he rose to the occasion today.”
Blackshear said he’s dedicating this season to Lugo.
“To be honest, my motivation is still for my brother above,” he said of Lugo. “I think we play for him as a whole. But personally, it was pretty tough because I was pretty close with him. We have him in our spirit and our hearts.”
Wallkill travels to Monticello for another non-league game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.