With five seconds left in the biggest game of his life, with crazed fans screaming at him from every direction and with everything riding on his right foot, E.J. Sylvia delivered.
The junior kicker drilled a 29-yard field goal as time ticked away, propelling the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School football team to a 21-20 win at Nantucket last Saturday afternoon. In a game that proved to be one of the greatest battles in Island Cup history, the Vineyarders pulled off a stunning victory that reminded fans on both sides of the field that it really isn't over until it's over.
It will go down as the shot heard round the Sound.
"We had them right where we wanted ‘em," an emotional and hoarse head coach Donald Herman said as he made his way toward the celebration at midfield. Looking at the scene unfolding around him, he shook his head and uttered only one word: "Unbelievable."
The game was close throughout, and it all boiled down to two plays in the last minute.
Trailing 20-18 and out of timeouts, the Vineyard forced Nantucket to punt from midfield with 36 seconds remaining. Like a bolt of lightning, senior Mike Shea raced around the corner and blocked the punt, sending the ball toward the Nantucket goal line and the Vineyard fans into a frenzy. Two plays later, Sylvia watched as his legwork sailed over the crossbar and through the uprights.
"We prepared ourselves," quarterback Ryan Rossi said amid the celebration. "We knew how to strive under pressure. The atmosphere was great, the crowd was loud and we just never quit."
Senior fullback Kyle Robertson echoed the sentiment as he hugged his teammate. "We never give up, we never give up," he shouted.
"I love my teammates, they got me through this," a delirious Sylvia said as he was mobbed by purple and white jerseys.
"For us, this was a playoff game," Coach Herman said. "This was our Super Bowl, just like it was theirs."
The field goal was the last big play in a game peppered with them, and Nantucket wasted no time in providing the first. On the opening kickoff, Whaler running back Adam Goodwin caught the ball at his own 10-yard line and sprinted 90 yards for the score. Just like that, it was 8-0.
"We thought coming in that the first quarter was going to be important for us, and we wanted to start off fast," Coach Herman said. "Obviously, that was not the best start, but it was a great play."
The Vineyard responded on the following drive. Junior wingback Tristan Atwood broke a 48-yard sprint down the sideline, setting up a Robertson one-yard dive over the goal line for the Vineyarders' first score. A failed two-point conversion made it 8-6.
The Whalers and Vineyarders traded leads for the next three quarters. Another Robertson touchdown in the second quarter (and another failed two-point conversion) put the Vineyard on top 12-8. But Nantucket answered in the second with a 66-yard touchdown run by Goodwin. A strong hold by the Vineyard defense thwarted the Whalers' two-point conversion and held the Nantucket lead to 14-12.
Senior Owen Mercer contributed several key runs, including a five-yard touchdown run that put the Vineyarders up 18-14 going in to halftime.
"The coaches have been teaching our team not to get down, and to keep fighting. We never stopped fighting," Atwood said afterward.
Atwood rushed for 96 yards on 17 carries; Robertson finished with 96 yards on 19 rushes.
The game was intensely physical. Both teams took punishing hits, and in the second half the fatigue began to show. Turnovers marked the scoreless third quarter (two Nantucket fumbles, one Vineyard fumble), and six minutes into the fourth, Rossi threw an interception that led to Nantucket's last touchdown - a three-yard scamper by Goodwin with 3:42 remaining.
But the Vineyard defense stuffed the two-point attempt, a critical stop that left the Vineyard down by only two points.
"That was huge, and give a lot of credit to sophomore Alan Fortes who came up with a big tackle," Coach Herman said. "That one kept us within range."
Nantucket led 20-18 with time slipping away. The Vineyard, however, was not done.
With 36 seconds remaining, Nantucket faced a long fourth down and opted to punt from their own 45. But a streaking Shea batted it down and gave the Vineyard new life.
"We actually worked on that play all week," Shea said. "On the sidelines beforehand I asked coach if I should go for the block or not, because I was worried about a roughing the kicker penalty. He told me to go for it."
"At that point, there are no other options," Coach Herman added. "If you get the penalty, then it's over. If you block it, then you have a shot. We went for it."
With the snap, Shea broke from the left side and was left untouched en route to the punter. He leaped just as the ball left the kicker's foot, arms fully extended above his head, and with a resounding thud sent the ball careening toward the Nantucket goal line.
Petkus, who had stormed through the right side, was the first to the ball. But he couldn't get a hold of it, and it skidded closer and closer to the end zone before it was finally downed at the Nantucket 32-yard line.
The Vineyard offense took the field, needing about 20 yards to give Sylvia some breathing room. On first down, Rossi hit Ryan Mello on an out pass on the left side. Mello scampered out of bounds with a 10-yard pickup to stop the clock.
Twenty-six seconds remained.
The Vineyarders needed to get the ball back to the center of the field for Sylvia's kick and had enough time to run one more play. Rossi handed it off to Robertson, who plowed past several Whaler defensemen to the 11-yard line.
With no timeouts left, the Vineyard scrambled to spike the ball and stop the clock before time expired. Rossi screamed to his teammates to line up, and finally took the snap and drove the ball into the turf with only five seconds left.
"We knew we had enough time left, we were just concerned about alignment or formation penalties. Once it was spiked, I told E.J., ‘Just like practice,'" Coach Herman said.
Now it was Sylvia's turn. The Whalers called two consecutive timeouts in an attempt to rattle the Vineyard kicker, a strategy that may actually have helped him.
"During those two timeouts, my teammates really helped me out, they calmed me down," he said. "Nantucket tried to ice me, but I was trying not to think too much about it."
"He was pretty nervous," Rossi said. "We settled him down a bit and just told him in the huddle, ‘Man, you do this in practice all the time.' His concentration was awesome."
Sylvia went on to boot it straight through the uprights with distance to spare, sparking a raucous Vineyard celebration.
"Joe [Hegarty] even kissed my cleat afterwards," an elated Sylvia said.
Two seconds remained, and the Vineyard was forced to kickoff. Sylvia aimed low but blooped it toward the middle of the field. A frantic return ensued after Alex Clark lateralled the ball to Goodwin, who ran for several yards before being tackled by Lucas Landers.
The ball squirted out and was picked up by Dooley, who sprinted down the right sideline before being tackled on the Vineyard's 40-yard line. Nantucket cried foul, claiming a premature celebration on the field by the Vineyard bench impeded Dooley's path to the end zone. But no flags were thrown. The game was over.
"The last two weeks we played like a team, we played with heart," Coach Herman said. "And you can see it in the results. It's night and day."
Hours later, as the Martha's Vineyard rounded Brant Point on its way back home, a lone figure stood atop a sand dune waving a blue and white balloon at the small crowd on the ship's deck. The rumble of the engine couldn't drown out the crowd's jeers, but Rob Stetson, a teacher at Nantucket High School, didn't mind. He said he wanted to remind the departing Vineyarders that there is always next year.
"I thought both teams played such a tough game, both battled so hard," he said. "I felt inspired to come down and let them know we'll be back. Next year, we're coming for the Cup."