These are the most trying moments — when their backs are to the wall, the odds are stacked against them, down and seemingly out as time dwindles, with few outside that football huddle still believing.
“That’s what takes the most out of you, mentally and physically,” Poughkeepsie High School linebacker Akili Hill said. “But when you pull through in the end, it’s the best feeling you can have.”
He was talking about the Pioneers’ string of three late-game victories, the last of which was an improbable last-minute comeback against New Paltz, 36-35, last week.
Nesbitt touchdown lifts Poughkeepsie to dramatic win
But the final 28 seconds of that game were somewhat a microcosm of this season, one that has brought the Pioneers from the depths of turmoil and embarrassment, which culminated in a forfeit following punches being thrown on the team bus, to the doorstep of the playoffs.
Shaquez Nesbitt’s dazzling 99-yard kickoff return touchdown pulled Poughkeepsie within a point of the Huguenots. However, the Pioneers eschewed attempting an extra-point kick, and Trevon Reid hit Javon Atkinson on a fade for the winning two-point conversion.
Just like that, this team was 4-3, matching its win total from the previous two years combined. Poughkeepsie hosts Goshen at 5:30 p.m. Friday, and if the Pioneers prevail, they earn their first Section 9 Class A playoff berth, and first sectional spot since making it in Section 1 in 2012.
The players now refer to each other as “family” and some said first-year coach Jerry North speaks to them like a parent. During practice on Wednesday, there was playful banter, cheerfulness, laughter … optimism!
A month ago they were mired in a maelstrom of controversy as the season spiraled out of control with ugly losses and an ugly incident that followed one, leading to a disciplinary forfeit handed down by the district superintendent.
Poughkeepsie football to forfeit Friday as part of discipline
“It’s pretty crazy, right?” Nesbitt said, smiling. “The way we (were) going at the beginning, who would’ve thought we would be here with a chance to make the playoffs?”
Not this team.
It took reaching rock bottom before the climb began. Their nadir was the forfeit, they said. It was the result of an altercation on the bus ride back from Port Jervis on Sept. 11 after a blowout loss. This had long been a group that argued often and had “petty” squabbles, Nesbitt said. “You’d have guys getting on each other for little things,” he said. “Like, ‘You messed this up, you missed your key, you didn’t make that block.’”
Several players goofed around during the trip from Port Jervis, Hill said, but one in particular refused to settle down and razzed a teammate who was visibly upset.
“It was jokes that went too far and the other person wasn’t taking it well,” Hill said. “We could see it was getting to that point so everybody was like, ‘Alright, stop. Enough.’ But it kept going and we knew something was gonna happen.”
A fight eventually erupted and punches were thrown before it was broken up, senior Malik Lewis said. And that was two weeks after some of the Pioneers had allegedly filmed a profanity-laced video taunting their opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt. This all drew the ire of the district and resulted in a player being thrown off the team, North said, along with the Pioneers doing community service — helping coach a Pop Warner team — in lieu of playing their Sept. 18 game against Saugerties.
“I was upset,” Lewis said. “I’m thinking, ‘Why should we suffer for something two people did?’ It felt like everybody was against us. When we were doing good stuff like picking up trash and sweeping streets (in Poughkeepsie) in August, we didn’t get thanks. But when something bad happened, we all get blamed and look bad.”
But a lesson in accountability was to be gained from that experience, “understanding that the actions of one can affect everybody, negatively or positively,” North said. “It’s bigger than football and it starts with being a good person.”
The coaches held three team meetings during which grievances were aired and the team attempted to settle any feuds, Lewis said.
“We all thought the forfeit was unfair,” Hill said. “But at the same time, a situation like that comes with consequences … I think we came together after that.”
Nesbitt said it started with little things, like simply being more mindful of how they address each other. Instead of snapping at a teammate over an error, he said, “you can be calm and give advice. Everybody still gets mad sometimes, but just be respectful to each other.”
North said the bickering has diminished greatly in recent weeks, even during the bus ride after a 59-6 loss to Cornwall on Sept. 25. The Pioneers were overmatched in that contest, but North lauded their effort.
Football Huddle: Makeup or make-up for Poughkeepsie?
What has followed is a three-game win streak. They beat Wallkill, 20-14, on Troy Schoonmaker’s touchdown with three minutes left. They then edged Monticello, 20-14, thanks to two touchdowns from Reid, who replaced an injured Schoonmaker. And finally, there was the stunner over New Paltz.
One tangible change for the Pioneers has been the gradual implementation of a spread offense — a stark deviation from their old Wing-T. They still mix in the power I-formation because of the team’s familiarity with it, North said, but the spread has allowed Poughkeepsie to better utilize its speed.
“With everything that happened, it was like, ‘Here we go again. Another season down the drain,’” Hill said. “But we didn’t give up. To turn it around like this and have a chance to make the playoffs as a senior, man … I can be proud to say I’m a Pioneer.”
Nesbitt, a sophomore, considers Friday’s game a must-win because “we got to send the seniors off with a bang. Let ’em feel like we accomplished something this year.”
In many ways, they already have.
Stephen Haynes: [email protected], 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4
Visit http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/sports and follow the Journal on Twitter, @PJSports for the latest information on Friday’s football action throughout the night. Check out Stephen Haynes on Twitter, @StephenHaynes4 for live updates from the Section 1 playoff game between Arlington and John Jay.
Goshen at Poughkeepsie, 5:30 p.m.
Kingston at Roosevelt, 6 p.m.
Walter Panas at Beacon, 6 p.m.
Section 1 Class AA quarterfinals: Arlington at John Jay, 6:30 p.m.
Section 1 Class A quarterfinals: Somers at Lourdes, 7 p.m.
Highland at Ellenville, 7 p.m.
Millbrook at Fallsburg, 7 p.m.