"They really don't want the City to score." Most high school all-star games are truly exhibitions, as you would expect football games in June after three or so practices to be. They act more as rewards for players who are wrapping up great high school careers than serious contests.
That isn't the case with the Empire Challenge, and the above remark from a member of the Long Island media rang true. With a comfortable 24-0 lead following a 92 yard touchdown run from game MVP Stacey Bedell, New York City moved the ball into the redzone, but Long Island denied them access, as it had done all day. The Long Island all-stars were going to do whatever it took to try and pitch that shutout.
After the game, I asked Syracuse-bound Omari Palmer, one of Long Island's best players, if he had spoken with his future teammates Wayne Morgan and Alvin Cornelius this week. "No." There was no commiserating with the enemy before this game.
The Empire Challenge, which supports the Boomer Esiason foundation to combat cystic fibrosis, has become a major part of the football culture in the New York City area. On a night where the Yankees, Mets, and NBA Finals were all active, the game at Hofstra University drew a record attendance of 12,418, impressive for an area that is often demeaned for it's lack of passion for amateur football.
The game is one of the highlights of a downstate football player's career. New York cornerback Wayne Morgan, perhaps the biggest high school star in the game, said that he'd been waiting to play in it since he was a little kid.
Pride is a major theme that resounds through all levels of football, and it explains the intensity of this game. Players from New York, which Rivals ranked as the 26th best state for high school football, know that this game is shown live on MSG Varsity, and want to showcase their state's football prowess. A half-hearted effort won't do.
With so many talented athletes, one would think that New York should be a ripe recruiting ground. Doug Marrone would tell you that the difference between the football culture in the north and the south is that up here, kids spend their winters playing basketball and their springs with baseball, track, or lacrosse. In the south, if you play football, you play football. Wayne Morgan says that the star players from New York want to change that reputation. "People see New York and they think it's a basketball state, but we're trying to make it a football state."
While Syracuse continues to benefit from more talent-rich states like Florida and Pennsylvania, New York will always be our home base, and this rededication to in-state talent continues to benefit Syracuse as the state's football continues to improve. While talking to Palmer and Morgan, I asked them about the ACC move, and what it will be like to represent New York state football against teams like Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson which all draw from more football-heavy states. Both beamed with excitement, and Palmer cut me off mid-sentence to express how excited he was to play teams like that. I asked Alvin Cornelius a similar question, and his answer would make Doctor Gross blush:
"Syracuse really is New York City's school."
As for the game itself, it was a mixed day for the future Orangemen.
Devante McFarlane sat out for Long Island due to an injury he sustained while playing in the Upstate-Downstate game at the Dome.
Omari Palmer was pretty much as dominating as the reports from past games alluded to. He had two pancake blocks on the first two plays of the game and that set the tone for the rest of his night. He was taking defensive ends off their feet while dropping into pass protection, he got to the second level and dominated linebackers and safeties...Palmer was one of the most dominant players on the field. It was also his block on the New York City strong safety that allowed Stacey Bedell to cut up the field for his 92 yard, MVP-clinching touchdown run. I would be surprised if he does not become a great lineman for Syracuse.
Long Island kicker Ryan Norton had a tougher day. He had his first extra point attempt blocked, his second was fumbled by the holder, and he shanked his third. He finally got on the board after Long Island's fourth touchdown. His punts were also inconsistent. However, he had a few booming kickoffs, including one that sailed out of the endzone. If he can become more consistent, his kickoffs can definitely help Syracuse's special teams next season.
Morgan found himself in on a number of tackles on Long Island running backs, which tells you how the New York City front seven fared against Palmer and company. He didn't have a chance to make too many exciting plays in the defensive backfield, but he did have a nice 40+ yard kick return.
Alvin Cornelius had a tough outing, largely due to the struggles of New York City's quarterbacks. He caught a seven yard hook on the first series, but following that reception, balls thrown to him resulted in two underthrown passes which were intercepted, two badly overthrown balls, and two bad drops on his part. In the fourth quarter Cornelius finally found a good pass and scored on an 18-yard deep out to put New York on the board.
While Long Island dominated this game, the real winner is New York's football culture. The fact that this game has become a rich tradition, and something that players from New York and Long Island look forward to throughout their entire high school careers, is a great development for New York state football.