The Thunderbirds ended their two game losing streak with a 35-14 win over Smithtown East on Thursday. is now 3-2, and the Bulls drop to 0-5.
After letting down their defense the last two games, the Thunderbirds tightened up, allowing the offense to make some plays, an easier task with the return of star RB Jake Gnieser. Gnieser missed last week's loss to Riverhead with a thigh contusion.
Things didn't look great early when the Bulls' QB Josh Castro hit Mike Conlon on a 36-yard TD pass on the visitor's first possession.
The Thunderbirds answered immediately, as the QB-WR combo of R.J. Nitti and Justin Ashley combined for big gains, putting them in position to connect on a three yard scoring play to tie the game at 7.
Then the defense stood its ground, as LB Ryan Coyle picked off Castro and returned it 30 yards for the pick-six and a 14-7 East lead.
"The ball popped out, and I just ran as fast as I could," Coyle said.
As Jessy Garcia sack ended the next Smithtown drive, and early in the second, Nitti hit Rasheed Williams for a 68-yard TD to make it 21-7. It looked like Williams scored again on a 30-yard catch later in the half, but Nitti was hit with an illegal forward pass infraction, negating the score.
"We have to play 48 minutes, we haven't put together a complete game yet," said Hills East coach Michael Patrovich. "We had some major breakdowns, some backbreaking penalties ... I think we did a good job but made some major mistakes, things we need to improve on."
The defense broke down to start the second half, as Bulls RB Jake Koppelman broke free for a 46-yard TD to cut the East lead to 7. Then, Jake Gnieser answered, as he took the handoff and scampered 54 yards for a score and a 28-14 lead.
"It was just a great play call, great blocking downfield, and I just ran behind them," Gnieser said.
The defense continued its strong showing, as Maleik Henry recovered a fumble at midfield. Nitti scored on an 8-yard-run to put the game out of reach, the final score sealed later by a Jack Tesoriero interception at the five.
"That was what we were focusing on all week, defense, defense, defense, it paid off, we shut them down," Coyle said.
The Thunderbirds get an extended break, with their next game against Whitman scheduled for Oct. 15. According to their coach, every week is a playoff game for Hills East from here on in.
"We're going to have to be 6-2 to guarantee [postseason], each week is an elimination week," Patrovich said.