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Guest column:

Remembering the 1977 Oceanside High School football team that sailed into history

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This year, the Oceanside High School varsity Sailors football team fell short in its effort to repeat as the Nassau County Conference I champions. In winning the county championship last year, the Sailors accomplished something that had eluded Oceanside for 40 years.

In the middle of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds a high school county championship in today’s game, a member of Oceanside’s 1977 football team who was in attendance for the county championship game against Freeport High School’s Red Devils was asked how his championship game playing field compared to the turf field that was being played on that evening. “Are you kidding me?” he responded. “There were no turf fields around here back then. Our game was on plain grass on a high school field next to houses and backyards.”

Indeed much had changed during those 40 years.

In 1977, Roy Kessenich was the head coach of the Oceanside High School varsity football team. Known for his organizational skills and his focus on toughness and discipline, success did not come easy to many of his football teams. The team had generally struggled since Kessenich was first hired in 1964. But things started to turn in 1975 and 1976, with the teams finishing their seasons with 6-3 and 6-2-1 records, respectively. In 1977, Kessenich was fielding the most dominant team he would ever coach. The Sailors decimated nearly all of their opponents. The Sailors’ offense was led by Pete Gibson, an All-County quarterback, who threw 13 touchdown passes and scored 233 points during the season. Defensive leader and all-County lineman Greg Parvis, an All-County lineman and outstanding linebacker David Glazer only gave up 68 points during the season. The squad compiled a 7-1 record with its only loss coming at the hands of the now defunct Berner High School. At the time, it was considered one of, if not the, best football teams in Oceanside history.

By the fall of 1977, the Oceanside Sailors won the Conference I title, which was considered the toughest high school football conference in the county, and was set to move onto the Nassau County championship game. Back then, the team that won the Conference I title played against the team that won the Conference II title for the Nassau County championship.

The big day arrived on Nov. 26, 1977. Oceanside took on Plainedge High School for the county title. They played at Carle Place High School’s grass football field —a far cry from state-of-the-art turf field, under lights, at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium, built to hold nearly 12,000 spectators.

The championship game was all about defense. While Oceanside’s offense was not able to connect, its defense did not disappoint. Gibson only managed four complete passes for 42 yards, and Oceanside’s successful running game comprised of Gibson, Scott Bernstein, and Scot Larson, was held to 105 yards on 33 carries.

With the game still scoreless two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Sailors offense had the ball in the Red Devils’ red zone. At 4th-and-goal, only a brief discussion was needed during Oceanside’s timeout before sending out the kicking team to attempt a field goal into the wind. Center Kevin Engelfard snapped the football to Tim McCarthy, who held it in place for Chris Trotta’s 22-yard kick. The ball hurled right between the uprights and over the crossbar to give Oceanside a 3-0 lead as the crowd roared. It was all the offense the Sailors would need. The defense got even more fired up and kept Plainedge to minus-yardage for the rest of the game. As the clock counted down the final seconds of the game, the Sailors defeated Plainedge, 3-0, to claim the county title.

For Kessenich, in many ways the 1977 football team was the crown jewel of his coaching career. Despite his unexpected death at 53 years old in 1985, his legacy lives on. In addition to being inducted into Oceanside’s Athletic Hall of Fame’s “Circle of Pride,” as also is the 1977 football team, the Nassau County Football Coaches Association created and awards the annual Kessenich Award, which goes to a three-sport athlete in Nassau County who maintains a high academic average and shows good morality on and off the field.

There is no doubt that some aspects of the high school football county championship game have changed over the years. The excitement, euphoria, and community pride of winning the county championship, however, definitely remains the same.