With the Nassau County Conference IV finals ahead, the No. 6 Rocks (6-4) will meet the No. 3 Rough Riders (8-2) of Roosevelt on Thursday night, 7 p.m. at Hofstra University.
On the sidelines, a group of coaches have intriguing ties that will be hard not to think about in the midst of the ensuing battle.
Roosevelt 18th year head coach Joe Vito is a 1979 graduate of East Rockaway and current resident of the town. His nephew, Dan, is the current East Rockaway assistant coach and offensive coordinator.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to possibly win it this year,” said Joe Vito, who coached Roosevelt to a runner-up finish to Seaford in 2010. “I am excited [East Rockaway] got to the championship, but once we get in between the lines, we are opponents. When it is over, we are all family and friends again.”
Joe played three years on varsity for the Rocks under head coach Tom Forbes and helped the team to its first ever Nassau County finals appearance in the 1985 season, a 13-8 loss to Locust Valley.
Dan is a 1989 graduate of East Rockaway, where he also played varsity football. One of his coaches in his senior season was none other than Uncle Joe, who served as an assistant coach during that time. Dan has now been on the Rocks’ coaching staff for the last 16 years, since 1996.
“Our guys are playing as hard as they can right now and they are just kids that are selfless,” said Dan, the younger Vito. “The fact that we are going against Roosevelt, Joe and I...he is my mentor, the guy that I look up to, and the reason that I do this.”
Roosevelt’s Vito also previously coached the East Rockaway Raiders youth football team in the 1980’s, where Dan and current Rocks head coach Russell Pajer participated as key players.
With both Roosevelt and East Rockaway being members of Conference IV, the two opposing coaches get to lead their teams into annual meetings, with each game seemingly better than the previous one.
“The reality is that we play in the same league, and if we both have the best seasons we can have and meet each other in the championship, then one of us has to win,” said Dan Vito.
Roosevelt edged out East Rockaway on the road this season on Sept. 17 by a 15-14 final. Seniors Nick Ulip and Anthony Tesoriero helped the Rocks to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, but a pair of Roosevelt touchdowns plus a two-point conversion was the difference in the comeback.
Thursday, however, is a brand new game as East Rockaway will attempt to defeat the top three seeds to have another chance at a county title after losing in its last appearance in 2000, a 20-0 loss to this same Roosevelt school.
The Rocks recently defeated No. 3 West Hempstead, 36-21, . In the 2010 playoffs, the Rough Riders eliminated the Rocks from the Nassau County semifinal round.
One definite fact is that no game in the past has bigger stakes than the one on Thursday night at Hofstra where East Rockaway has a chance to win its first Nassau County title in school history.
“I hope we can win it for these kids and for everyone who has ever played for the Rocks," said Dan Vito.