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Queens football stars to play in annual Empire Challenge

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The sentiment among the Queens contingent that will play for the New York City football team in the annual Outback Steakhouse Empire Challenge was unanimous. Despite the 90 degree heat and humidity at the New York Jets training facility at Hofstra University, not a one failed to crack a smile.

In all, eight athletes from five Queens high schools and two coaches will be a part of the game, which will be played at 7 p.m. Thursday at James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University.

“It’s nothing short of an honor,” said St. Francis Prep wide receiver and Glendale resident Mark Burik. “Getting to play with these guys is just the chances of a lifetime.”

The game, dubbed “The Boomer Bowl” for organizer and front man Boomer Esiason, pits the best high school football players from New York City against the best from Long Island. The game, in its sixth year, benefits the Boomer Esiason Foundation, the Gunnar H. Esiason Scholarship Fund at Hofstra and local youth programs.

Long Island leads the series, 3-2, with each team winning alternate years. Last year the New York City team lost a close battle, 21-14. Winning, however, is definitely the goal this year, at least according to 6-foot-8 offensive lineman Michael Fladell out of John Adams High School.

“We have a lot of talent on this team, the best in the city,” said the Rutgers-bound big man. “We should handle it. They have nothing on us. I can’t wait. It’s all I think about at night.”

Fladell will be joined by Bayside’s Ian Kammerer on the offensive line.

Joe Capuana, head coach of the Bayside High School varsity team, is in his third year as a coach on the New York City team. And while the coach admits that volunteering his time results in a lot of work, in the end it is worth it.

“It’s great,” said the Holy Cross High School grad, who now lives on Long Island. “It’s nice to have 50 all-stars to coach. Every game has always been close, and it always comes down to a play or two.”

The New York City team will be led by two Queens quarterbacks, Peter Mazzurco from St. Francis Prep and Zanu Simpson from Bayside. The two athletic and versatile signal-callers have not been told who will get the start, but both will get their fare share of snaps come game time.

Mazzurco, a 5-foot-10 Boston College-bound Douglaston resident, should be called upon during crucial passing situations, showing accuracy on zip on his passes during passing drills Monday.

“Honored, absolutely honored,” Mazzurco said of how he feels about being selected to play in the game. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me. We have so much talent. We’re going to show what New York City football is all about.”

Mazzurco’s high school coach, Vince O’Connor, is acting as the quarterback coach for the New York City team.

Simpson, a 5-foot-11 fleet-footed mobile quarterback headed to Morrisville, is more of an option quarterback with superior running ability in the open field. Originally tabbed to be a defensive back in the game, Simpson said he was happy to learn he would be under center.

“I think this is real big for me,” said the St. Albans resident. “I never thought I’d go so far in football. I worked hard in the off-season, I had a good season and I’m just happy I’m here.”

The real strength of the team, however, appears to be the backfield, which will feature some quality runners, including Sheepshead Bay’s Marlon Beckles, Sha-ron Gutter from Curtis and Fort Hamilton’s Mike Meggett.

Defensively, Queens will be represented by two defensive linemen, Bayside’s Kenneth Johnson and Christ the King standout Justin Capace.

Capace, of South Ozone Park, said that one of the things that stood out for him about the whole experience was the skill level of his teammates.

“It’s a lot different than high school ball,” said the defensive end, who helped lead the Middle Village school to the CHSFL ‘AA’ championship. “You feel like you’re in the pros.”

Rego Park’s Shawn Casadiego, out of Holy Cross High School, made the team as a special team player and has also been blown away by the quality of the coaching, his teammates and being able to train at the same facilities used by the Jets.

“It’s exciting,” said Casadiego, who will attend Marist in the fall. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s unbelievable. The competition is intense. It’s like your first college experience.”

All the Queens players seemed intent on pulling the all-time series even.

“I hate losing,” Simpson said.

“It’s just a matter of who’s going to have their team prepared,” Capuana said. “They’re both evenly matched teams.”

Gates will open at 5:30 p.m., and a fireworks display will immediately follow the game. Tickets are $10 and will be available at the box office on game day.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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