Authors Posts by Desirée Keegan

Desirée Keegan

Desirée Keegan
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Miller Place senior attack Jake Buonaiuto dives and whips the ball toward the net in the Suffolk County Class B finals against Rocky Point last season. File photo by Bill Landon

Coming off a 2012-13 season where the team made it to the Class B Long Island championship, and a 2013-14 season where the Panthers made it to the Suffolk County Class B finals, the Miller Place boys’ lacrosse team is looking to continue its string of successes.

“Last season was a good experience for us,” Miller Place head coach Keith Lizzi said. “We had a lot of eyes on us and had to deal with some different pressures that we never really had to deal with before, and going back to a championship game like we did showed the endurance of these kids.”

The boys went 11-3 in Division II and 13-6 overall, and despite graduating 14 seniors last year, Lizzi said this season he has one of his biggest rosters.

“We’re carrying 35 guys and we bring back a lot,” the coach said, despite losing two Division I defenseman who are both starting on their current college teams as freshmen. “I think our strength right now would probably have to be in our depth. We’re deeper than we’ve ever been.”

The Panthers’ head coach said that although his teams have gone on to do big things through out the last couple of years, there’s only been a few main players that highlight Miller Place’s team. This year, however, he said he can run six midfielders and feel confident in the team’s ability to get the job done. In addition, he can mix and match people in different positions.

Miller Place senior defenseman Jacob Bloom races behind a Comsewogue opponent in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon
Miller Place senior defenseman Jacob Bloom races behind a Comsewogue opponent in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon

On offense, he will be looking to senior four-year varsity starter Jake Buonaiuto, an attack, who has also shined on the school’s football team, and Thomas Liantonio, a senior attack who is coming into his third year on the varsity team.

He’s also looking forward to returning senior midfielder Christian Stalter, an All-County player last year who handles the face-offs.

“I feel like all the guys are coming back hungry and ready to go to give it one final run at it,” Liantonio said. “The experience of these guys that have been on the team will help us as we work together to balance as a team.”

The team is looking to bounce back from last season, and work to enhance its defense to get back into top form.

“Last year’s Long Island championship loss does not define us as a team,” Buonaiuto said. “Defensively, we have a couple of other guys who are stepping into big roles who are very talented, and offensively, I think we’re going to be even better.”

Returning to the team on defense are seniors Jacob Bloom, Jeff Bloom and Brad Williamson.

Senior Joe Bartolotto, who is the cousin of Liantonio, is a transfer from Mattituck and a Cornell University-commit who will also be contributing on defense.

“We have a really high lacrosse IQ, guys know where to be and how to play,” Jacob Bloom said. “Me, Thomas Liantonio and Jake Buonaiuto have all been on the team since we were freshmen — we’ve been on the team in years where we just barely made the playoffs and years when we made it all the way to the Long Island championship, so we know what losing feels like, and we know, definitely, what winning feels like, so we can take that and harness it and push everyone in the right direction.”

That knowledge is something Lizzi said he wants his team to focus on as it moves into a League 3 schedule, which comes with some new stiff competition.

“We want to tap into our big-game experience,” he said. “We are in definitely in the most competitive league where there’s 15 teams that can all beat each other. It’s going to be a grind, but if we can harness that big-game mentality, take it day by day and one game at a time, then everything else will fall into place.”

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Ward Melville senior shortstop Brianna Dade tosses the ball during practice Monday. Photo by Bill Landon

With just two seniors on the Ward Melville softball roster, first year head coach Joseph Burger will lean on the under classman to make a significant contribution, as the Patriots field two juniors, four freshman and three eighth graders, to help make some noise in League I this season.

Burger, who coached at McGann-Mercy last season, knows he’s got his work cut out for him as he looks to build a program with a very young squad in a preseason where all of his practices have been indoors.

“We haven’t been outside yet, so we’ve only been able to hit in the net — you don’t get the same kind of grounders that you get outside,” senior shortstop Brianna Dade said. “It’s not the same feel and it’s a lot harder; you’re in a closed area you’ve got the [overhead] lights so it’s totally different.”

Burger said that his team will fundraise in the off-season to travel to Disney for spring training, which will become part of the Patriots preseason preparation.

“We’ve made changes already,” Burger said. “We have new dugouts, new uniforms, new helmets; which is all part of our new direction [we’re headed in]. I coached a travel team for 10 years where I took my team to Disney several years and it’s a way to show the team how this is a year-round program. It adds value and it’s a good way to recruit players.”

Although Burger said softball isn’t as big at Ward Melville as other sports, his girls put in a lot of effort and are ready to win.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be successful with softball,” Burger said of the sports lower popularity. “These girls work hard, they’re fast, they aim to please, they don’t take anything personal and they listen to direction and act on it.”

Ward Melville senior left fielder Mary Garr winds up to throw the ball across the gym during practice Monday. Photo by Bill Landon
Ward Melville senior left fielder Mary Garr winds up to throw the ball across the gym during practice Monday. Photo by Bill Landon

Dade said that although there are a lot of younger girls on the team, she thinks its small stature and speed will be an advantage as the Patriots play a lot of small ball.

Kristina Maggiacomo, an eighth-grader, will be tested right from the season opener as a starting pitcher and infielder. Despite starting two eighth graders, senior left fielder Mary Garr was optimistic about her teams’ chances of success this season.

“Every team we’ll face this year will be a challenge, but our pitching is definitely better and we try our hardest,” Garr said. “You have to play at 100 percent with every pitch, with every catch and with every throw if you want to win.”

According to Burger, the team’s leaders are Garr, junior first baseman Natalie Rodgers and junior pitcher Lauren Vivenzio, who will also be counted on to anchor a young pitching staff.

Burger said that if his team plays strong defense, and doesn’t hurt itself with errors, the Patriots can expect to win every time they take the field. Rodgers agreed, adding that she sees every girl giving each practice 100 percent.

“I think we have a lot of potential,” she said, although concerned about the lack of outdoor practice. “The ball’s slower on the dirt, but in here [on the gym floor] it really rolls, so it’s faster and it’s hard on the outfielders. You really can’t practice catching fly balls because of the ceiling.”

The young squad will be tested in its home opener on Thursday, when the patriots host Commack at 4:15 p.m.

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Jimmy Kickel looks up the field to make a play. File photo by Kevin Freiheit

With 17 seniors returning to this year’s Ward Melville boys’ lacrosse squad, the team said it is confident that it can once again achieve the state championship-like caliber it had in the 2012-13 season, when the Patriots went 21-0-1 and won the school’s first state title since 2000.

“We have a ton of senior leadership, which is important and what all of the great teams have,” senior midfielder Jake McCulloch said. “Our chemistry is something that really stands out.”

A significant amount of this season’s returning players were also on that state championship-winning team, which should be a boost even despite 13 seniors graduating at the end of last season. Despite the small hiccup last season, the Patriots still said they are ready, and hungry.

“I think we underachieved a little bit last season, quite honestly, but we also had a significant amount of injuries,” head coach Jay Negus said. “In terms of looking forward, I’m very optimistic with this group. We have a great group of senior leaders and the initiatives that this group has taken thus far, in terms of shoveling the field by themselves, the way they warm up, the way that they’re practicing; they’re all business.”

The Patriots finished last season with a 13-6 overall record and 10-4 mark in League I play, losing in the quarterfinals of the Suffolk County Class A playoffs to West Islip, 7-5.

The boys said they are using the disappointment as motivation this season, and Negus said he has taken notice.

Jake McCulloch maintains possession in a game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Jake McCulloch maintains possession in a game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“They look really good, they’re whipping the ball around, they’re focused and they’re really absorbing all the stuff we’re throwing at them this early on,” he said. “Right now we’re hitting the ground running and we’re very excited about the season.”

Senior attack Danny Bucaro said the team has been going over the offensive plays and positioning in practice, and working on the simple things like ground balls, endurance, catching, throwing and shooting. The team only has two weeks to prepare for the start of the season, because of the weather, which Bucaro said differs from years past, where the team normally had three weeks to practice.

“We have to work hard all the time and give 110 percent effort,” he said. “The only thing that will bring you success is working hard. The young guys have a lot of talent and it’s really nice that we click in all aspects both on and off the field.”

As a result of this, McCulloch said he thinks the offense is going to improve because of the depth, which leads to more options to score.

Negus said Bucaro and McCulloch would be leading the way on that front.

“They are the two focal points of the offense that also lead by experience and get the rest of the guys on board,” he said, also noting other strong senior returners like midfielders Jimmy Kickel, Mike Cusmano and John Burgdoerfer, who he’s hoping will also contribute on offense.

On the other side of the field, senior Tommy Reilly is returning from back surgery, according to the coach, and will join forces with senior Michael Cirrone, junior John Day and sophomore Andrew McKenna to solidify the defensive end.

John Burgdoerfer makes a pass. File photo by Desirée Keegan
John Burgdoerfer makes a pass. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“We’re really focusing on the conditioning aspect, especially early on, to get the guys ready so that they’re in shape and that the injuries don’t happen,” Negus said. “The athleticism and the speed that this group has from offense to defense is something that is really going to help us separate from the competition.”What will also distinguish the team is the stiff competition the boys will be up against. Negus said he is following his pattern from last season and scheduled nonleague games against top teams Chaminade, West Islip, Ridgefield and Yorktown.”It’ll allow it to be the sort of litmus test for us to see what our strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “When you go against a powerhouse like Chaminade, those things stand out right from the start.”After a scrimmage against Miller Place, the team’s first test will come in the form of Chaminade, on March 21 on the Patriots’ home turf.

Negus also kept these scheduled games as a result of the league realignment, which removed games against some top teams like Suffolk County champion Smithtown East.

“We scheduled a really difficult nonleague schedule to prepare us for that playoff push against some of the teams we’re not going to see during the year,” Negus said.

McCulloch said he is excited for the challenges ahead and is looking forward to going against high caliber teams that will show the Patriots what they need to do in order to achieve their goal.

“Even if we do come out ahead, they expose our weaknesses, and it’s better to get them out against good teams like that, and then we can work on them in practice, but playing the best competition brings out the best in us,” he said. “I think just playing as a team and the friendships that we build this year will be important, but a state championship is obviously the biggest goal.”

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Senior runner finishes final indoor track and field season with a multitude of achievements

Head coach Rod Cawley, runner James Burke, athletic director Debra Ferry and Burke's mother Maureen pose for a photo. Photo by Jim Burke
James Burke stands atop the podium after earning a gold medal in the mile at the state championship. Photo by Jim Burke
James Burke stands atop the podium after earning a gold medal in the mile at the state championship. Photo by Jim Burke

Almost no one can catch him.

This past weekend, Port Jefferson high school senior James Burke earned a silver medal at the New Balance Nationals Indoor at the Armory in Manhattan, making him the second fastest miler in the country at 4 minutes, 8.48 seconds.

It’s just one highlight of his final and most memorable indoor season.

“I’ve just been more about trying to win races and disregarding time, not really watching the clock, because my mentality with that was every record you get will eventually be broken, but every title you get can never get taken away from you,” Burke said.

Although he wasn’t watching the clock, Burke ran a new national No. 1 time in the 1,000-meter at the Molloy Stanner Games in January, finishing in 2:26.35.

Burke said the 1,000 is, of course, not his forte, but he was excited to be able to show his range.

“It was definitely a big confidence booster for me to know that there’s a variety of events that I can excel in; to know that I’m not limited to one event,” he said.

Besides topping the country, the mark also broke the Long Island record of 2:27.39, set by Chaminade’s Sean Kelly last season.

Following that race, Burke competed in the New Balance High School Boys’ Mile at the New York Road Runners’ Millrose Games in February, and finished first with a time of 4:11.25. He also nabbed his first New York State gold medal for the mile at the state championship meet earlier this month.

Head coach Rod Cawley, runner James Burke, athletic director Debra Ferry and Burke's mother Maureen pose for a photo. Photo by Jim Burke
Head coach Rod Cawley, runner James Burke, athletic director Debra Ferry and Burke’s mother Maureen pose for a photo. Photo by Jim Burke

“Anything he had, he put it out there this year,” Port Jefferson head coach Rod Cawley said. “He performed to the best of his ability throughout the entire season, and it showed in the result.”

The medal was special to Burke not only because it was his first time earning gold in a state competition but also because of the memories that haunted him from the same meet the year prior.

Last winter, Burke made his move with about 600 meters to go in the race and was passed with nearly 20 meters left, resulting in a second-place finish.

“That image was in my head pretty much all year, because I didn’t get a chance in the spring,” Burke said, explaining that he had mononucleosis last spring and could not compete at states. “I was waiting the whole year for that day. Remembering what happened last year, every day, for the whole year, it was definitely a good feeling to place first.”

Then came the national championship, which went a little differently for the Royal compared to his previous races, but his coach was still proud of his athlete.

“He ran beautifully, he did what he had to do, he went out faster than he ever went out before,” Cawley said of his six-year varsity runner. “James persevered and he never gave up. He always tried to catch [Michigan’s Grant Fisher]. It was a phenomenal performance — very gutsy, very smart. He did a great job.”

The difference this time around was the pace of the first 800 meters. During the state meet, the first half of the race was completed in 2:17, but at nationals he finished that distance in 2:01.

The pressure didn’t bother Burke. The mile was just run differently because the stakes were high and the competition was fiercer. But as a result of the speed, Burke believes he got in his own head.

James Burke runs in a previous outdoor competition. File photo
James Burke runs in a previous outdoor competition. File photo

“That was the fastest I’ve ever gone through 800 meters, by 10 seconds, in the mile, so it was interesting because as I was going through it at that pace, I saw the clock and thought I should be really tired but I wasn’t,” he said. “Going through at a pace I’m just not used to going got in my head a little bit, so I told myself I was more tired than I really was.”

But Burke got through the mental minefield to secure his second-place finish.

As a result of the new feat, Burke believes that he can continue to shave time off his mile to reach his goal of four minutes.

“So much of racing is staying in the right mental place throughout the race,” he said, which is also why each time he sets foot on the track, he remains confident and determined that he will win.

Cawley said this quality is critical to his senior’s success.

“To go in to a race with that attitude gives you an advantage, because when you doubt you’re going to beat somebody, you’re not going to beat them,” he said. “James is a reality check, because with him around, no matter what you do, you just don’t look as good. He’ll always exceed your expectations and he will always perform to the best of his ability. There’s no doubt in his mind, when he stands on the track, that he’s going to beat everybody else.”

Nikki Ortega moves around a West Islip player in the semifinal game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan

With four sets of sisters on the squad this year, the Middle Country girls’ lacrosse team is hoping its strong chemistry will help propel it into the postseason and beyond.

The Mad Dogs weren’t used to the success they had last year. While the girls have made it to the first or second playoff round before, last season the team made it to the semifinals, where a last-second goal helped West Islip nab a 12-11 win.

“We’ve never gotten that far,” senior midfielder and attack Nikki Ortega said. “It was really great, and we learned a lot, but now we know what we need to do to win and get to the county championship. I think last year was an eye opener to how much we have to work to get to where we want to be this year.”

While the girls thought most schools doubted their talent, sophomore midfielder Rachel Masullo said her teammates always believed in their potential.

“Everyone kind of looks down on us, but we definitely showed people that we’re actually good and that we can do big things,” she said.

The big things the team did last season led to a No. 1 preseason ranking, but the athletes aren’t focused on that. They’re just looking to improve upon last season’s 12-6 overall and 10-4 Division I record, as they have their sights set on something even bigger — states.

“I think they have an underlining drive this year of unfinished business; something to prove,” head coach Lindsay Dolson said. “No one cares about [the ranking], we just have to play our best lacrosse each and every day, get better and take it one game at a time.”

Jamie Ortega crosses into West Islip's zone. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Jamie Ortega crosses into West Islip’s zone. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Nikki Ortega’s younger sister Jamie, a sophomore midfielder, feels that unfinished business could be accomplished this season.

“I feel this year is our year because we connect so well on and off the field,” she said.

Rachel Masullo’s twin sister Amanda, also a midfielder, agrees.

“Even though we just started practicing I feel like we can beat whoever we want to if we have the right mind-set,” she said. “We have that connection and we’re comfortable. On the field we always know where each other is going to be; we don’t even have to say anything. If I pass it somewhere, I know my sister’s going to be there, or one of the [other] sisters is gong to be there. I think it’s our best quality in the team.”

Other pairs of sisters on the squad include returning eighth-grader Jennifer Barry and her sister Ava, who transferred back from St. Anthony’s, and sophomore returner Haley Timarky and her sister Emily.

According to the players, practices have been intense as the girls focus on limiting turnovers, transitioning on defense and continually building stamina.

The team did lose two seniors in defender Gabrielle Redding, who the girls depended on and were confident could make the stops, and the Masullo twin’s older sister Paige, an attack. Even so, they feel comfortable with the roster and will look to Nikki Ortega to lead the way.

“She’s always been an impact player since she’s been with me,” Dolson said of her six-year returner. “She’s really stepped up and is one of the leaders they look to.”

And the girls want to go far for her.

“I would love to go out with a bang for Nikki’s last season,” Rachel Masullo said. “Nikki deserves it. She works really hard and she should be paid for it. She should get rewarded.”

Nikki Ortega is humbled by her teammates’ sentiments but also wants the team to go far for her own reasons.

“They’re all like my little sisters so for them to want it for me is unbelievable, but I hope to accomplish it not only for me, but for them as well, because I know everyone has been working really hard for this,” she said. “It’s only the second week of practice and already we see a difference compared to all of the other years starting off. Our motivation is to get to states, and that’s what we hope to achieve.”

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Kollin McDonald, fourth from left in top row with trophy, and his teammates and coaches after the game against Longwood on Friday, where he received the game ball and MVP trophy. Photo from Tom Femminella

Sometimes it’s not the wins or losses that matter most in a game, it’s the bonds formed when playing.

For Ward Melville senior Kollin McDonald, he realized how strong that bond was with his basketball teammates after the loss of his mother last week.

The guard darted to the hospital last Monday after receiving a text message that his mother was rushed there. Mary McDonald had cancer for seven years, starting with breast cancer, and after she was in remission was told it had come back more aggressively, and spread throughout her body.

Kollin McDonald and his mother Mary, while pumpkin picking this year. Photo from Kollin McDonald

The team attended the wake, and head coach Tom Femminella said despite it being an emotional evening, he thought it made it a little easier for his athlete to have his team’s support.

“As a coach in any sport you press the kids on family — family is important,” he said. “When you’re actually there and someone needs you when the chips aredown, it shows a lot of resolve that will hopefully transfer onto the court and will make these kids closer for the season and hopefully for the rest of their lives.”

Femminella invited McDonald’s close friend and teammate Chris Woods to ask McDonald if he would play as a starter in Friday’s game — the same day as his mother’s funeral.

“For him it was the most exciting news,” Woods said. “His family was all excited once they heard too, and they came after the funeral to the game.”

Being that McDonald is not normally a starter, it was a memorable moment for him walking out on the court.

“It was honestly an honor to be asked to play ” McDonald said. “It was more of a ‘getting past and moving on’ thing because once I got asked, I was very emotional, but I knew at that point that we were a strong team and that they had my back with anything.”

McDonald said the memories of his mother and thinking about her every day is what gets him through, but it is also the love from his coach and teammates, and it showed that night on the court.

The senior started off the evening with two rebounds in a 50-40 win over Longwood, and it ignited the team.

“Those were probably the two most aggressive rebounds I’ve ever had — ever, in any game I’ve ever played,” he said with a laugh. “It was very emotional watching the tape afterward because I knew [those rebounds] were for my mom, and it was a great feeling.”

Kollin McDonald and his mother Mary after his sixth-grade graduation. Photo from Kollin McDonald

The team wore pink socks in support of breast cancer awareness to the game and will continue to wear them through the rest of the season, Femminella said, adding that he will also be wearing special sneakers to support his player.

“It was more important that he was getting back to a little bit of normalcy,” Femminella said. “And then we brought him the trophy and the game ball, and he got the MVP [title] because he was the MVP. He inspired the rest of the kids. If he can be there and he can show this effort and be strong, why can’t they?”

Woods also said it was great to see his friend and teammate in high spirits.

“He had a big smile on his face and was able to go out there and start the game,” Woods said, adding that he and his teammates were also grinning from ear-to-ear and leaping off the bench when McDonald scored. “It helped him get his mind off of things to get him out there. It was the best feeling for all of us when he got those rebounds — he played his heart out.”

McDonald said it’s meant everything to have his school’s support.

“Having a group of guys to talk to at any point and any time in my life,” he said, “it’s a great feeling.”

McDonald thanked his teammates and coaches for their support after what he said is his most memorable game , adding that he thought wearing the pink socks for the rest of the season is a nice way for them to support him and his family for the remainder of the year.

“We’re taking this tough event as a bonding moment for all of us,” Woods said. “I think Kollin is going through a tough time, but the pink socks represent how we’ve all become brothers, and we’re all going to be there for each other no matter what happens.”

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