Sports

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Kyra Sommerstad placed in the 200-yard individual medley and 100 backstroke at the state championship meet. Photos from Kyra Sommerstad

Kyra Sommerstad continues to bask in success.

The Port Jefferson sophomore swimmer made her third straight trip to the state championship meet Nov. 18 and 19 at Ithaca College, and far surpassed her finishes last season of 13th in the 200-yard individual medley and 15th in the 100 backstroke. Despite Top 10 finishes this time around, she said there’s still more work to be done.

“I was happy with how I placed,” said Sommerstad, who placed fourth in the individual medley in 2 minutes, 5.43 seconds and sixth in the backstroke in 56.59. “But I wish I swam a little faster.”

The sophomore said she felt more confident having competed at the state event the last two years, but said nerves did kick in once she got into the pool. She said she wasn’t happy with how she swam in the preliminaries, and used that to fuel her fire. As she always does, she stretched before each race; listened to music to keep her energy high; and ended up finishing the backstroke in a new personal-best time.

“I knew I had to swim fast,” Sommerstad said. “Because I wasn’t where I wanted to be coming out of preliminaries, I was nervous heading into finals, but I was trying as hard as I could — focusing on the little things.”

Her Three Village Swim Club coach Mark Anderson said her underwater work continues to make her more competitive at higher-level meets.

“It was pretty incredible,” he said of watching her compete. “I’ve been extremely happy with how she’s raced so far without having a meet to rest and taper for. I’m really excited to see her success continue.”

Port Jefferson athletic director Danielle Turner, who was not at the meet, said she was gripping her phone all day waiting to hear how Sommerstad did.

“It was really exciting seeing Kyra’s name up on the board representing little Port Jeff on a big-time stage … not small school-large school, but all schools,” Turner said. “She has proven that she is one of the best in the state.”

Now Sommerstad will prepare for the winter junior nationals down in Knoxville, Tennessee, before going to a travel team meet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Anderson said he has high hopes for his swimmer in the future.

“There’s a lot of fine-tuning that goes into hopefully putting together the perfect race, and the last two years have been very rewarding for myself and for Kyra,” he said of the dedication and hard work his young swimmer has already put into training. “I would love to see her compete and contend at national-level meets, whether it be junior nationals and make Top 8 or make it to nationals and place Top 16. Our ultimate goal is to get her to the 2020 Olympic trials, and have her do great there. Regardless, getting to see her grow up and mature and become what’s going to be a very good collegiate swimmer has been a real enjoyment for me. Wherever she ends up swimming in two years, she’s going to be a coach’s dream.”

The Kings Park girls volleyball team, above, takes its annual team photo before heading to states, which has become a tradition within the successful program. Photo from Erika Benson

The Kings Park girls volleyball team has been there seven straight times, but this time, the result was different.

The 20-0 Kingsmen were confident as they headed upstate, blasting Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” to get excited to compete in the state championship at Glens Falls Civic Center Nov. 18 and 19.

The Kings Park girls volleyball team celebrates on the
court after winning a state set. Photo from Erika
Benson

“We knew that we had all the tools to be successful, and we were anxious to get on the court and execute,” senior Lexi Petraitis said. “We’re such a tight-knit team, but what hurt us a little bit was that our nerves didn’t kick in until the first serve of our first set.”

After splitting pool play sets 3-3, Kings Park was eliminated from contention for Sunday’s state championship, but outscored Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake to salvage a third-place finish. Last year, the Kingsmen made it to the final match where they fell to Walter Panas in straight sets.

“There were sets where everything just clicked,” Petraitis said. “We had Meagan Murphy getting sick digs, which made it easy for Haley [Holmes] to set perfect sets, which our big hitters, me, seniors Kara Haase, Erika Benson, Sam Schultz and freshman Liv Benard, slammed into the ground. I think we played to our absolute fullest potential. Out on the court our energy was electric. There were just a few sets that didn’t really go our way.”

Kings Park faced Williamsville East first, dropping set one 26-24 before coming back to win the second 25-12.

“We gelled more during that second set and then throughout the day we just had to realize what worked and what didn’t and change things up,” senior Benson said. “Our ultimate goal is to place first, but third is still something very special, something that we’re proud of. It’s been a great season with my team and I really loved every minute of it.”

Haley Holmes reaches for a save with Meagan Murphy
and Megan Sticco alongside her to back her up.
Photo from Haley Holmes

Benson said she appreciated how supportive everyone in the district community was. The team was sent off to states escorted by the Kings Park Fire Department and led by the high school’s marching band, with members of the high school and elementary school marching, too. The positive mindset carried through the weekend even as the team stumbled in trying to capture a state championship.

“We practiced hard all year with states in the back of our minds — entering the tournament, our mindset was to take it one set at a time and to not look too far ahead,” senior setter  Holmes said. “We ended up not executing the way we had hoped, but we stayed positive and worked as a team. We performed great, but it’s the state tournament, every team there is elite.”

The Kingsmen amped up the intensity in the semifinals, battling for every point in a 25-19, 25-22 win.

“I feel like we had moments where we weren’t so sharp, but as the day went on we straightened it out,” senior Haase said. “Being a Kingsman has been the greatest honor and I look forward to seeing the
program grow.”

Benson agreed, adding how much she wishes others could share in the seasoned legacy her team has experienced.

“Being a Kingsman is something most people will never experience and I wish they could,” she said. “It’s really an amazing thing, especially with this team, knowing I have 17 best friends and sisters that I can depend on. It’s really special to me and I don’t take it for granted. I just wish I had more time with them.”

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Ward Melville’s 200-yard medley relay finished third in the state championship at Ithaca College. Photo from Sydney Boals

By Desirée Keegan

When Sydney Boals touched the wall during the state championship preliminary round of the 200-yard medley relay a second behind the swimmer next to her, she knew she had some stiff competition.

“I knew I had to have that fast turn, have a good breakout and sprint all the way to finish,” the freshman said. “I knew I had to go hard, so when I was swimming I just kept my head down, thought about trying my best and sprinted.”

As her Ward Melville swimming teammate Kaitlyn Ehlers capped off the race at Ithaca College Nov. 18, the quartet looked up at the scoreboard to see a 1 minute, 47.98 second finish, good for third place.

The Ward Melville swimming team’s
200-yard medley relay quartet
stands on the podium. Photo from
Sydney Boals

“I was super happy, and I thought everyone else was too,” said Sydney, who swam the breaststroke as the third leg. “We didn’t have our best time, unfortunately, but it was still a really good race and we made our coaches proud.”

Senior Victoria Bogdanski and sophomore Riley Gavigan were also members of the state championship-placing relay. Ward Melville head coach Chris Gordon said he was excited to see his young team put up the numbers it did.

“Not everyone gets to have this experience,” he said before talking about Bogdanski in particular. “She was thrilled, and being a senior the moment really hit her. There were tears of happiness and sadness knowing her 10-year swimming journey was coming to an end. She’s a great person, a great kid. She works really hard. You get what you put into it, and she put in the effort.”

The four girls hadn’t swum as a unit until the county competition, where the relay team placed first in 1:47.86. The Patriots were the No. 5 seed heading into the state preliminary round, and exited the first heat in the No. 4 spot before placing third in the finals.

“I was watching, shouting, getting excited with each turn, seeing if they hit the wall well, come off the wall hard — I just hoped they’d come out of the water happy with their time,” Gordon said as he was watching his relay in the finals. “They didn’t know each other’s cadence, their pace and it’s a pretty good job on their part getting together and getting in sync for such big meets.”

Boals finished with a personal best time of 1:55.19 in the 200 freestyle, good for 12th and just shy of breaking a school record. Gavigan placed 10th in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:05.41.

“They swim all these events on Friday and come back on Saturday to swim them all again and it’s tiring,” Gordon said. “Their bodies can only give so many ‘A’-type efforts in a row in such a short period of time, and I thought their positive mindsets were great even after they finished.”

Members of Ward Melville’s relay team. Photo from
Sydney Boals

Riley finished the day in high spirits, saying her time wasn’t going to get her down.

“The other girls were a little nervous with it being their first time but I tried to get them to look at it like any other meet,” she said. “In the beginning of the season we were trying to qualify for the state meet, we didn’t have winning counties or even placing in the Top 20 at states in our heads. It was really surprising and I’m really proud of our team. We’re motivated, ready for next year.”

Gordon said he’s looking forward to seeing what his team can do next season.

“They should be thinking they have the opportunity to come back next year if they continue to work hard and do the right thing,” he said. “Their finish was pretty darn good, and I think the team really shocked a lot of people. This is one of my most memorable years — I’ve been here 24 years — I’ll look back on it fondly. To be able to come back next year and have another crack at it, it’s an awesome opportunity. I hope they leave this year inspired going into the offseason.”

Boals said she expects the team will be back better than ever.

“We can be great in the future bringing back some really fast swimmers,” she said. “I just wanted to make Section XI proud and make Ward Melville look good. We’re good with what we can do and we’re proud of what we’ve been able to do. We’ll be back here next year — we’re going to have an even better, faster future.”

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The defensive end's big stop, catches lead Panthers

By Bill Landon

Miller Place’s Panthers made a stand.

The football team’s defense rose to the occasion when the Suffolk County championship title was on the line in a 25-25 game with just under two minutes left to play.

As No. 1-seeded Babylon barreled toward the end zone at Stony Brook University Nov. 16, No. 2 Miller Place’s defense forced a turnover on fourth-and-8 at their 34-yard line, and Anthony Seymour scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession to put the Division IV game away, 33-25. The win clinched Miller Place’s first football title since the championships began in 1992.

At the heart of it all was 5-foot, 3-inch senior Anthony Filippetti, who made the stop to force the turnover and followed it up by getting behind the secondary for a 27-yard reception to the Babylon 6 to set up the final score. The catch came after Seymour was sacked for a 7-yard loss.

To cap the championship-winning drive, Seymour faked a handoff to Tyler Ammirato heading over right tackle, and bolted off left tackle for a 3-yard rush into the end zone that snapped a 25-all tie with 21 seconds left.

“After we stopped them on downs I looked at Anthony [Seymour] and said, ‘If we don’t get in the end zone I’m never talking to you again,’” Ammirato said jokingly. “But he did, and we got the win. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

The county title-winning drive started with 1:45 left. Ammirato, a Seymour-to-Tom Nealis connection and Filippetti helped the Panthers drive 66 yards in seven plays.

“With our playmaker — Nealis — it’s comforting to know that you have a kid like that,” Miller Place head coach Greg Murphy said. “It makes you feel that you’re never really out of it. He’s been doing that all year long.”

Filippetti scored the first Miller Place touchdown of the evening on a 54-yard run on the second play from scrimmage and Cameron Hammer’s kick tied it at 7 with 7:43 left in the first quarter.

Babylon capped the first with another touchdown, but the point-after attempt failed, making the lead 13-7 heading into the second.

Seymour and Nealis were at it again to open the second, with Nealis catching a 34-yard pass from his field general. The teams were tied again when the Panthers’ point-after attempt also went wayward.

Nealis hauled in a 54-yard pass and run soon after, being forced out at the 2-yard line to set up Ammirato’s first of two touchdowns. The kicks failed on both and the scores were separated by a Babylon touchdown.

“In the beginning of the game we ran the ball trying to establish the ground game to eat up the clock,” Murphy said. “We needed that a little bit trying to get Tyler [Ammirato] going.”

Matt McNulty charged the Babylon holder after its final score and pulled off the block, which shifted momentum back Miller Place’s way.

“It was just a big moment — I had to pick up my teammates, I just had to do what I could,” the defensive end said. “I was hyped — I wanted that ball back and a chance to make a play and that’s what happened. We knew that the toughest defense was going to win today and making a stop like that in a championship game is what it’s all about.”

Miller Place (10-1) will meet Seaford (9-2) Nov. 24 at noon at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium in its first appearance in the Long Island Class IV championship game.

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Port Jefferson sophomore grabs gold in 100-yard backstroke, 200 individual medley for second season

Kyra Sommerstad represents Port Jefferson at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Sommerstad

By Desirée Keegan

Coach Mark Anderson asked Port Jefferson swimmer Kyra Sommerstad what her goal was heading into the 200 individual medley race at the Suffolk County championships Nov. 4.

“I want to go 2:04,” she answered, which would be a career best for the sophomore.

By the time she touched the wall, Kyra had completed the 200 yards in 2 minutes, 4 seconds, which also earned her a first-place finish.

Kyra Sommerstad represents Port Jefferson at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Sommerstad

“Watching her swim, she looked great,” said Anderson, her Three Village Swim Club coach for the last two years. “She had gone a 2:04, and I thought that spoke to the kind of person she is. She’s incredibly driven, very positive and she goes into every race knowing what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. It makes me proud to see someone grow the way she has over the last couple of years to someone that is capable of setting a goal in her mind and achieving it.”

On top of placing first in the individual medley, Kyra also grabbed gold in the 100 backstroke.

“I knew from last year that I could win,” said Kyra of the county meet at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus. “I really went into it determined and I really wanted to win the same events that I won the year before.”

Being the top seed gave her confidence going in that she could reclaim the county crown in both races, she said. She said Anderson and Port Jefferson head coach Mary Fleckenstein helped her work on her technique and mentality to get her ready to race. Prior to getting into the water, she stretched and listened to pop music to get in the zone.

“I swam some fast times before counties so I knew where I was going into it,” she said. “I get myself pumped up by listening to music. I just didn’t want to drop my spot.”

Port Jefferson athletic director Danielle Turner said seeing all that the swimmer has been able to accomplish at such a young age is inspiring.

Kyra Sommerstad represents Port Jefferson at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Sommerstad

“Kyra is an outstanding student and an overall great person,” Turner said. “She never looks for recognition or praise, however her accomplishments and incredible ability should absolutely be highlighted. She has represented Port Jefferson in the most positive of ways and on many stages.  We could not be more proud of Kyra, and we are excited to see what the future holds for this young talent.”

Fleckenstein shared a similar sentiment, adding that she’s been a joy to work with.

“She’s very impressive,” the coach said of Kyra. “She’s such a sweet girl. She’s gracious, she’s easy to work with. She doesn’t go in with an ‘I’m going to win because I’m the best’ attitude. She gets in the pool and does her job.”

Anderson and Fleckenstein have seen the sophomore mature over the last year, and said they think bigger and better accomplishments are ahead.

“She challenges herself every day,” Fleckenstein said. “She doesn’t like to miss practice. They’re all signs she’s headed in the right direction. There’s some untapped talent in there, and her club coach has been doing a great job bringing her along. By the time she graduates she’ll be sought after by many colleges.”

Kyra Sommerstad placed first in the 100-yard breastroke and 200 individual medley at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Port Jefferson school district

Her Three Village Swim Club coach has been focusing on underwater work with his swimmer, including off-the-block movements, hand speed, tempo and turns.

“I’ve been extremely happy with how she’s raced so far without having time to rest,” Anderson said. “In the next couple of weeks she has the state championship, the winter junior nationals down in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then she’s going to have our team’s travel meet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of fine-tuning this week that goes into hopefully putting together the perfect race this weekend and it’s going to be a real test to see how she’s prepared over the last couple of months.”

He added, with her attitude, he knows she’ll succeed.

“She is incredibly positive, incredibly hard-working, dedicated, she’s a great student in the classroom and just getting to know her and getting to see her grow up and mature has been a real enjoyment for me,” he said. “She is a coaches dream.”

Kyra validated Anderson’s comments, saying she’s ready for what lies ahead.

“I’ll be working really hard in the pool and perfecting my technique,” she said. “I’m getting ready to swim fast.”

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen Pennington and Warrior Ranch Foundation Vice President Tony Simonetti spend time with Pennington’s horse Red. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

When Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro first stepped into the round pen with a horse at Warrior Ranch Foundation, her guard was up.

Castro, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom from 2002 to 2004, and admittedly struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, was face to face with a 1,400-pound Friesian horse named BlackJack during a July demonstration by the Mount Sinai and Islip-based nonprofit, which pairs military and first-responder veterans with rescue horses in need of rehabilitation and training.

Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro bonds with
Vet therapy: Mount Sinai’s Warrior Ranch helps heal
her horse BlackJack. Photo from Warrior Ranch
Foundation

The tough-as-nails veteran was attempting to engage BlackJack in basic ground exercises, but the horse was not budging. Its guard was up too.

“I soon realized it was because I was terrified of him,” Castro later said. “When you’re with these horses they feel everything you’re feeling, even the emotions you think you’re hiding from everybody else. You can’t hide them from a horse.”

Castro relaxed, and as she calmed down, so did BlackJack. The horse began to lick and chew — a reflex associated with the animal’s release of stress.

“By the end of the session, I wound up with a friend,” she said of BlackJack. “With the horses, you have someone you’re actually bonding with in your own private, silent language. It’s beautiful.”

Officially incorporated in June 2016, the Warrior Ranch Foundation has helped reduce the stress levels and PTSD symptoms of more than a dozen veterans still recuperating from a wide range of conflicts — from the Korean War to Vietnam War to the war in Afghanistan — by teaching them how to groom, feed and train troubled horses. And much like the veterans, the nine residential horses, mostly retired race and show animals that have been trained their whole lives to compete and perform in high-stakes settings, are learning to adapt to a new, more relaxed world.

Cathie Doherty spends time with horse Cody.
Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“There’s a strong parallel between them and it’s amazing to see their emotional breakthroughs,” said Eileen Shanahan, the nonprofit’s founder and president. “While the race horses are trained to run, run, run, and as a result have emotional issues, the veterans are trained to go out there and do the best they can to protect and defend us. When they come back, they have to shut that off and that’s not so easy. We provide a safe haven for these humans and animals.”

Shanahan’s organization is the result of her lifelong love of country and horses. The Queens native, who shoots and produces television programs and commercials for a living, comes from a large military family with a father who served in the Marines, an uncle and brother in the Navy, nephews in the Army, as well as several first responders.

Although she mostly rode buses and subways growing up, Shanahan always admired horses from afar, seeing them as beautiful creatures.

When she got married and moved to East Quogue in the 1980s, she took up horseback riding and, 15 years ago, began adopting rescue horses and studying natural horsemanship — a variety of rapport-based horse training techniques.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen
Pennington with horse Red. Photo
from Warrior Ranch Foundation

For nearly a decade, she dreamt of providing this outlet for local veterans and finally launched it with the help of longtime friends and equestrians specialists. While the group currently works out of two private barns, the future plan is to turn Warrior Ranch into a national organization.

“We want to eventually help hundreds of veterans and horses because it really works,” Shanahan said, explaining that interactions like Castro’s is very common at the ranch. “A lot of times when they come here, the veterans have their arms crossed, but by the end of the day, they have ear-to-ear grins. A lot of them break down and cry and it’s so powerful to watch.”

Tony Simonetti, Warrior Ranch’s vice president and top horse trainer, has made a career of rehabilitating emotionally distraught horses and re-interacting them with their human counterparts, resolving more than 500 extremely difficult horse cases for people across the country. When asked his most memorable veteran-horse interaction within the organization, he talked about Army Staff Sergeant Allen Pennington, Warrior Ranch’s first soldier to go through the program, and Red, a 4-year-old, retired race thoroughbred.

“[Allen’s] this big, rough and tough guy, and when the horse connected with him, I just saw all the stress he was holding inside bubble right up through his chest and then he just couldn’t keep himself composed,” Simonetti said. “He broke down and turned around and hugged that horse like it was his battle buddy. And I told him, ‘don’t feel bad about that. That’s what you’re here for.’”

During a testimonial on the Warrior Ranch website, Navy veteran Cathie Doherty, who was diagnosed with PTSD and put on medication for a number of years, said she was grateful to have attended a women veteran’s retreat at the nonprofit.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen
Pennington with horse Red. Photo
from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“It was really an amazing experience,” Doherty said. “I think it touched me much deeper than I imagined it would. I appreciated working with the horses and that I had to make a connection with them. I feel I was present in the moment. I didn’t care about my phone, I didn’t care what was going on around me. It was a beautiful experience for me.”

Castro said companionship with a horse might be more beneficial than a human’s.

“When you’re a veteran and you’re having a bad day, you don’t want to tell anybody, you don’t want to talk about it — you want to forget about it,” she said. “But I also don’t want to be alone and, so, when you’re there with the horse, and that horse knows what you’re going through and feeling, he feels it too. And because you love the horse and you don’t want the horse to feel that way, you’re going to try and make yourself feel better. It’s awe-inspiring.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who served four years in the Army, visited the ranch in Mount Sinai with his family Oct. 7 and saw firsthand the value of the nonprofit.

“It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see the positive effects that you’re having on these horses, and from these horses the veterans are getting love that they possibly have never experienced
before,” Zeldin said. “In a way, you’re directly coping with the symptoms of PTSD while also productively escaping the worst of it. It’s a great concept and I’d love to see Warrior Ranch grow into something a whole lot bigger than it already is.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, fifth from left, meets with members of the Warrior Ranch Foundation. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

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Patriots claim county crown for first time in three years

Ward Melville’s swim team may have thought it was a rebuilding year, but the Patriots proved they’re faster builders than some might have expected.

After claiming the Suffolk County crown 23 years in a row, the Patriots had placed fourth and fifth at the last two county meets. This year, Ward Melville returned to form, taking home the League II title with a perfect 6-0 record, and retrieving the county championship at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus Nov. 4 with 269 points, well ahead of Connetquot with 231 points and Northport-Commack with 225.

“I don’t think going into the season we were looking at a possible county championship to be honest,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Gordon said. “We have a very young team and we thought we were rebuilding, but these girls surprised me. We still had depth, which has always been a team strength at Ward Melville, but some of these young girls shined.”

The team’s 200-yard medley relay opened the meet and finished first in 1 minute, 47.86 seconds to beat a 2012 school record. First off the block was senior Victoria Bogdanski.

“We have a very young team and we thought we were rebuilding, but these girls surprised me.”

—Chris Gordon

“I just thought about trying my best and being there for my team,” she said. “We didn’t know we were close to the record, so once we finished the race, we were all so excited. We all had this motivation and excitement that carried through the meet.”

Riley Gavigan, Sydney Boals and Kaitlyn Ehlers finished out the relay with personal-best times. Gavigan said she too was only thinking about her team.

“I wanted to score points, so I was going as fast as I could,” she said. “I knew I wouldn’t just let down myself, I’d be letting down my whole team. We had to be in the right mindset, and we got each other pumped and ready to win.”

Gavigan qualified for three individual events, the 100 breaststroke, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley but could only compete in two, forgoing the backstroke.

The sophomore placed second in both, finishing the individual medley in 2:08.22 and breaststroke in a school-record time of 1:04.98, just a hair off first-place finisher Margaret Purcell of Southampton, who won in 1:04.34. Gavigan said she was not expecting to break a Ward Melville record that had stood since 1990 in the individual medley, the only record Gordon had not seen broken during his tenure.

“I want to improve every year,” she said. “So heading into the meet I had tunnel vision. I was focused on myself and not everyone else around me.”

Sydney’s not the kind that backs down — she’s no wilting flower, she likes to meet the challenge and she wants to see the best swimmer. Riley is quieter, not as vocally out there, but she works hard and leads by example.”

— Chris Gordon

Boals qualified to compete in four events — the 100 and 200 freestyles, 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke — deciding to take part in both freestyles. She placed first in the 100 in 53.13 seconds and second in the 200 in 1:54.14.

“I was shocked I won the 100 freestyle — those girls were a lot older than me,” she said. “I’m usually a mid-distance competitor, so I was excited to get that time.”

She broke a 2009 record in the 100 freestyle at the league meet and outdid her time on the county stage. She said it only motivates her to dig deeper.

“We knew we had to show we were ready and we weren’t afraid of losing,” Boals said. “Now I know I can get even faster than I am now.”

Gordon said Boals and Gavigan mean a lot to the team, and noted their impact on the other girls.

“They’re both mentally tough kids and they like to compete and they like to race,” he said. “Sydney’s not the kind that backs down — she’s no wilting flower, she likes to meet the challenge and she wants to see the best swimmer. Riley is quieter, not as vocally out there, but she works hard and leads by example. Whatever I ask her to do, there’s never a problem. It’s never an issue.”

Ward Melville’s 400 freestyle relay team, which comprised Gavigan, Boals, Ehlers and Kylie Kramer, also qualified. The quartet finished third with a time of 3:40.13. Ehlers also finished ninth in the 100 butterfly; Kramer finished sixth in the 500 freestyle; and the 200 freestyle of Kramer, Hope Farrell, Frances Clever and Sophia Swanson finished third in 1:45.02. Bogdanski reached the finish line eighth in the 100 backstroke.

“We had 15 girls make the state qualifying meet, and 23 out of the 27 spots that we competed in we had best times or best dive scores.”

— Chris Gordon

“We had 15 girls make the state qualifying meet, and 23 out of the 27 spots that we competed in we had best times or best dive scores,” Gordon said. “At this point in the season, for them to be swimming as fast as they are and as young as they are, it’s exciting. We will be graduating 10 or 12 seniors, but right now we’re gathering steam and all of the sudden everyone is dropping time and everyone is doing really well.”

The season started off with a bump in the road for the Patriots. Ward Melville lost its opening nonleague meet to a tough Connetquot team, now the county runner-up for the last three seasons, but bounced back to top rival Half Hollow Hills, the defending county champion from last year.

“We worked our hearts out and tried to do our best,” Boals said. “We wanted the seniors to leave with a county championship. We wanted them to have fun and coach to be proud and once we beat Half Hollow Hills and we won the league, we knew we had counties in the bag.”

Gavigan said the momentum will propel the team toward success this weekend in the state finals Nov. 17 and 18 at Ithaca College.

“We were the No. 3 seed heading into counties, so it was good to win and show the other teams that we’re right there with them,” she said. “We’re in the right mindset to place well at states.”

If the county meet was any indication, Gordon said, the girls are peaking at the right time.

“They work very hard, they get along very well in and out of the pool and they’re just a great bunch of girls,” he said. “Some of their siblings have been past members of the team, so there’s some legacy there and they take this seriously. They’re very dedicated, which I appreciate. I’m hoping everyone has a little more left in the tank to go a little faster this weekend.”

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Handful of cross country runners compete at state meet

Port Jefferson's cross country team finished first in Suffolk County's Class C. Photo by Dick Olson

By Jim Ferchland

Coach Rod Cawley called runner Sam Walker a “take-charge kind of guy,” and at the Suffolk County Class C championship Nov. 3, the senior raced his team to its second straight title.

The Port Jefferson cross-country competitor finished first at the 5,000-meter Sunken Meadow State Park course, crossing the finish line in 17 minutes, 48 seconds.

Sam Walker, who placed first at the Suffolk County meet, rounds a corner before punching his state qualifying ticket. Photo by Dick Olson

Walker has claimed gold his junior and senior season and said placing first two years in a row to cap off his final county cross-country meet was icing on the cake. He also was quick to point toward it being more about the team than himself this time around.

“I’m not going to lie, it felt pretty good,” Walker said. “This year didn’t entirely go as I wanted it to, but I was proud of myself because my main concern was if the team was going to qualify.”

The Royals finished 5-1 in League VIII, winning all but the final meet of the season with a loss to Shelter Island by a single point, 27-28. In all other meets, Port Jefferson dominated its opponents by 30 or more points.

“They worked very hard all season,” Cawley said of his athletes. “They did what they had to do.”

The head coach has led the Royals to 13 county crowns in his 25-year tenure. He said he gives all of the credit to his runners, especially Walker, who he said he’s had the privilege of coaching for four of them.

“He leads by example,” Cawley said. “He works hard and does what he has to do. He continued to improve each year.”

Walker said his focus this time around was on the underclassmen because of the fact the team hasn’t had many state qualifiers over his last four years.

“That whole race was trying to get the younger guys to the state meet and get that experience,” he said. “I know those guys have got a lot of talent and a lot of promise. And I know they’ll do the same for their younger guys.”

Grant Samara finished right behind teammate Sam Walker for second place. Photo by Dick Olson

The Port Jefferson team ran an average of 18:48.21, and had three runners place in the Top 5, with freshman Grant Samara placing second in 18:41 and freshman Cooper Schoch rounding out the fifth spot with a 19:05 finish. Right behind Schoch was Mike Ruggiero with a time of 19:06, and three others placed in the Top 15 — Brian Veit finished in eighth, Alex Rebic placed 11th and Owen Okst finished 15th.

“It’s amazing to see,” Walker said of the talented underclassmen. “I know when I go off to college, I’m going to be coming back to watch these guys. I know they have so much promise in this sport, especially since we are such a small school compared to the bigger Class A schools. We got so lucky with these freshmen that have such a future. I wasn’t even that driven when I first participated in the sport.”

Cawley said he too is liking what he’s seeing from his young guys.

“Samara’s an outstanding freshman,” Cawley said. “He came along quite a bit. He was the fourth guy in the beginning of the season and he ended up being the second. He improved considerably over the course of the season. For Schoch, he’s very talented and right there with Grant. Both of them ran as eighth-graders.”

Cawley said there were some challenges this year, but they were primarily a result of mother nature.

“It was a warm season — it was difficult to train sometimes and difficult to compete,” he said. “One meet got canceled because they ran out of ambulances, so I would say the weather was a difficult challenge for us this year. Cross-country is designed for the 50s and maybe the 60s, not the 70s.”

Cooper Schoch placed fifth at the Suffolk County meet. Photo by Dick Olson

With this, the weather once again became a colossal obstacle for Port Jefferson in the state meet at Wayne Central School District in Ontario Center just east of Rochester. The conditions were in the 20s with snow and wind, according to Cawley, a drastic change from what the Royals were getting used to. Port Jefferson finished the meet in ninth place.

“The ground was frozen,” Cawley said. “It wasn’t pleasant, and everyone had the same conditions, but the upstate schools are a little better handling that than us Long Islanders.”

Walker hit a major setback in the state meet as he suffered an injury in the tough conditions, costing him a Top 20 finish.

“I was feeling good,” Walker said of his confidence before his injury. “I tried catching up with the lead pack, but it was so muddy and there were foot tracks from the previous day that had frozen over. There were a bunch of holes and I rolled my ankle, fell, and it took a while to get back up. I knew that race was over. I couldn’t run as well as I wanted to, but it’s something to learn from.”

Despite the rough upstate experience, Cawley continues to remain optimistic about the future with his young, talented team.

“I’m very excited,” Cawley said. “I have very high expectations for the next few years.”

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Devin Demetres rushes with the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Centereach threatened to retie the game late in the fourth quarter, but a costly interception halted the Cougars march down the field, and with that, went the football team’s chance to compete in the Division II finals. Centereach fell to North Babylon 14-7 in the county semifinals Nov. 10.

Chris Witherspoon leaps up in an attempt to intercept a North Babylon pass. Photo by Bill Landon

The Cougars had a historic run, opening the season on a five-game winning streak and completing the season with an 8-2 record.

Centereach head coach Adam Barrett said the transformation of his team  to finally become a playoff contender was due to several factors.

“The players have really committed to the offseason program and took the necessary steps to improve each year, which was key,” he said. “Having leaders that want to be the best they can be, and never settling has really helped the younger kids contribute. Having a great core of young coaches that bought into the program and the system that I brought here and having them relate to the kids is a big factor as well.”

On their opening possession, the North Babylon Bulldogs began a march down the field from deep inside their own territory, leaning on running back David Estrella. They ground out yardage and sustained the drive until ultimately finding the end zone on short yardage with four minutes left in the opening quarter.

North Babylon threatened again with six minutes left in the half, but the Cougars defense made a stand, forcing the Bulldogs to punt on fourth-and-15.

The spark for the Cougars offense came three plays later, when senior quarterback Jay Morwood handed a pass to junior Devin Demetres, who despite seeming to be stopped at the line of scrimmage, broke outside and defended against four would-be tacklers while covering 65 yards during his touchdown run. Sophomore kicker Matt Robbert completed the point-after attempt to make it a new game.

Marcus Garcia-Miller drags a tackler as he moves the ball up the field. Photo by Bill Landon

On the opening drive of the second half, a Centereach fumble proved costly. After North Babylon recovered, the team completed three plays before Estrella sauntered into the end zone once more for a 14-7 lead.

With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Centereach mounted a drive downfield connecting on a pair of long pass-plays, one of which was a 32-yard toss to Marcus Garcia-Miller, but both were called back because of offensive pass interference. On a third and long, Morwood threw a Hail Mary pass near the end zone where a North Babylon corner leaped in front for the interception, and with it, victory.

Barrett said that seniors Alec Kiernan, Vinny Liotta and Mike Grieco have led the team to places he hasn’t seen, and were a big part of the team’s success.

“Buying in to everything we do and making other players better around them is why I consider them leaders,” Barrett said. “They lead by example on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Even though the season didn’t end the way we wanted it to, the seniors have really shaped the program into what it is today.”

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Patriots powerhouse wins two 1-0 games for first state crown since 2008

Kerri Thornton has become a thorn in the side of her opponents.

The senior standout scored Ward Melville’s game-winning goal in overtime to help the Patriots bring home the first Class A state title in field hockey since 2008 with a 1-0 win over Maine-Endwell on their field Nov. 12.

“At first, I honestly did not think it went in,” Thornton said. “When Kate [Mulham] got the back ball, I ran back into the circle and got ready for her to send it in. When she did, I received it, and just turned around and shot it hard hoping that it would go in.”

As Thornton’s teammates surrounded her in celebration, she said she knew what she’d done.

“I let out a huge shout in relief,” she said as she saw the smiling faces racing toward her. “It has been our dream ever since we were kids to win a championship like this. The journey this season — as a senior this year — this was what I wanted. I’m just so proud of my team for putting in the time and effort to get to where we got. It’s incredible that we finally pulled it off.”

The game-winning goal was scored with 4:37 left in overtime. Mulham said despite the team’s perfect 21-0 record, losing in the state final and semifinal games in extra minutes in the last two years lingered in the back of their minds. She said despite coming up just short in recent years, she knew the qualities her surrounding teammates possessed.

“What makes Ward Melville field hockey different is that we field a team where every girl is extremely talented,” she said. “Overtime is a high-pressure situation, but I was confident. That’s what makes us so successful.”

She said when she heard her classmate calling for the ball from the circle, she knew what she had to do.

“All I could see was a swarm of defenders when I passed the ball to Kerri,” Mulham said. “But I heard her calling for it, and I trust her, so I sent it to her. When I saw it go into the net, I broke down — tears of joy, and I rushed to hug her so tightly. I never wanted something so badly, and to accomplish something like this with your best friends is a feeling I can’t even put into words.”

With the intensity up and with a huge target on its back, Ward Melville began its journey upstate Nov. 11. With a second trip to the finals in three years on the line, junior Lexi Reinhardt was the first Patriot to jump for joy. Long Island’s leading goal scorer (33 points on 24 goals and nine assists) found the back of the cage in another pressure-filled situation. With 23 seconds left in the first half of a 0-0 game with Baldwinsville, she scored off an assist from senior Shannon Coughlan to send Ward Melville to the finals.

“The play was on a corner and in these games corners are precious,” Reinhardt said. “It was just a great pass from Shannon Coughlan and I was in the right position to finish it.”

She said the Patriots wanted to make a statement being back in the state semifinal game for the third year in a row.

“Heading in, there was definitely some nerves, but I think we channeled that and we were able to play off of the energy of the situation,” she said. “During the game we didn’t focus on that though, we were just focused on playing our game, and winning. The joy and happiness that we feel has radiated throughout the entire program. I will never forget this team.”

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