By Bill Landon & Desirée Keegan
Everything Brian Willetts has worked for led up to that moment.
With 1:53 left in double overtime in front of 3,000 fans at Wednesday evening’s Suffolk County Class A championship game, Smithtown East’s Willetts bounced in the game-winning goal to seal the deal for the Bulls for their second straight county title, with an 11-10 win over Ward Melville.
“When I’m training and working hard, I’m thinking about that final shot in the county championship,” the senior attack and co-captain said. “Once it went into overtime I’m immediately thinking ‘wow, this is my time,’ and I felt, as a leader, I had to take from ‘X’ and go get it.”
Willetts racked up a hat trick on the Stony Brook University field, while junior attack Dan Rooney added three goals and an assist to lead Smithtown East.
Both teams lit up the scoreboard consistently in the first quarter, with the action starting right from the opening faceoff.
The game was tied 1-1 after the first minute of play, with Willetts flicking one in and Ward Melville senior attack Billy McGinley responding with a goal of his own off an assist from senior attack Dan Bucaro.
Smithtown East dominated the faceoff ‘X,’ and senior faceoff specialist Gerard Arceri took the ball from midfield and headed straight to the cage, scoring unassisted to give his team a 2-1 advantage.
Smithtown East’s John Daniggelis, a midfielder and co-captain, found the net next off an assist from sophomore midfielder Bobby Burns, to give his team a 3-1 lead in a game that was still less than two minutes old.
Ward Melville senior midfielder Jake McCulloch’s shot found its mark to help his team pull within one, but Smithtown East quickly responded when sophomore attack Sean Barry found the back of the cage off an assist by junior attack Dan Rooney.
Ward Melville’s Bucaro scored next, and Barry and Rooney connected for another Smithtown East goal, with Rooney scoring this time, and Willetts fired a shot off a pass from sophomore midfielder Bobby Burns, as the Bulls edged ahead, 6-3.
“I was thinking one faceoff was going to win the game, so it was a battle at the ‘X’ there at the end.” —Gerard Arceri, Smithtown East
“I have to give a lot of credit to my defense,” Willetts said. “They made stop after stop against McCulloch and Bucaro, two of the best players in the county, so our defense was just unbelievable.”
Despite all the stops, McCulloch found a way to get to goal, and stretched the net twice more for a hat trick, to again pull his Patriots within one, 6-5, with 9:26 left in the second quarter.
Goals by Smithtown East’s Burns and fellow sophomore midfielder Connor Desimone gave the Bulls an 8-5 advantage with 6:58 left in the half.
Ward Melville junior midfielder John Burgdoerfer put a point on the scoreboard off a feed from McCulloch, to trim the deficit, but Rooney found the net for a second time to bring the score to 9-6 heading into the halftime break.
The Patriots opened the second half by rattling off three unanswered goals with two coming from Bucaro, and the third from senior midfielder James Kickel off an assist by McCulloch, to tie the game 9-9.
Daniggelis dished one off to Rooney, whose hat trick goal helped the Bulls pull out a 10-9 lead to begin the fourth quarter, and McCulloch scored the lone goal of the final 12 minutes, four minutes into the final quarter, to retie the score, 10-10, which held up until the end of regulation.
The game went into a four-minute overtime sudden-death period, but it yielded no goals.
“I lost the first [faceoff] in the first overtime period,” Arceri said. “I was thinking one faceoff was going to win the game, so it was a battle at the ‘X’ there at the end.”
Smithtown East senior goalkeeper Sean Turner stood strong between the pipes during the first overtime, even through a broken helmet switch, and made save after save — each punctuated by a gasp from the stadium crowd — to keep the Patriot high-octane offense at bay.
“Turner was unbelievable, especially in the fourth quarter,” Smithtown East head coach Jason Lambert said. “We weren’t scoring a lot after the third quarter, so he kept stepping up, making save after save and standing tall in the net. I can’t say enough good things about him, because that game could’ve gone either way.”
At the 1:53 mark in the second overtime session, Smithtown East claimed its second straight Class A crown with Willetts’ goal.
“It was a surreal feeling to be able to get that shot off for the game-winning goal for a team that I love so much.” —Brian Willetts, Smithtown East
“At our last timeout, [Willetts] said he wanted the ball in the huddle,” Lambert said. “He got it and he put it where it’s supposed to go.”
Willetts was overcome with emotion for what he was able to help his team achieve.
“I practiced that shot so many times,” he said. “It was a surreal feeling to be able to get that shot off for the game-winning goal for a team that I love so much.”
Lambert said that Ward Melville always sets the bar high, adding that as long as lacrosse has been played on Long Island, the Patriots have been at the top.
“I’m just so happy for these kids,” Lambert said. “We played a phenomenal opponent here tonight. They have great players; they have all the history there. My boys believed, they didn’t stop, they kept digging and they kept fighting.”
Smithtown East will face Syosset on Saturday for the Class A Long Island Championship title at Stony Brook University, with the opening faceoff scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
The boys are excited to get another shot at a Long Island title, as the team fell in a close 13-12 match to Massapequa last year.
“I’m so happy to get back to this point; to have another chance to win a Long Island Championship, it sure means a lot,” Turner said. “It means so much [to this team] and this time, we’re going to finish it.”