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Miller Place AP English Literature teacher Brian Sztabnik was a finalist for New York state's Teacher of the Year award. Photo from Miller Place school district

It’s easy to pick out Brian Sztabnik among the students and staff at Miller Place High School. The 6-foot, 8-inch English teacher and boys varsity basketball coach is a towering figure not just physically, but as a molder of minds in and out of the classroom, serving as a role model for students and faculty in the district for the past 10 years. And New York state recently took notice.

Sztabnik, 39, who has taught AP English Literature and Composition and English 12 at the high school since 2007, was the runner-up for 2018 New York State Teacher of the Year. The award, issued by Albany-based New York State United Teachers union through a lengthy application process, honors exemplary educators who go above and beyond what’s expected of them.

Miller Place High School Principal Kevin Slavin, Superintendent Marianne Cartisano and Nancy Sanders, president of the Miller Place teacher’s association, present Brian Sztabnik with an award for his second-place finish for state teacher of the year. Photo by Kevin Redding

As a College Board advisor for AP English Literature; a speaker on behalf of English education on the state and national levels; the creator of  “Talks with Teachers,” a top iTunes podcast aimed at inspiring teachers; a published author and the person school administrators turn to for advice, it makes sense why Sztabnik was chosen as one of five finalists out of hundreds in the running.

“Brian is a once-in-a-career type of teacher,” said Kevin Slavin, Miller Place High School principal, before presenting Sztabnik with a certificate for his achievements during the Sept. 27 board of education meeting. Slavin, alongside dean of students Diana Tufaro, nominated Sztabnik for the award last October. “He’s somebody that sees things in a way I could never envision myself. The impact he has on a daily basis is tremendous. Our librarian said it best — when you walk into his classroom, ‘students are invited to learn, not expected to learn.’ We are beyond lucky to have him.”

Slavin said, as protocol during the application process, two previous recipients of the state award observed Sztabnik in the classroom. In May, the pair paid a visit to Miller Place and were impressed to say the least, the principal said.

“The New York state guys said they had never seen a classroom like that — they were in absolute awe,” Slavin said.

Sztabnik consistently provides innovative and immersive curriculum for students, such as “wacky Wednesdays,” a weekly experimental approach to lessons, “Shakespearean musical chairs” and competitive trivia games revolving around novels, poems and works studied in the class.

“School shouldn’t just be sitting at a desk listening to someone talk. It should be about students interacting, moving around and working together to create a unified body of knowledge.”

— Brian Sztabnik

“School shouldn’t just be sitting at a desk listening to someone talk,” Sztabnik said. “It should be about students interacting, moving around and working together to create a unified body of knowledge.”

His wife, Jessica, a fellow English teacher, said she’s pleasantly surprised by his recognition, but not too surprised.

“He works very hard and is such a creative person, so that translates in the classroom,” she said. “He also found a district that really supports him and allows him to use that creativity. Miller Place has been great to Brian.”

Sztabnik, who grew up in Mastic and graduated from William Floyd High School in 1996, has been teaching English, as well as creative writing and public speaking, for 13 years. His career in education began at the Frederick Douglass Academy in West Harlem in a classroom overlooking the original Yankee Stadium, where he taught sixth- and seventh-graders and coached basketball. He then spent a year each at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip and Islip School District before settling in at Miller Place.

After receiving his undergraduate degree in communications from New York University and pursuing a career in journalism for two years, Sztabnik was inspired by his wife to get his master’s degree in English education from Stony Brook University in 2002.

While he is grateful for any accolade he gets, Sztabnik said he first and foremost teaches to make a difference in young people’s lives.

“I love being in the classroom and having that interaction with the students,” Sztabnik said. “I’m just fascinated by how they think and I constantly want to hear how they think. I think that’s what makes English so cool — everyone can have an opinion and as long as they can back it up from the text we can have really varied and diverse discussions from which we can learn about each other.”

Brian Sztabnik reads to his son. Photo from Brian Sztabnik’s website

Part of his goal in the classroom is to push students to think critically, a skill he said transfers beyond English.

“It’s such an important skill in life,” he said. “I want them to notice the small things and be equipped to respond to those things. If you put learning in the foreground, the grades take care of themselves, but the opposite is not always true.”

Jake Angelo, a senior in Sztabnik’s AP Literature class, said his teacher encourages students to learn and take action.

“He doesn’t prepare us; he teaches us how to prepare ourselves for the future,” Angelo said, saying something like studying Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” becomes a theatrical production under Sztabnik’s tutelage. “He had us act out the play, giving us props while teaching the impact of every symbol and character. He makes it interesting.”

Former AP student Brianne Ledda, who graduated last year and attends Stony Brook University, said Sztabnik deserves all the recognition he gets.

“His teaching style depended very much on student interaction and the class was always engaged and active,” Ledda said. “I appreciated that he valued our input as students, and I loved that we were given more freedom of choice in our reading.”

At the end of the board meeting, Slavin joked that sooner or later, “Somebody in the larger state is going to steal Mr. Sztabnik away from us,” so Miller Place needed to get as much out of him as it could as long as he’s there.

Sztabnik’s response sent a sigh of relief over the room.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said with a smile. “I think, and this is also true of Miller Place, the best is still yet to come.”

Girls basketball leader for nearly four decades inducted into state hall of fame

Rich Castellano in the huddle with a Northport team. Photo from Rich Castellano

By Desirée Keegan

When Rich Castellano was asked to fill in for a season as the girls basketball coach at Northport Middle School, he had no idea the chain of events that followed would change the rest of his life.

That decision to head the team led to a 38-year stint as the varsity coach, 613 wins, 24 league titles, 10 Suffolk County championships, five Long Island championships and three trips to the state semifinals. He was named 2011 Russell Athletic/Women’s Basketball Coaches Association National High School Coach of the Year after first receiving the WBCA District Coaches of the Year award, has been welcomed into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted into the New York State Public High School Athletic Hall of Fame July 26.

Northrop girls basketball head coach Rich Castellano talks to his players. Photo from Rich Castellano

“I had no idea what it would lead to,” the retired math teacher said. “I’ve been blessed —  I was there at the right time. The sport started to take off. Everything was in the right place.”

After starting at the middle school, he moved up the chain with a handful of students, taking over the junior varsity team the following year, and began his career at the varsity level in 1979.

The Tigers won a league championship that winter, the first of three in a row, and next thing he knew the team was hanging a county championship banner on the gymnasium wall.

“I felt we were going in the right direction,” Castellano said. “The little kids in the stands who were watching us play wanted to become Lady Tigers. Everyone who watched our success early now had the opportunity to be on the court. There’s nothing like playing for your high school in front of your family and friends — it’s a whole different atmosphere.”

He credited the initial achievements to being able to work with the girls year after year until they reached the varsity level with him. But the success didn’t stop there. Northport took home six straight county championships from 1989 to 1994, a feat that had never been done nor never been duplicated.

Rich Castellano speaks to young Northport basketball players during a previous Tigers camp. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“The girls wanted to be basketball players,” Castellano said. “Now, it’s like a self-perpetuating thing. They know what to expect. We’ve really been consistent all the way through.”

Coaching that middle school team was the first time he’d led a group of females. The Selden resident had previously been a football and baseball coach, and has since also coached boys and girls volleyball and softball.

“It was unique, it was different,” he said of his first time coaching girls. “I think they taught me to be a better coach. You take things too seriously sometimes even though it’s just high school sports, and I think they gave me a better perspective.”

To feed into his program, he runs summer camps to keep the kids involved and get the younger generation’s feet wet.

Katie Kelly, a former player who is now the junior varsity coach at Northport, teaches at the camp.

“It was always my dream to end up playing for him,” she said of Castellano. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and I’ve been on many different teams. He’s so dedicated to this program, his team and his girls. Everyone has the same nice words to say about him. He know a lot about the game, he know a lot about being a coach.”

Northport girls basketball head coach Rich Castellano watches from the sideline with union varsity coach Katie Kelly. Photo from Rich Castellano

Kelly, who was a part of two county championship and two Long Island championship seasons with the Tigers, said learning how to be a part of a team was the most important thing she took away from her time at Northport.

“He has always emphasized the importance of being on a team, playing together and cooperation,” she said. “I think that’s what makes the team so successful. And obviously in his career he’s been successful, so it seems to work.”

The head coach has seen the trickle-down effect, too.

Even with a myriad of accolades to his own name and with the induction into the state hall of fame, he said it’s never been a one-man show, crediting his other coaches and players like Kaylie Schiavetta.

“She’s an unsung hero who played her butt off and never looked for credit and did it all for the love of the game and the love of her teammates,” Castellano said. “I never wanted all the attention, I didn’t play one minute in any game. It was all their success. It was all their hard work and all the stuff they had gone through to get to where we were. If you look around the gym, there’s a lot of championships. It’s something I take a lot of pride in, but I wouldn’t be where I am without kids like her. She taught me that.”

Still, he was shocked when he heard of the nomination to the NYPHSAA hall of fame.

Northport girls basketball coach Rich Castellano with former player Kaylie Schiavetta as she signs her letter of intent. Photo from Rich Castellano

“Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me,” he said was his reaction when he heard the news. “It caught me off guard. It was a ‘wow’ moment. It took all the girls who played for me to have that feeling. I’m obviously very proud and humbled, but it also makes me reflect on all the girls have achieved over the years and what they’ve helped us achieve.”

Schiavetta was excited to hear of the honor.

“It’s about time,” she said, laughing. “I think everything he’s done for girls basketball is very memorable, whether you played for Northport or not. If you played girls basketball on Long Island you know who Richard Castellano is.”

Inside the basketball arena but outside the court, Castellano brought Coaches vs Cancer to Suffolk County, a program that 95 percent of schools in the county currently participate in. He has led the program to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society since its inception.

“To me, it’s one of my biggest accomplishments,” he said. “Basketball officials get involved by wearing pink shirts, the girls where pink socks, pink ribbons in their hair and pink t-shirts, the girls have me wear a pink tie — we’re into it big time.”

Rich Castellano with young Northport players and alumni during a Coaches vs Cancer game. Photo from Rich Castellano

The charity event hits home for Castellano, because he was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2006. The girls’ shirts have a basketball court on the back with the words “I’m playing for” above it. There’s an empty space to write the name of a cancer survivor or victim the player wishes to honor during the games.

“A lot of the girls put my name on their shirt beside their grandmother or their neighbor or their parents, so that’s kind of cool, too,” he said.

Over the years, the coach has kept in contact with most of his former players. He’s been to almost 20 weddings, christenings, graduations and even spoke at the Northport sports hall of fame induction ceremony for all seven of his honored athletes, all in the last two years since its inception.

Sisters Cami Ruck and Kimberly Ruck, Renee Raleigh, Debbie Ronan (McCabe) and her now-sister-in-law Regina Ronan, Christine Michalopoulos and Jill Byers are all merits of his success.

Rich Castellano with members of a former Northport girls basketball team. Photo from Rich Castellano

Kimberly Ruck’s daughter is in seventh grade at Northport, and will soon be playing for her mother’s coach. Debbie and Regina Ronan have both come back to coach alongside their mentor, and Michalopoulos went on to coach college basketball.

“It validates decisions you made,” Castellano said. “They liked what they were doing and it’s a compliment they’re coaching.”

He will also be inducted into the Northport sports hall of fame this fall alongside Schiavetta, who played for her coach since seventh grade and attended the camp since fourth grade.

“I thought he was really funny,” she said of her initial impression of Castellano. “He always does a good job making the little girls laugh and make them feel comfortable. He has a way of challenging and bringing out the best qualities in a player.”

Her father Lou Schiavetta, who has been a coach at the camp for the last 10 years, agreed.

“Coach Castellano could sell ice cream in the North Pole,” he said. “There are people that are givers and takers — he’s a giver. He’s all for the kids and for his program. As you can see, it speaks for itself with all the banners and honors he’s received. He’s one of the winningest coaches in the county.”

Girls basketball banners line the walls of the gymnasium at Northport High School. File photo by Desirée Keegan

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Long ago, I wrote a column about vomit and education. No, I didn’t suggest that teachers should encourage vomiting or that education gets better amid the smell of vomit. Sorry to those of you who are gagging even at these words.

No, for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of my columns — OK, all of you — I wrote that my son, who was only 5 at the time, often came home with exactly the same answer to the question about what happened in school: “Nothing.” Then, one day, a classmate was in the middle of saying something when she vomited.

Suddenly, my son became the bard of vomit, describing in technicolor detail everything that poured out of his classmate’s mouth. It didn’t stop there. He recounted each of the steps the teacher took to clean it up and resettle the room and then, to my shock, he shared a few things about the next lessons she tried to teach.

While I’m not suggesting the value of vomit in the classroom, I did recognize something unusual that occurs during these high-energy moments: People pay more attention.

What triggered — bad word choice here, I know — my thinking about this observation is March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament has 64 teams entering this bracket, all of whom have fans, family and friends hoping their journey can go just one more game all the way to the championship.

Now, these games can be — and often are — ridiculously exciting, with young players pushing themselves to the limits of their speed, endurance and coordination to make impossible game-winning shots that carry their fans to the next level of ecstasy.

The winners stand in front of a microphone at the end of the game and recount what we’ve just witnessed, taking us through the moment when they got the ball at the top of the key, faked left, passed it to a teammate, and then crashed the boards just in time to grab the rebound and slam home the game-winner.

We know what we saw and rarely, if ever, do these interviews produce much more than, “Yeah, it was great,” or “I’m so excited, I just don’t have words for this.”

So, this is where the vomit analogy comes in. Some of these players likely contribute to causes, believe in community service, have something to say about what they’ve overcome, can share the best advice they’ve ever gotten or remember a moment that still matters.

I realize it’s asking a lot of the reporters and the athletic superstar whose primary concern may be going to the bathroom, getting his uniform clean for the next game or getting to the bus on time to go to the airport.

Still, these moments, with the players, coaches and even fans could include some kind of life lesson. Players don’t need to preach, nor do they have to demand that we participate in their favorite charity. However, they can use the spotlight to inspire and encourage us with their incredible achievements off the field, their commitments to family or their contributions to a church group.

Now, I realize Olympic coverage often includes features about people who are dedicating their efforts to a relative or who volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. And, I appreciate how sports purists may find the effort an intrusion in the cliché-riddled wide world of sports, where the players are just happy to help the team and they take everything one game at a time and they try not to do too much.

But some day, that athlete will no longer have the microphone and some day, the world will no longer be watching. While we’re inspired and moved by their magnificence on the court, how about if, to the extent possible, they also encourage us to follow their lead in other arenas. An energized audience may see this as a chance to turn a good game into a great achievement.

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The Port Jefferson girls’ basketball team following its Class C state semifinal win over South Seneca. Photo by Danielle Turner

Despite coming up just short of their ultimate goal, the 2016-17 Port Jefferson girls’ basketball season won’t soon be forgotten.

It wasn’t securing the final win that mattered. As the dust settled after Watkins Glen scored a buzzer-beating layup to edge out the Royals, 65-63, in the Class C state finals, the legacy the five senior starters will leave behind and their incredible run, will remain on everyone’s mind.

Every win since the Royals’ 46-43 nail-biter over Pierson-Bridgehampton has been historic. With that victory, Port Jefferson brought home the first Suffolk County championship crown in 90 years. The team then outscored East Rockaway, 67-49, for the Long Island title in school history. The Royals have continued to improve on a 6-9 2013-14 record over the last three seasons, but made a giant leap this year. Port Jefferson won a regional title in the school’s first appearance in the state tournament March 9 and followed it up with a state semifinal victory March 18, to reach the finals.

The Royals were coming off a high heading into the state finals matchup March 19 against Watkins Glen. Port Jefferson had crushed South Seneca 71-53, which senior standout Courtney Lewis said was a big boost of confidence for the team.

“We had never played a team outside of Suffolk before this season, and I think winning by such a large margin on Saturday made us realize we could win,” she said. “We belonged upstate.”

After scoring 31 points in the semifinal game, Lewis tallied 11 of the team’s 15 first-quarter points to help the Royals to a 15-10 lead in the finals. By halftime, the advantage diminished just slightly, to 29-24, with the 2,000-point scorer adding five more points.

“I felt great going into the game,” she said. “I really felt like I could attack their man defense and our offensive plays worked well.”

Freshman Sam Ayotte filled in for Lewis in the third when she was in foul trouble, and she and senior Corinne Scannell came up big in Lewis’ absence. Ayotte capped off a 20-4 run with a 3-pointer from the right corner, extending Port Jefferson’s lead to 53-37 entering the fourth. She scored 12 points in the game, and Scannell added 11.

“Corinne Scannell was making her layups and foul shots, and freshman Sam Ayotte stepped up her game and was driving to the basket,” senior Jackie Brown said. “It gave us the energy we needed.”

But that energy came to a sudden halt, as Watkins Glen’s 28-10 fourth quarter was the difference.

“Our defense was most intense in the third quarter, and our foul situation really hurt us in the fourth,” Lewis said.

She returned to action 50 seconds into the fourth quarter with her team leading 56-42. By the 1:24 mark, Watkins Glen had pulled within two. Watkins Glen added a free throw, but senior Jillian Colucci hit one of two free-throw attempts with 33.1 seconds left to push the lead back to two points, 63-61. With 13.7 seconds on the clock, the game was tied 63-63. Port Jefferson had the ball but couldn’t take the lead. Watkins Glen gained control and Hannah Morse hit a layup at the buzzer, ending the Royals’ 20-5 season just short of a state championship.

“I feel great knowing that even though we didn’t win, we still will go down in history at our high school,” said Lewis, who knocked down a game-high 23 points. “Basketball has been such a big part of my life for as long as I can remember, and just playing with these girls and getting this far in the playoffs is the best way I could have imagined ending my high school career.”

Lewis, who first started on the team as a seventh-grader, was part of three losing season before the Royals started experiencing success.

“Playing on the team since seventh grade has been such a positive influence in my life, and a shaping one, too,” she said. “Basketball means so much to me and playing for Port Jeff was nothing short of a perfect experience, especially my senior season.”

Brown reflected on her time with her teammates.

The Royals game plan before the start of the fourth quarter in the state finals matchup against Watkins Glen. Photo by Danielle Turner

Senior Gillian Kenah is a threat on the boards, Brown said, always below the basket to “clean up the trash,” grab rebounds and score putbacks. Brown said Scannell’s bubbly spirit and positive attitude puts a smile on everyone on the team. The All-Tournament basketball selectee and recipient of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s Sportsmanship Award has a strong shot from all over the court.

Colucci, an All-Long Island and All-State soccer player who was named Suffolk County Player of the Year is quick on her feet, with a determination to win that, according to Brown, gets the girls fired up.

“She’s a game changer,” Brown said.

Lewis, as one of the only starters who focuses solely on basketball, has a great sense of the game.

“She is truly an amazing basketball player,” Brown said. “From CYO to senior year, she’s a talent. I could always count on her to get things done.”

The many multisport athletes on the team  only enhanced its winning attitude, with Colucci and Scannell bringing the soccer team’s state-championship mentality to the court the last two seasons. Brown, a field hockey standout, further added to the team’s athleticism.

The Royals have not only made an impression on the district, but also left newcomers like athletic director Danielle Turner in awe.

“I have been involved with countless teams in my career as a player, coach and observer; I can’t remember a team that I am more proud of,” she said. “Right before our eyes, these girls have changed basketball in Port Jefferson. Not only from an athletic standpoint, but from a cultural perspective. Their unwavering commitment to each other, their mental toughness and their maturity were evident throughout the season, and especially throughout their playoff run. It’s something that will be talked about for years to come.”

Brown hopes making history will inspire future teams to come.

“I’ve never been part of a championship team, so I’m honored to be a part of it with this group of girls,” she said. “This has been an incredible experience and I’m so proud of what this team has done over the past five months. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m also excited for the younger girls. It gives them motivation to go get it next year.”

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By Bill Landon

Gillian Kenah’s focus may have shifted from defense during one game, to offense the next, but the senior showed she performs when the pressure is on.

“We gave Gill the responsibility last game of playing against their biggest threat, and she stepped up,” Port Jefferson head coach Jesse Rosen said. “Today, she didn’t have that same pressure on her, and she played a phenomenal game.”

That’s because instead of guarding, Kenah was under the boards mopping up when her teammates’ shots weren’t falling, scoring 10 of her 12 points in the second half to give her Port Jefferson girls’ basketball team the push it needed to outscore Haldane 43-30 in the Class C state regional final at SUNY Old Wetsbury March 9. The squad becomes the first basketball team in Royals history, boys’ or girls’, to punch a ticket to the Final Four.

“You dream for these things to happen, you don’t expect for these things to happen. We’ve put in so much hard work, we’ve been looking forward to this for years and we’re finally here.”

—Gillian Kenah

“It’s so incredible — it’s another dream come true,” said Kenah, who averaged 3.1 points per game heading into the matchup. “You dream for these things to happen, you don’t expect for these things to happen. We’ve put in so much hard work, we’ve been looking forward to this for years and we’re finally here.”

The heavy lifting first fell onto senior Courtney Lewis, who scored all seven of the team’s first-quarter points, although they were down 8-7 after eight minutes. Jillian Colucci, a three-point scoring threat who drew double coverage outside, was able to space the floor and create opportunities for her classmate Lewis.

Lewis still led a more balanced second-quarter attack, and with her second 3-pointer of the game, helped her team retake the lead, 15-14, and the Royals never looked back.

Port Jefferson’s defense was everywhere, using a zone defense that bottled up shooters and got deflections to upset Haldane’s rhythm. On the team’s last possession of the first half, Lewis picked off a pass and went end-to-end for a field goal that put the Royals up 21-16 heading to the locker room.

“We’ve been working on our defense all week leading up to Monday’s game — even yesterday and the day before it’s just defense, defense, defense,” said Colucci, who had six points and five assists. “If you can prevent the other team from scoring, you’re going to win the game.”

Kenah was also a factor on the other end of the court, grabbing 13 rebounds while converting those possession into six of her own points to help turn a five-point halftime lead into a nine-point advantage, 27-19, at the end of three quarters.

“It’s incredible this journey with these girls — it’s an amazing experience I can’t even describe the feeling and the emotions that I feel before every game, during every game and after every game,” Colucci said. “It’s just amazing.”

Lewis went to the line three times in the final stanza, going 4-for-6 from the line overall, and, although she missed a shot from beyond the arc soon after, Kenah was there to finish with another put-back.

“I can’t even tell you how much this means — wanting this win,” Lewis said. “We’ll celebrate this win tonight, but tomorrow we’ll be right back at it and practice 10 times harder.”

Rosen struggled to find the words the describe the season’s success.

“It’s excitement,” he said. “This scene, not only for the team, but the kids who traveled here, their passion to want to be here and support the girls it just goes to show you why Port Jeff is such an awesome place.”

 

By Bill Landon

In his book The Precious Present, Spencer Johnson wrote: “I can chose to be happy now, or I can try to be happy when, or if.”

The Port Jefferson girls’ basketball team chose to live in the moment during their March 6 Long Island championship title game, stepping onto a court no Royal had walked on before. Senior Jillian Colucci was no stranger to the limelight, though. The soccer standout, used to throwing the ball inbounds during the fall season, swished a long distance shot that was just three feet inside half court to close out the first half. The buzzer-beater before halftime that capped a 9-0 run sent the crowd into frenzy, and the Royals dancing into the locker room. That happiness carried through the second half, as Port Jefferson outscored East Rockaway 67-49 for the school’s first Class C crown.

“We’re just soaking it in,” senior Corinne Scannell said of the win. “Precious Present … it’s all about living in the moment, so I guess we’ll enjoy the moment and take it from here.”

East Rockaway’s defense focused on shutting down senior Courtney Lewis all across the SUNY Old Westbury court, but it didn’t matter. Lewis fought through double-teams most of the way to score a game-high 30 points. She drove the lane over and over, and even if she didn’t score, she drew fouls to find points from the free-throw line instead. The senior went 9-for-10 from the charity stripe.

“It feels really good knowing that we did it as a team.”

—Corinne Scannell

“We knew they were going to key on Courtney, and we needed our other shooters to be willing to step up and take their shots,” Port Jefferson head coach Jessie Rosen said. “They gained confidence throughout the course of the week, and today when the opportunity was there for them. They did what they needed to do.”

Jackie Brown was first to step up, hitting long distance shots seemingly at will. The senior banked four of them in the first half. Then, it was Colucci’s shining moment. With Lewis cornered, sophomore Jocelyn Lebron passed Colucci the ball. As Colucci sprinted just beyond half court, she let the ball go as the buzzer sounded, and hit nothing but net, giving her team a 36-22 advantage heading into the break.

“There was time for one more, and I heaved it up and it just went in,” Colucci said. “I’m just absolutely speechless. To make it this far with these girls is absolutely amazing.”

Defensively, the Royals hands were everywhere. And they made their steals count. Scannell intercepted a pass, and dished it off to Colucci, who went coast to coast for the score that helped the Royals break out to 43-27 lead with 4:41 left in the third.

“It feels really good knowing that we did it as a team,” Scannell said. “The things we worked on in practice were tailored to this game. It’s nice to see it all come together.”

For Brown, who chipped in 14 points, the magnitude of her team’s accomplishment hasn’t set in yet.

“I hoped we would be here at the beginning of the season — it’s awesome that we won it,” she said. “It’s really cool that we’ll have that 2017 LIC banner to hang in the gym.”

Senior Gillian Kenah echoed Brown’s sentiment.

“At the beginning of the season it was definitely a dream — I imagined us at the counties, but I wasn’t sure about this,” she said. “Honestly, it’s a dream come true.”

I know that sounds like a cliché, but when you practice like you play and play like you practice, it’s nothing short of awesome.”

—Jesse Rosen

Lewis credited the success to her team’s daily preparation.

“I knew we’d come out with intensity,” she said. “But I didn’t think we’d win by this margin.”

Rosen said he could see the team’s determination early on when he took over mid-season as the team’s head coach.

“This is an exciting group of girls — they work their absolute hardest every day,” he said. “I know that sounds like a cliché, but when you practice like you play and play like you practice, it’s nothing short of awesome.”

When the buzzer sounded, the Royals erupted in celebration as they experienced the taste of a Long Island championship for the first time. Thinking back to the short story they read prior to the game, they realized they attained that precious present.

“It is wise for me to think about the past, and to learn from my past, but it is not wise for me to be in the past for that is how I lose myself,” Johnson wrote. “It is also wise to think about the future and to prepare for my future, but it is not wise for me to be in the future for that too is how I lose myself, and when I lose myself, I lose what is most precious to me.”

Kenah said her team will savor the moment , and get back to work preparing for the next game. The Royals will face the winner of the Section I Haldane vs. Section VIIII Pine Plains in the regional finals March 9 at SUNY Old Westbury at 7:30 p.m.

“We’re going to condition tomorrow,” she said. “We have another game on Thursday, so we’ll enjoy tonight, but we’re right back at it tomorrow.”

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Mustangs will play Elmont in Class A Long Island championship March 11

Mount Sinai girls' basketball team captains Victoria Johnson, Veronica Venezia and Olivia Williams, along with their coaches, are presented the Section XI runner-up plaque. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Win or lose, Mount Sinai’s girls’ basketball team earned the right to represent Suffolk County in the Class A Long Island championship game. But first, Section XI bragging rights were on the line, and although the Mustangs led by as much as 12 points against Class AA winner Central Islip, the Buccaneers floored it in the final two minutes to come away with a 51-42 win.

Mount Sinai’s Gabriella Sartori battles in the paint. Photo by Bill Landon

“This is a game where we said to ourselves this is a good look for us,” Mount Sinai head coach Michael Pappalardo said. “[Central Islip] plays a similar style of basketball to [Nassau County’s] Elmont, with great defense. So we’ll go back to work, we’ll focus on getting back on defense and eliminating scoring the easy layups in transition. But I couldn’t be more proud of my girls and what they’ve accomplished this season.”

Central Islip jumped out to a 12-4 lead after five minutes of play at Suffolk County Community College’s Selden campus March 5, but the Mustangs scored four unanswered points to close the gap to four points, 12-8, at the end of the first quarter.

Senior center Veronica Venezia continued to do what she’s done all season, battling in the paint to score another putback, to pull within two before junior Olivia Williams followed with a putback of her own to tie the game, 12-12, with 2:46 left in the first half.

Mount Sinai sophomore Gabriella Sartori drove the lane and wasn’t taking no for an answer as she fought her way to the rim for the score that gave the Mustangs their first lead of the game. Despite Central Islip answering with a 3-pointer, Sartori followed it up with a baseline drive where she was fouled while scoring, and completed the three-point play. At halftime, Mount Sinai was up by three points,18-15.

Mount Sinai’s Vernoica Venezia and Olivia Williams reach for possession. Photo by Bill Landon

Sartori opened the second half like she finished the first, driving to the basket for back-to-back scores. Senior Victoria Johnson banked two points and Venezia also added a bucket from the paint. The referees called a tight game, and both teams traded points from the charity stripe. At the end of the eight minutes, Mount Sinai was still protecting a three-point lead, 36-33.

Central Islip scored back-to-back field goals to retake the lead for the first time since the opening quarter, but Venezia found the rim from down low to pull within one point, 42-41, but Mount Sinai would come no closer.

Central Islip edged ahead slowly, leaning on the shot clock, which forced Mount Sinai to foul. The Buccaneers continued to make each opportunity count, edging ahead point by point until time expired.

“Although we could’ve not fouled and lost by three or four, we were trying to go for the win and I’m proud of my girls,” Pappalardo said. “We can play with anybody and you can see that.”

Who goes home with the Long Island championship title will be decided March 11, when Mount Sinai takes on Elmont at SUNY Old Westbury at noon.

School district staff fight for bragging rights while raising money for booster club

By Bill Landon

Mount Sinai school district faculty members were pitted against each other March 3 in the Battle of the Educators. Teachers laced up their sneakers and grabbed a ball, donning black shirts on the middle school side, and gray on the elementary/high school team, for the 16th annual basketball game that raises money for the Mount Sinai Booster Club.

Mount Sinai High School Assistant Principal and Director of Guidance Matt Dyroff, who is the event’s organizer, said the week of practice each team had leading up to the game paid off. In the first quarter, each team traded points until the black team hit a triple to retake the lead, 28-27, before going on a scoring frenzy to take a 10-point lead, 37-27, into the halftime break.

“We do it for our booster club because they do so many things not only for our sports teams, but any other thing we ask their help with they’re more than willing to donate for the cause.”

—Matt Dyroff

“We’ve been practicing hard,” Dyroff said. “A couple of outdoor practices in the cold, but the teams got down to work — they buckled down and it was evident in the score tonight.”

Dyroff had a lot of help with the event from Mount Sinai Booster Club member Terese Lumley, the student council members who volunteered their time to help out, and Mount Sinai High School earth science teacher Roger Cardo, who took care of the play-by-play commentary.

With a $5 admission fee and $1 charge to compete in the halftime shooting contest, Dyroff said he hoped the event cold exceed last year’s $3,000 raised, and as students lined both sides of the court to take part in the shooting contest, it seemed the goal may very well be met.

“Each year we’re hoping to improve on the previous year, and preliminary amounts suggest that we’ve approached $4,000 tonight,” Dyroff said. “We do it for our booster club because they do so many things not only for our sports teams, but any other thing we ask their help with they’re more than willing to donate for the cause. No matter what it is.”

Celebrity spectators, in the form of the first-time county championship girls’ basketball team, had fun watching their teachers take the court.

“It’s a fun time, and everyone comes together to watch the game,” senior point guard Victoria Johnson. “Everyone can joke around take trick shots. It’s all for fun, and that’s the best part of it.”

“Everyone comes together to watch the game. … It’s all for fun, and that’s the best part of it.”

—Victoria Johnson

There were no trick shots down the stretch though, as both teams battled through the final 25 minutes of play. The gray team shook off the first-half jitters and chipped away at the deficit to retake the lead, 62-61, with less than two minutes left in the game. The black team battled back to take a three-point lead in the final 10 seconds of the game, but the gray team had one last possession.

With the ball in hand, Mount Sinai boys’ basketball head coach Ryan McNeely took matters into his own hands when Dyroff inbounded him the ball, and McNelly let a three-point shot fly with 2.3 seconds on the clock. The ball rimmed out as the buzzer sounded, and with that, the middle school held on for a 67-64 win, to claim the championship trophy for the second year in a row.

Senior center Veronica Venezia said the event was a much-needed respite while she and her Mustangs team prepares for the Long Island championship against Nassau County’s Elmont March 11 at SUNY Old Westbury.

“It’s definitely a fun night watching everyone come out and play — all of the teachers and their families and a lot of people coming out to join our community,” she said. “It’s a good breather — especially because it’s a basketball game — it’s a great night watching our coaches play against each other.”

After the game, Dyroff weighed in on the girls’ unprecedented success this season.

“Going to the Long Island championship is tremendous,” he said. “The district and the community have been so supportive of it. The girls have put in so much time and it’s come to fruition. The off-season workouts, the summer leagues, the spring leagues, getting out to play — this group has progressed each year and to see it culminate in a county championship is huge.”

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Greg Giordano moves the ball around a Bay Shore opponent. Photo by Desirée Keegan

By Desirée Keegan

Smithtown West will have a long offseason to swallow another early, albeit familiar playoff loss.

After finishing last season in the Suffolk County boys’ basketball Class AA semifinals, the Bulls were hoping to take it a step further.

Michael Gannon hurriedly looks to make a pass. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The team wanted a county title, but Bay Shore had other ideas in mind. Both years, as the No. 4 seed, Smithtown West found itself up against the top dog. Last year, the Bulls had trouble controlling a tough Brentwood team, losing 61-49. This time around, the team may have fallen behind early, but picked it back up to make it a close contest, falling this time in a close 66-59 battle Feb. 25 at Stony Brook University.

“We’ve been going for a long time,” Smithtown West head coach Mike Agostino said. “It’s more than just a season, it’s a 12-month commitment. Losing here, to this team, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just unfortunate that they were a little bit better today.”

The Bulls, who went undefeated in League III to claim their second straight conference title, fell behind 20-10 at the end of the first, despite senior Gordon Shouler swishing two 3-pointers in the opening quarter. By halftime, the deficit grew slightly, with the Marauders holding a 36-24 advantage.

Chris Crespo shoots from the free-throw line. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“They were hitting their shots and we weren’t,” junior Michael Gannon said. “They started off hitting three after three and jump shot after jump shot. And after the first quarter their shots weren’t really falling but at that point they had a good lead.”

Junior Chris Crespo took matters into his own hands to get the Bulls back in the game. He banked two shots from beyond the arc, a field goal and a free throw in the third quarter. Senior Kyle LaGuardia added two buckets to help the Bulls close the gap to 50-43 after eight minutes.

“Bay Shore was a tough team — no doubt about it,” Crespo said. “Very aggressive, and a good matchup for us I thought. What changed was we were getting stops defensively, and those stops turned to baskets, which gave us a huge momentum push.”

Senior Greg Giordano had the hot hand in the fourth, swishing two foul shots and scoring on a jumper before a field goal brought his team within four points, 55-51, its closest score since the first, and as close as the Bulls would come for the remainder of the game.

“The game was unlike any game I’ve ever played before,” Giordano said. “Especially at the end when the game was out of reach with a few seconds left, it just hit me that this is the last game I will play in a Smithtown West uniform, and that was just such an emotional feeling.”

Kyle LaGuardia makes a leaping cross-court pass catch. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Although the senior standout will be moving on after this year, he said he’s honored to be a part of some big Bulls moments.

“I have grown up right next to Smithtown West, and when I was in elementary school, I went to all the booster camps, would see the older guys and hoped that one day I could be like them,” he said. “It has been a dream come true to not only play for Smithtown West, but to be able to cement our team’s legacy with two numbers on the banner. I wouldn’t trade my playing experience for anything.”

Despite graduating nine major contributors, Smithtown West’s two scoring leaders in the loss, Crespo and Gannon, will return next season. Crespo finished with a team-high 18 points with four 3-pointers, and Gannon was close behind with 15.

“It was a testament to these guys, because we pulled within four at one point, and they kept battling — I’m proud of them,” Agostino said. “This wasn’t our goal, but I’m not disappointed in them at all. We wanted better results, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. They’re gladiators, and they fought tooth and nail to their last breath.”

By Bill Landon

Four of the five starters on Mount Sinai’s girls’ basketball team helped the soccer squad score its first Suffolk County title last fall. This winter, the Mustangs brought those winning ways from the field to the court.

Winning has become a tradition at Mount Sinai. The Mustangs went nearly undefeated in League VI play, going on a 17-game streak before a 44-33 loss to Shoreham-Wading River. Despite that, Mount Sinai was able to grab a piece of the league title for the first time in school history. Then, the road to the Class A finals began.

The Mustangs crushed Bayport-Blue Point 91-48 before outscoring Sayville 68-54. The No. 1 seed ultimately found itself up against a familiar foe in No. 2 Harborfields. The two schools had also faced off as the top-seeded teams during the Suffolk soccer finals, and, in front of a near-capacity crowd of 500 at Riverhead High School Feb. 24, Mount Sinai pulled away with another crucial win, 54-42, for its second county crown of the school year.

“Our defense was the key in getting stops and rebounding, and turning those into points.”

—Veronica Venezia

For seniors Victoria Johnson and Veronica Venezia, the win was a long time coming personally and for the program.

“It feels amazing to be Suffolk County champions — Veronica and I have been on the team since eighth grade, so we started a long time ago,” said Johnson, who scored 11 of her 16 points in the second half. “Back then we didn’t win many games, and here we are — it’s a dream come true.”

Sophomore Gabriella Sartori had the hot hand in the first quarter, scoring 10 of her team-high 18 points. First, she swished a free throw to successfully complete a three-point play, and hit a shot from beyond the arc soon after to help her team double its opponent’s score with an 18-9 lead at the end of eight minutes. She also added six rebounds and two assists in the win.

“From the beginning of the season I just wanted to play at this level,” she said. “I’ve been with this group since the seventh grade and to reach this point and watch this team grow is just amazing.”

Behind 31-19 heading into the locker room, Harborfields head coach Glenn Lavey said the 12-point deficit put his team in unfamiliar territory.

“Spotting them a lead like that is not our style — we’re kind of a running football team if you will — we’re not a spread offense,” he said. “We had some breakdowns in the first eeight minutes of the game and we didn’t execute some things we needed to early.”

“I’ve been with this group since the seventh grade and to reach this point and watch this team grow is just amazing.”

—Gabriella Sartori

Despite the lead, Mount Sinai head coach Michael Pappalardo said he warned his team that the Tornadoes weren’t going to run out of steam that easily.

“Harborfields, they’re aggressive,” he said. “We told the girls this is going to be close. You don’t think that team is going to let you walk out of here giving you the championship.”

Harborfields senior Grace Zagaja scored on a putback, and teammate Kate Tardo hit a long-distance shot in the third, but Mount Sinai’s defense swarmed.

With 10 seconds left in the quarter, Johnson went to the line and sank both to make it a 10-point game, but Harborfields senior Falyn Dwyer came through with a buzzer-beating triple that helped her team cut the deficit to 40-33.

With just over four minutes left in regulation, Venezia came up with another putback (she finished with a double-double on 12 points and 15 rebounds) to re-extend the Mustangs’ lead, 45-36.

“They’re definitely a challenge — they always have been the past years we’ve played them,” Venezia said of Harborfields. “But our defense was the key in getting stops and rebounding, and turning those into points.”

Tardo, who tied with Dwyer for eight points, drained her second triple of the contest to make it a six-point game. Two minutes later, eighth-grader Madison Brady (seven points) picked off an in-bounds pass, went straight to the rim for the score and made it a four-point game, 45-41, with 3:10 left to play.

After Harborfields missed its final five shots from the field, Johnson went 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final 31 seconds to put the win in the record book.

“It is ironic to win back-to-back titles against Harborfields — they’re a great team, but we worked really hard to be here.”

—Brooke Cergol

“We always talk about it in practice in every game — everyone’s going to have their ups and downs,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be prepared for both. We had to fight our way through adversity to get here.”

Also on the championship-winning soccer team besides Johnson, Sartori and junior Olivia Williams, was sophomore Brooke Cergol, who rounded out the scoring with eight points.

“It feels amazing — especially after soccer,” she said. “It is ironic to win back-to-back titles against Harborfields — they’re a great team, but we worked really hard to be here. It was crazy, it was a really tense situation, but we pulled together.”

Mount Sinai moves on to face Mattituck for the Small School champion title at Suffolk County Community College Brentwood Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. The winner will face off against the Class AA qualifier for the Section XI title. That game will be played at Suffolk’s Selden campus March 5 at 5 p.m.

Regardless of the outcome of those games, Mount Sinai has the opportunity for another first, when the Mustangs take on the Section VIII Class A champion March 11 at SUNY Old Westbury at noon for the Long Island title.

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