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Desiree Keegan

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Jamie Ortega, a former lacrosse player at Middle Country, playing for University of North Carolina this spring. Photo from University of North Carolina

By Desirée Keegan

University of North Carolina standout Jamie Ortega wanted to live up to the hype after being named Inside Lacrosse’s No. 1-ranked freshman attacker, and she did just that with a record-breaking first season with a Tar Heels team that reached the NCAA semifinals.

Jamie Ortega’s
2018 headshot for the
University of North Carolina. Photo from University of North Carolina

The Centereach native was tabbed National Rookie of the Year as well by the lacrosse-centric publication, and Freshman of the Year by the Atlantic Coast Conference, navigating her way to be the top goal-scorer on a deep North Carolina offense. She shot 57.4 percent for 70 goals and added 16 assists while starting in all 18 games, scoring multiple goals in each of the Tar Heels’ final 14 contests, including 12 in a three-game span in the NCAA tournament. Her 86 points broke UNC’s single-season record while she led all ACC rookies and ranked fourth overall in the conference. Her 70 goals also broke a 2008 record (50) for most goals scored by a freshman in a season, ranked second overall in the ACC and tied for 11th in Division I.

“She’s a tremendous talent,” 23-year North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy said. “[Myself and my coaching staff] have done this for a long time, and when you see ‘It’, you see it. She really has multiple weapons — she can dodge, feed and play off-ball — and she’s done that for a long time. She’s had the most tremendous freshman year we’ve ever had.”

Levy, who is considered among the best coaches in women’s lacrosse history, ranking third in NCAA Division I history in career wins and is a two-time national champion and a two-time National Coach of the Year, said she challenged Ortega to perform at a high level after UNC graduated a huge class of seniors. She said she hadn’t put that type of pressure on a freshman in a long time, and said she thought Ortega responded.

“I wasn’t really expecting being ranked the top recruit in the nation, and it did make me nervous because I felt like I had to live up to that expectation, but it also made me want to work harder, because I wanted to prove I was the No. 1 lacrosse recruit in the nation,” said Ortega, who was also named to the Inside Lacrosse ILWomen All-Rookie Team and All-America third team. “Being named the Rookie of the Year means a lot to me because it showed that through college — which is really hard, because it’s not like high school, everyone’s good — I can still stand out.”

She credited her teammates, like Marie McCool, a decorated player in her own right, for pushing her to become better, and giving her opportunities to succeed.

McCool said Ortega proved she was a force all her own, especially after the freshman recorded her 15th goal of the conference tournament, which broke a North Carolina record set by attacker Molly Hendrick the season prior.

“I don’t let things get to me. I feel I can push through adversities and the challenges defenders face me with.”

— Jamie Ortega

“Jamie Ortega is a special player,” McCool told The Daily Tar Heel. “She’s only a freshman and the confidence that she plays with — you don’t see it often with freshmen.”

Ortega played her best lacrosse the second half of the season. She scored a career-high seven goals and closed out a 10-0 first-half run in a 20-10 win against Duke University April 21. The performance was one goal shy of the UNC single-game record set in 2002.

Ortega grew accustomed to the spotlight in high school, having experienced facing double-teams throughout her six years on her Middle Country high school team, which she led to its first Suffolk County title and state championship game in 2017. Even a switch from midfield to attack couldn’t slow her down this season.

“It just comes so natural to her, playing the game how it is supposed to be played,” Middle Country head coach Lindsay Dolson said. “Jamie did an awesome job on defense and offense for us. She definitely led the team in that aspect.”

Her senior year she tallied 98 goals and 45 assists and finished as New York state’s all-time leader in points with 588 (402 goals and 186 assists). She was also a five-year varsity starter and two-time all-county pick on Centereach High School’s soccer team.

Jamie Ortega reverses in front of the cage during a 2017 Middle Country lacrosse game. Photo by Bill Landon

“I’m a pretty confident person,” Ortega said. “I think that’s really important for other players to have. I don’t let things get to me. I feel I can push through adversities and the challenges defenders face me with.”

Through all her triumphs she also had some unique experiences as a Tar Heel, like when she faced her older sister Nikki, an attack for the University of Notre Dame. The sisters scored unassisted and back-to-back for the first goals for each of their teams in UNC’s come-from-behind win.

“It was stressful, because you want them both to win,” their mother Susan said, laughing. “I’m so proud of them, and one thing with Jamie is she’s always trying to get better and her hard work really paid off. Jamie is the most humble kid you’re ever going to meet. She doesn’t talk about herself, she doesn’t watch herself, and I think that makes it even more impressive to me because she’s all about the game and playing, and playing with her team, and having fun doing it.”

Jamie Ortega also had the chance to play minutes from her home when Stony Brook University hosted the NCAA playoffs for North Carolina, which made its 10th appearance in the NCAA tournament semifinals, including seven in the last 10 years. She had four goals and one assist in the team’s final appearance of 2018 against James Madison University, earning All-NCAA Tournament Team honors.

If that all wasn’t enough, Ortega is giving back to a sport that’s given so much to her.

She worked a camp called Top of the Class at Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts with her assistant coach Phil Barnes, who runs it with Harvard University head coach Devon Wills. Many Ivy League schools and coaches were there, along with six of her UNC teammates. She said working with the freshman to junior players felt natural.

“I didn’t feel like I was coaching — it felt like I was just hanging out with some lacrosse girls,” Ortega said. “This is definitely something I never expected, because I’m not one to brag, but being an idol to others really motivated you more. Lacrosse means everything to me, and to be able to play, and to still play at this level, making memories with my teammates, trying to succeed with them and giving back to others has been a privilege.”

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Ward Melville High School’s varsity ice hockey team celebrates its Suffolk County championship victory against Smithtown-Hauppauge.

By Desirée Keegan

Mark Devlin was at his son Ryan’s high school graduation ceremony last month and couldn’t believe his ears. As Ward Melville High School’s valedictorian took to the podium, he referenced three state championship teams from the past school year — the field hockey, boys lacrosse and ice hockey teams.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” the former five-year president and general manager of the Ward Melville Ice Hockey Club said, laughing. “They’ve never recognized our hockey club at the high school, and there was a huge roar up in the stands, so it was really cool. Our town is known for lacrosse and now the word is getting out about the hockey team.”

Ward Melville High School’s varsity ice hockey team celebrates its state championship victory against Smithtown-Hauppauge.

Although Devlin, who was also the varsity head coach last year, has since stepped down as president of the club, the soon-to-be varsity assistant coach said it has come a long way from when he took over five years ago, creating a board and turning the 30-year-old organization into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The varsity team was 1-19 when his son first entered the youth league, and last year, the Patriots became the first team in the Suffolk County High School Ice Hockey League to go undefeated. They also took home the club’s first state championship, which qualified the team for its first national showing.

“This year we told a very different story,” recent graduate and co-captain Zachary Boritz said. “We found out after our last game that we were the first team to go undefeated and I was in shock, I couldn’t believe it. And to make it to states and then to nationals was a dream come true.”

Ward Melville took the ice in Minnesota right before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School team from Florida, the district rocked by a tragic mass shooting in February. The Patriots wore stickers on their helmets that said, “MSD Strong,” the parents of the teams greeted one another, and the Stoneman Douglas kids applauded the Patriots as they took center stage. 

“Most of the time when you watch hockey there are three forwards and two defensemen, and you can clearly see that on the ice, the difference with this team is there were five players out there regardless of what position they played that could score or defend.”

— Greg Kryjak

“It was a horrible tragedy and we hoped to show our support from the guys on Long Island,” Boritz said. “Being on that stage was something else. Out of all of the tournaments and showcases I’ve been to throughout my hockey career, nationals was the best game I’ve ever played in. It was a good challenge.”

Part of the program’s secret is four years ago Devlin created 10- to 12-year-old and 13- to 15-year-old developmental teams. The club also takes in players from the greater Port Jefferson area and Mount Sinai, hoping to expand in the future to create more teams.

“Those teams have taken off,” Devlin said. “Now, I think they’re looking at creating a 7- to 10-year-old team, so from a community aspect we’re getting kids involved in hockey at the lowest levels now.”

Current vice president Greg Kryjak said watching the varsity Patriots excel the way they did was jaw-dropping, especially with a 126-21 goal differential.

“Most of the time when you watch hockey there are three forwards and two defensemen, and you can clearly see that on the ice, the difference with this team is there were five players out there regardless of what position they played that could score or defend,” he said. “It really differentiated them from the rest of the teams.”

This set the stage for a dynamic playoff atmosphere, where Devlin said people had to be turned away as the rink filled with high school classmates and parents. The team bested St. John the Baptist 5-2 and blanked reigning league champion Smithtown-Hauppauge 5-0 in a decisive game three for the Patriots’ first league title. Ward Melville went 4-1 in the state tournament to secure a place in the final game, which the team won 3-0.

“We’re huge with offense — scored a lot of goals this year,” Boritz said. “It wasn’t just the first line — every single line all the way to the fourth line, everyone was contributing, which was great to see because a few years prior it wasn’t really like that.”

Ward Melville High School’s varsity ice hockey team celebrates its state championship victory against Smithtown-Hauppauge.

Co-captain Brendan Callow was also recognized by Devlin as being a big playmaker out on the ice, especially when some of the other major contributors were out with injuries.

“He won games almost single handily, and he’s the most humble, high-character kid you’d ever meet,” the coach said. “If I had to pick one kid, he’s the guy who when we needed a big goal or we needed something going on, he did it. He was also an extension of the coaching staff. Because he’s such a great player and a great guy, the rest of the team looked up to him.”

Blanking Smithtown 5-0 was significant for the team, after Ward Melville lost in devastating fashion to the Bulls in the state finals two years ago with 2.1 seconds left in a decisive game three.

“That was one of the most heart wrenching losses we’ve ever had,” said Devlin, who was an assistant at the time. “They’ve been our nemesis. It was thrilling to beat them.”

He said he was also feeling so many different emotions at the time of the win because his son was one of 13 seniors on the squad, and because he’d been coaching 10 of the upperclassmen since they were 5 years old.

“They’re second and third sons to me — I’ve watched them grow up,” Devlin said. “Their work ethic, their accountability, their love for each other, no one wanted to let the guy next to them down. To watch these seniors go out on top like that, it was a fairytale ending. I couldn’t have written a better script.”

Photos courtesy of Ward Melville Ice Hockey

This post was updated July 18 to correct Ward Melville’s record in the state tournament.

Mount Sinai duo join Ward Melville, Northport standouts in Maryland for game of a lifetime

The Under Armour All-America senior team representing the North gather together during practice June 29. Photo from Meaghan Tyrrell

By Desirée Keegan

Although North fell to South in a 10-9 overtime thriller during the Under Armour All-America lacrosse game in Maryland June 30, featuring the country’s best high school seniors, recent Mount Sinai graduate Meaghan Tyrrell was just proud to have been a part of it.

Ward Melville midfielder Shannon Berry grabs the ball during the Under Armour All-America senior game June 30. Photo from Shannon Berry

“Being chosen to be part of the Under Armour game is such a huge honor because it’s the top 44 players in the country being chosen, which makes for a great game,” she said. “It was quality, competitive lacrosse, which is good to have before heading into college.”

According to Ward Melville senior Shannon Berry, another player selected for the game, the teams arrived in Baltimore Thursday, June 28, and the girls spent the first evening at the Under Armour headquarters, where they received all of their gear. The teams practiced twice on Friday before taking the field Saturday morning.

“It was crazy to talk to some of those girls over the weekend and reflect on our time as young lacrosse players, and to see how far our journey’s as lacrosse players have gone,” the Princeton University-bound
midfielder said. “All of my teammates were both incredible lacrosse players and great people. They were all extremely competitive, but also very friendly and kind.”

Tyrrell said working alongside former competition was part of what made the experience unique.

“It’s cool to get to know people that you’ve played against in school and travel lacrosse,” she said. “I think our team clicked practicing on both offense and defense.”

Tyrrell played with teammate Meaghan Scutaro, a defender headed to the University of Notre Dame, for the last time. She said it was the best way she could cap off her high school lacrosse career.

“I can’t think of any other way to say goodbye to high school lacrosse,” she said. “The game itself was so fun.”

The Syracuse University-bound attack scored twice, her second tying the game at 9-9, which is something she’d consistently done for her Mustangs girls lacrosse team across her career.

Recent Mount Sinai graduates Meaghan Tyrrell and Meaghan Scutaro, at center, with their families during a photo shoot. Photo from Meaghan Tyrrell

“It was a great feeling to be able to help the team,” she said. “We had an opportunity to go into overtime and be able to try and win.”

Berry totaled four ground balls and five clears, taking one shot on goal.

“The level of competition was certainly the highest I have played in so far in my career,” said Berry, who played at attack, midfield and defense during the game. “The entire experience was incredible. Under Armour and Corrigan Sports truly do an amazing job of honoring the senior athletes and giving them an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Ward Melville graduate Alex Mazzone was chosen to play in the boys game. The Georgetown University-bound defender was on the South team that toppled North 22-15.

“It was really awesome to have both a male and female to represent Ward Melville,” Berry said. “It was great knowing that both of us were there representing our community.”

Northport attack Emerson Cabrera said the athletes are treated like professionals. They’re given new sneakers, cleats, uniforms and sticks and are followed around by photographers all weekend. The game is also broadcast live, and the teams took part in a charity day, working with Harlem Lacrosse, which Cabrera said was rewarding.

Northport’s Emerson Cambrera, at center, with future teammates Hannah Mardiney and Sarah Reznick. Photo from Emerson Cabrera

She assisted on Bayport-Blue Point attack Courtney Weeks’ goal, who Cabrera said is a longtime friend of hers with whom she played club ball.

“Everyone wanted to contribute somehow to the score, I was lucky to get a dodging opportunity to create an open cut for Courtney,” she said. “This was really an experience like no other. Under Armour makes it so special for us. I’m very proud to have ended my high school career being an Under Armour All-American.”

Cabrera, along with many of her teammates from the all-star game, will continue to compete alongside one another at the collegiate level. She’ll be joining Long Beach goalkeeper Sarah Reznick and Notre Dame Prep attack Hannah Mardiney at the University of Florida in the fall where several other local alumnae currently play, like soon-to-be senior Sydney Pirreca (Mount Sinai) and sophomore Shannon Kavanagh (Smithtown East). Cabrera added that ending her high school career with this game wasn’t just an honor, but a dream come true.

“It’s been something I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was little,” she said. “All of us have played with or against each other over the years and many of us will be joining forces together in college, so it was easy for our team to mesh. The transition I’m sure will still be a little tough, but as long as we all work hard, I’m sure it’ll go well.”

Suffolk County 6th Precinct police officer Jon-Erik Negron and Bryce Pappalardo, whom he helped save after the family gave birth to the not-breathing baby in their kitchen. Photo from SCPD

Mount Sinai teacher Mike Pappalardo felt such a special bond with officer Jon-Erik Negron, who helped save his newborn son Bryce after being born in the family’s kitchen last August, that he named him Bryce’s godfather.

“He’s been there for Bryce since his first breath,” Pappalardo said. “He’s just so genuine and asked us to keep in touch with him, to let him know how Bryce is doing. It made us think, ‘You know what? We want him in his life.’”

Suffolk County police officer Jon-Erik Negron and the Pappalardo family at baby Bryce’s christening, where Negron was named the baby’s godfather. Photo from SCPD

The Mount Sinai Middle School special education teacher and coach first met the 6th Precinct offer Aug. 22 when he responded to his home after his wife Jane went into labor in the family’s home. Bryce was delivered by his father, but was not breathing, and the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. Even after Mike Pappalardo removed the cord, the newborn still hadn’t taken a breath. Officer Negron used a plastic syringe from the family’s kitchen to clear fluid from Bryce’s airway, and the baby began breathing.

“We have always had a connection,” said Negron, who speaks weekly with the family. “I’m just happy to play a role and I’m happy to always be there and always help because I know Bryce is going to grow up to do great things.”

The Pappalardo family said asking Negron to be the godfather was a no-brainer.

“Before even asking him to be the godfather, we felt like he already was,” Pappalardo said. “It was an easy choice. We were just hoping it would be ok with him and when we asked him, he said he was blown away and would be honored, but we were honored he agreed. We consider Jon-Erik family now.”

The officer was bestowed the honor during Bryce’s christening June 23 at Infant Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Port Jefferson.

“I don’t know if Bryce would be here if it wasn’t for his quick thinking and knowledge,” Pappalardo said of Negron. “He’s emotionally connected to Bryce and he truly cares about him and what happens in his life. Jon-Erik and Bryce have a special connection that will last a lifetime.”

“This superseded anything I imagined on having an impact as a police officer.”

— Jon-Erik Negron

Several months ago, the Pappalardos publicly thanked Officer Negron as well as 6th Precinct officer Ferdinando Crasa, fire rescue and emergency service dispatcher Steve Platz and SCPD public safety dispatcher Jonathan Eck, for their efforts during the delivery.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said congratulations to Negron are in order.

“I am truly thankful for all first responders out there like officer Negron, and it warms my heart to see their tireless work appreciated in this sincere act of gratitude,” he said.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart also commended Negron for his heroic effort.

“Bryce is lucky to have Officer Negron is in his life as a wonderful role model,” she said. “We are so grateful that baby Bryce is healthy and thriving due in part to our first responders.”

Negron has been a Suffolk County police officer for four-and-a-half years. He said playing a role in a baby delivery never crossed his mind when he thought of becoming a police officer.

“This superseded anything I imagined on having an impact as a police officer,” he said. “This is probably the most meaningful thing that will happen to me on this job and it exceeded all expectations.”

Gavin Buda hurls a pitch during the Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge all-star baseball game. File photo by Bill Landon

Gavin Buda’s first word was “ball.”

“True story,” the Harborfields dual-sport standout athlete said. “I’ve been playing sports as far back as I can remember.”

Harborfields wide receiver Gavin Buda waits for the ball to drop along the sideline during the Empire Challenge football game. File photo by Bill Landon

Baseball was his first love, he said, signing up for every team he could play on. He played for the varsity team from freshman through senior year of high school, also competing on high-level travel teams and tournaments in other states.

“It just seemed my path was set to play baseball in college,” he said.

But during his sophomore year, he decided to try out for the junior varsity football team with some of his friends. The team went undefeated, and the wide receiver was hooked.

“There was a feeling I got playing football that I never felt playing baseball,” he said. “This bond that is created between teammates that only happens in football. The knowing that you have each other’s backs — that feeling made me think if I work hard enough, this is the sport I’d like to play beyond high school.”

He never gave up on either sport, spending three days training for football and the other three for baseball. He said winters were intense, spending time indoors at batting cages while also gearing up for the fall football season, working with trainers like Jay Fulco, Mike Bouranis, Mike Feldman, James Brady and Jay Fiedler.

Buda this month became the first Suffolk County athlete to play in both the Rawlings Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge and Empire Challenge football game, with Wantagh’s Ryan Sliwak achieved the feat in 2011. Buda said he had no idea the history he’d made at the time he was selected.

Gavin Buda makes a catch between two Rocky Point football players during Harborfields’ homecoming spoiling win. File photo by Bill Landon

“From a young age you could tell the kid was super athletic — he stood out among his peers, and from there, he put in a ton of hard work to really hone that and continue to stay ahead of the pack,” said Harborfields baseball coach Casey Sturm, who coached Buda since he was in seventh grade. “He was a special player, and what really stood out at the end of his tenure wasn’t even so much what he did at the plate but his defense in the outfield and ability to pitch were huge.”

In Suffolk County’s 5-4 loss to Nassau June 8 at St. Joseph’s College, Buda tossed a baseball for what might be the last time. The pitcher and outfielder took over on the mound in the bottom of the fifth and retired the side in order.

“To end my high school baseball career being selected to play alongside players that were drafted to the MLB or heading off to colleges like Vanderbilt to play baseball is just awesome,” Buda said, although he joked if he let up a homerun he might not have been as happy. “To get on the mound and face those guys one last time was a great way to go out, and luckily, I did pretty good.”

A week later, he’d put down his glove and bat to strap on some football equipment.

In the Empire Challenge game, he made a 30-yard reception during a play he wasn’t even slated to be a part of. Knowing Northport quarterback Ryan Walsh, he said during the call in the huddle he told Walsh he could beat out the kid that was guarding him deep. Walsh trusted him, and Buda delivered. A step ahead of the defender, he said there was no way he was letting the ball drop.

Gavin Buda rips the ball deep into the outfield during the Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge. File photo by Bill Landon

His two-year head coach Rocco Colucci said for him personally the moment was fitting. Being a teacher at Northport he’d coached Walsh on the junior varsity level.

“This is why I coach football,” he said. “To see these guys grow and excel.”

He said too it was a privilege to watch Buda excel the way he did.

“Right off the bat I knew he was going to be a playmaker,” Colucci said. “His hard work showed. He was always looking to get better. He was very coachable — anything I told him to do, he’d do it. And because of that, [when other teams] put their best defensive players on him,  he’d still make the catch. He likes that type of best-on-best competitiveness in football, and there’s a lot of areas in football where he excels.”

Buda will be taking his talents to Hobart and William Smith Colleges to join the football team, but said he’ll never forget where he came from.

“Harborfields is a great school, but for some reason we are always under the radar in athletics — it’s a smaller school so I guess that’s why,” he said, adding that while other top athletes chose St. Anthony’s or Chaminade, he never questioned becoming a Tornado. “There were some great players that came through Harborfields before me, and there’ll be more after me. I just hope that I did my part to help put Harborfields sports on the map. The experience these last two weeks of playing in both all-star games is something I will carry with me forever.”

This version was updated June 20 at 12:43 a.m. to indicate that Gavin Buda is the first Suffolk County athlete to be chosen for both all-star games, not Long Island. 

The 4x400 relay team of Maritza Blanchard, Jess Faustin, Lexie Roth and Dana Cerbone took home multiple medals a the state track and field meet. Photo from Middle Country school district

By Desirée Keegan

Middle Country’s seniors have shown the strength, determination and dedication to achieve greatness, and now they have the success to prove it was all worth it.

After undergoing six brain surgeries and having a shunt put into her skull to help her manage an incurable disease, Lexi Roth hit the ground running. She helped Middle Country’s 4×400-meter relay team cross the finish line a fraction of a second behind first at the Division I state championships last weekend. The girls clocked in second among Division I schools in 3 minutes, 52.92 seconds. Rush-Henrietta Senior High School finished in 3:52.52.

Maritza Blanchard, above with Bay Shore’s Nia Singer, finished third among all schools in the 400 dash. Photo from Middle Country school district

The quartet, which also includes seniors Dana Cerbone and Maritza Blanchard and sophomore Jessica Faustin, placed fourth among all schools during the June 8 and 9 meet at Cicero-North Syracuse High School.

“That group especially had an immense amount of talent and the work ethic that goes along with that, so I’m not surprised they got where they got to,” said former coach Matt Torres, who worked with the seniors their first two years. “Jessica, being the young one, works incredibly hard. She has some great leaders in front of her.”

Cerbone is about five feet tall, but Torres said you wouldn’t know it. She placed fourth among Division I athletes in the 200 dash (24.94) and fourth overall (25.33).

“Girls tower over her, but she has a bulldog-type mentality,” he said. “It wasn’t just practice, it was after practice that she would want to do more to see if she could get even just a little bit better. She’d push to have that edge, get in the weight room.”

He said none of the athletes would stop between seasons. They showed a desire to remain in shape and continue to try to take their talents to the next level.

“Maritza was always on the brink of being great, and I think coach Cuzzo really helped push her toward that,” he said.

Blanchard also brought home an additional medal with a third-place overall finish in the 400 dash. She crossed the finish line in 56.78. She ranked fifth among Division I schools (57.39) and bounced back to have a better showing in day two.

“Everything is moving in the right direction,” two-year spring track and field coach Charley Cuzzo said. “I’m very proud of how the kids ran. What they’ve been able to do is quite an accomplishment. They were ready to go, and they proved it.”

The quartet came out of nowhere and shot right up to the top. The girls were ranked No. 1 in the state prior to the meet. Cuzzo said they’ve made improvements that are impressive, and ones that the seniors will take with them to the collegiate level.

“They haven’t gotten there by accident,” Torres said. “They got there by how hard they work.

Twin talks the double win, push to best his brother Isaiah, following in footsteps of twins of years past

Elijah Claiborne celebrates after checking the scoreboard to confirm his first-place finish in the 800-meter run. Photo from Section XI

Elijah Claiborne has always come second, but this time, the state meet was his stage to shine on.

Elijah Claiborne crosses the 1,600-meter finish line with ease. Photo from Northport athletics

The senior has fallen short to his twin brother Isaiah, and, like at the state indoor meet, to Schenectady’s Maazin Ahmed. Instead of the close finishes deterring the senior from the sport, they’ve motivated him to work harder. Even though his older brother opted out of the state outdoor championships to attend the Brooks PR meet, spectators were still seeing double. Claiborne placed first in the 800 in 1 minute, 52.33 seconds, and first in the 1,600 in 4:10.01.

“Things went perfectly,” Claiborne said. “After not qualifying last year I really wanted this. [Isaiah] has always been better than me and I’ve closed the gap between me and him. My goal is to beat him or run a faster time than him whenever I get the chance. He’s always my driving factor.”

His other motivator was falling just milliseconds behind Ahmed this past March.

“I changed my race strategy and I started trying a lot harder during practice,” he said. “I stopped skipping runs and focused more on how I execute race plans and getting myself prepared.”

Elijah Claiborne is congratulated by a fellow runner after the 800-meter run. Photo from Section XI

Head coach Jason Strom has seen his runner’s struggles and said what Claiborne did at Cicero-North Syracuse High School June 8 and 9 was the most incredible performance he has seen at states. The senior was also part of the 4×800 relay with senior Dan O’Connor, junior Sean Ryan and sophomore Thomas Fodor clocked in a photo-finish second place to St. Anthony’s (7:45.78), finishing in 7:45.79.

“He’s had a hard time gaining the respect he deserves because his brother has been a notch faster than him — he’s been second-best even in his own house,” the 12-year Northport coach said of Claiborne. “It was nice for him to have his day to shine, have all eyes on him, and realize the top runner in the state that he is. His athletic ability and talent in the sport is through the roof, and he’s nowhere near his ceiling yet.”

Claiborne said he and his brother were always compared to previous Northport twin track stars Jack and Tim McGowan. The sets of twins have a unique relationship, and their connection will grow when the four become teammates at Pennsylvania State University next year.

“They’re the ones that recruited me,” Claiborne said. “Isaiah and I have always been compared to them, and I’ve always tried to beat their times year after year. It’s created some friendly competition.”

He said he also chose Penn State because he immediately felt at home.

Elijah Claiborne stands atop the 800-meter run podium after his first-place finish. Photo from Northport athletics

“The way they treated us we already felt like members of the team,” he said. “They were all very nice, the facility is very nice. I just felt amazing when I visited, and I’ve always wanted to go to a big school like that. I couldn’t be happier.”

Strom said he always saw potential in Claiborne. The runner competed for soccer and wrestling teams as a freshman, and used his time on the track team to stay in shape. 

After seeing his brother quit wrestling to take on track year-round as a sophomore, he followed suit the next year.

“Coach took me in and built me up to be the best I can be,” Claiborne said. “I’ve made my greatest friends through track. Being a Northport Tiger, it’s been a great four years. I’m just grateful for my teammates, and I’m going to miss them next year.”

He admitted his permanent move to the track team was motivated by his brother’s fast rise to stardom.

“I saw how good he got, and I didn’t want my brother to get better than me, so I joined the team full-time,” Claiborne said. “My brother, how good he got, I wanted to be that great too.”

Now, he is.

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Sarah Connelly comes in third in 3,000-meter run among Division II teams

Kayleigh Robinson races toward the finish line. Photo from Kayleigh Robinson

Like a quote by R.S. Grey, Kayleigh Robinson believed she could, so she did.

The Mount Sinai junior sprinter’s go-getter attitude motivated her to a first-place finish in the 400-meter hurdles at the state track and field championships last weekend.

Kayleigh Robinson stands atop the 400-meter hurdle podium at the state meet. Photo from Kayleigh Robinson

“Most people get nervous going into a race, but when I go into a race, I think about it as my race,” the five-year varsity standout said. “As you think about what you want, what your goals are — I’ve been training so hard throughout the season for that race, and I was coming down the last 100, 50 meters and I saw the finish line was right there and I was confident. I knew I had to push myself as hard as I could. Visualizing what you want for yourself helps you reach that result.”

She was ranked No. 2 in the state, just half a second behind first, and finished the June 9 race in 1 minute, 3.03 seconds just in front of Bishop Loughlin’s Adia Palmer (1:03.32). She said she would have been happy with any result, laughing that clocking in first though was a nice bonus. Robinson was also on the 4×400 relay that placed eighth in Division II. Even running after individual races, the quartet finished well above its 9:27 time from the previous round with a 4:07.84.

“I wanted to be a state champion, I had my mind set, and I executed,” Robinson said. “But as long as I know I tried my best, I’m happy with whatever time I finish in, whether I win or lose.”

Sophomore Sarah Connelly approached the meet with a similar attitude. The four-year varsity runner placed third in the 3,000 in 9:52.24 and ninth in the 1,500 in 4:36.52.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Connelly said after crossing the finish line. “I was satisfied and amazed. We all push each other to make ourselves better and our success is all because we work together. This team is so supportive.”

Senior Noreen Guilfoyle is a big part of Connelly’s support system, even referring to her as “Mother Noreen.” Guilfoyle said she remembers running side by side with the then seventh-grader‚ recalling Connelly couldn’t take her eyes off her, not looking forward for even a second.

Sarah Connelly and Noreen Guilfoyle following a previous race. Photo from Noreen Guilfoyle

“I might take a little bit of credit for it,” Guilfoyle said of Connelly’s success, laughing. “I’m so proud of her. She’s done everything she’s told to do and I think she has a great career ahead of her.”

Connelly said her teammate, a nine-time state medalist, has helped her excel.

“I’m where I am today because of her,” Connelly said. “She’s unbelievable; I marvel at her. I look up to her. Whenever I had a negative attitude she tells me to shut up and put a smile on my face.”

The sophomore has now taken her own teammate under her wing, freshman Kaitlyn Chandrika, who won the 2,000 steeplechase at the division championships last month and state qualifiers just over a week ago. She finished ninth in the steeplechase and 22nd in the 800 at the state meet.

“I’ve tried to build her up,” Connelly said. “Hopefully I will be the next Noreen.”

Guilfoyle hadn’t had a personal best in quite some time, she said, and using her own encouragement, preaching pace and positivity, scored personal records in the same events Chandrika competed in, placing 15th in the steeplechase.

Noreen Guilfoyle and Sarah Connelly compete alongside one another during a previous race. Photo from Noreen Guilfoyle

“They’re the only team that if someone beats someone else, they turn around and say, ‘Thank you, you made me run faster,’” head coach Bill Dwyer said. “The younger kids wouldn’t be as good if they didn’t have good role models like they do in Noreen and the other seniors. But even I couldn’t have imagined them running that fast. People see all this talent, but it’s basically hard work that gets them there.”

Guilfoyle, Connelly, Chandrika and sophomore Isabella DiPalermo finished 10th in the 4×800. Senior Ebelyn Harriman finished 23rd overall among Division II schools in the pentathlon, and Miller Place senior Jillian Patterson finished eighth among all schools. She finished the 800 portion first in 2:21.29 and racked up 3,150 points overall. For the boys, Mount Sinai junior Kenneth Wei finished second in the 110 hurdles for Division II runners in 14.51 and sixth overall. His younger brother Justin, a sophomore, came in 14th in the pentathlon, crossing the finish line fourth in the high jump, seventh in the 110 hurdles and 10th in the 1,500.

Guilfoyle said her motto has been “one bad race doesn’t define an entire career,” adding going against the best-of-the-best in the state has only helped. She said being on the top team on Long Island during the winter and cross country track seasons and going undefeated for the second year in a row in the spring and winning the county championship has its added benefits.

“It helps you push yourself harder than you would before,” Guilfoyle said of competing on the big stage. “I’ve always aimed to be the best example I can be. For them to look up to me and instill the things I’ve taught them is really rewarding. I feel like I’ve made an impact on their lives, and they’ve made an impact on mine.”

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Patriots’ high-powered offense dominates West Genesee 15-2 for second straight state title

Ward Melville's boys lacrosse team toppled state rival West Genesee for the Patriots' second straight state title. Photo from Twitter

Ryan Pallonetti wasn’t missing the game this time, and he made his presence known.

The Ward Melville senior scored three goals in the Patriots’ 15-2 win over West Genesee for the school’s second straight state title June 9. He’d missed all last year and half his sophomore season with a knee injury.

“We’re unselfish, move the ball well and take smart shots, always looking for the extra pass to get the easy goal.”

— Matt Grillo

“Ryan’s an incredible player,” said classmate Zach Hobbes of Pallonetti, who scored the first two goals and assisted on the third to get the game going. “It was great seeing him play the way he did today since he didn’t get the opportunity to last year.”

A familiar yet different narrative developed in this season’s finale compared to last. Ward Melville had eked out a 10-9 win against Pittsford after scoring six straight, the final coming in overtime. Matt Grillo scored the final two goals of the game, which was on his birthday, and rose to the occasion once more this time around. The senior (four goals, one assist) went on another scoring run to propel his team this year, finding the net three straight times in the third to help extend Ward Melville’s halftime advantage from eight goals to 12.

The lopsided result in the final was out of the ordinary, although it followed the Patriots’ landslide victory in the state semifinal, an 18-2 win over Niskayuna.

West Genesee has won 15 state championships, the most in New York history, under head coach Mike Messere, the nation’s all-time leader in career victories with 846. Ward Melville, ranked No. 1 in the country by Inside Lacrosse, split six previous championship-game matchups with West Genesee, the last in 2013, a 16-4 victory under former legendary head coach Mike Hoppey. Current head coach Jay Negus won his first last year.

“Ryan’s an incredible player. It was great seeing him play the way he did.”

— Zach Hobbes

“I have to credit my defense for getting me ready for every game,” said Grillo, who ranks sixth in the county in scoring with 70 goals and 16 assists. “Even in practice, it’s the best defense I’ll have to face all year. They played amazing as usual to hold a very good team to just two goals. On the offensive end, jumping out to an early lead is something we’ve tried to consistently do all season. To see us execute like we did on our biggest stage is something really special.”

The Patriots defense made multiple stops to give Ward Melville plenty of opportunities in transition. Hobbes and junior Malachy McAvoy each racked up two goals and four others added goals.

“It took a lot of stress out of the game knowing that we maintained a lead all four quarters,” Hobbes said. “When you build a lead that early in a game it gives the team a lot of confidence, and we have a lot of experience in playoff games. It’s an unreal feeling winning back-to-back championships — it’s something every team works for every season, and we were able to do it twice — especially winning it with my best friends. We’ve worked for this moment.”

“I have to credit my defense for getting me ready for every game. Even in practice, it’s the best defense I’ll have to face all year.”

— Matt Grillo

Grillo credited Ward Melville’s unique bond as helping the boys claim the program’s 10th state title and third in the last six years. The Patriots became just the second school to reach the double-digit title mark. It was Ward Melville’s 15th trip to the finals.

“It really helps with our dynamic,” he said of his bond with his teammates. “We had everyone contributing. We’re unselfish, move the ball well and take smart shots, always looking for the extra pass to get the easy goal.”

Grillo said his younger self dreamed of playing for Ward Melville, recalling standing on the sidelines beaming, hoping he’d one day take the place of the athletes he was watching with eyes wide open.

“I always give it my all in every practice, every game,” Grillo said. “So many great players have come through this program and built it up to what it is now, and it’s an amazing feeling knowing we were able to continue the Ward Melville lacrosse legacy. This has been a ride I’ll never forget.”

The senior added after each success and milestone that he and Hobbes would look at each other and say: “our younger selves would be proud of what we accomplished.”

Senior duo of Allyson Gaedje, Sam Rrutt one-two in 800-meter run; 4x800 relay places third

Kiera Hughes flies over the hurdles. File photo by Bill Landon

By Desirée Keegan

Kiera Hughes couldn’t contain her excitement as she rushed off the track toward her family and friends. It was a moment she’d worked day and night for — ensuring she could race just one more time.

The Ward Melville senior crossed the 100-meter hurdle finish line in 14.76 seconds for first place at the Suffolk County track and field individual championship/state qualifier June 2 and 3 at Comsewogue High School.

Kiera Hughes shows off her new hardware alongside head coach J.P. Dion following her state-qualifying win. Photo from Kiera Hughes

“Really, I took it even slower than that,” Hughes said. “I just wanted to live another day past the preliminary round. I wanted to do as best I could to make sure that I’d qualify to race in the finals.”

She got that and so much more.

“Running — it was so much fun,” Hughes said. “I felt so fast going over the hurdles, I felt so powerful. I was so determined because I really, really wanted to win. And to cross that finish line and see my name at the top of the leaderboard I was ecstatic. I was beyond happy.”

Head coach J.P. Dion and her teammates were cheering her on as she flew down the track. They were on the sideline to congratulate her with hugs and praise following her finish.

“Kiera Hughes has amazed me all year long,” Dion said. “When the pressure is on her she seems to rise to the top — just an amazing competitor.”

Some of the hurdler’s teammates will be taking the trip with her to the state championship at Cicero-North Syracuse High School June 8 and 9.

Seniors Allyson Gaedje (2:14.82) and Sam Rutt (2:14.93) pulled off a one-two finish in the 800 run and were a part of the 4×800 relay team that finished third.

“We planned on trying to run the race together,” said Rutt, who also came in second (4:38.02) in the 1,500 just a few seconds behind Shoreham-Wading River phenom Katherine Lee. “We do most of our workouts together, so it was relaxing to be by each other’s side in such a big race like that.”

Gaedje didn’t have the state standard in the 800, or time needed during the regular season at a sanctioned qualifying meet, to compete at states, so she needed a higher placement. Because Rutt already did, having to finish in at least second, so she eased off.

Allyson Gaedje races down the track. File photo by Bill Landon

“When you’re running with your teammate, there’s a little extra motivation to push yourself,” Gaedje said. “We’re all more focused this year, and it’s shown making our times — we’ve seen we can and have run some strong times, so we’re confident. We’re running faster than ever.”

Senior Sam Sturgess and sophomore Elizabeth Radke rounded out the relay quartet that crossed the finish line in 9:35.88. The same girls have been competing together the last couple years, placing third in the state this past indoor season and at New Balance Outdoor Nationals last June.

Dion said he’s continuously tried to get his student-athletes to believe in the process, and more importantly, in themselves. Over the years, as Gaedje pointed out, it’s led to results.

“These kids competing this weekend have been the heartbeat of Ward Melville girls track over the past four years,” he said. “This has been a very special group for us.”

And a group of seniors that, although close to graduating, are still anxious to get back on the track.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be able to race as fast as I can, and I’m hoping for a new personal record and to stay up there with all of the other girls that are competing,” Hughes said. “I’m a pretty determined person — I always was to improve myself and push myself. I’m looking to be a role model for the younger girls and race another day.”

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