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Football

Shoreham-Wading River, Miller Place three-sport athletes excel at Blue Chip Prospects Long Island combine

“By no means is Long Island considered a hot bed for football players, but we have a ton of talent here,” horeham-Wading River defensive back and quarterback Xavier Arline said, hoping to show off his skills on the
gridiron at the Blue Chip Prospects Long Island football combine May 6.

The event at Sachem High School North, put on in conjunction with the Suffolk County Coaches Association to showcase top Long Island football talent, ran the 70 athletes that attended through six stations before breaking off into specific position drills. The football players participated in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, standing broad jump, 185-pound bench press, 5-10-5-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill.

Shoreham-Wading River quarterback Xavier Arline leaps over a defender. File photo by Bill Landon

Arline ran the second fastest 40-yard dash (4.55) and 5-10-5-yard time (4.41), behind Brandon Didier of North Babylon, who ran a 4.51 and had a 4.39.

“Knowing I have a good foundation to build off of is confidence boosting,” the sophomore said. “It just shows that with additional training and hard work I can compete with athletes across the country.”

Miller Place junior Tom Nealis, a 6-foot 4-inch wide receiver, ran a 4.91 40-yard dash and had a time of 4.67 in the 5-10-5.

“It was great to be out on the football field again and it was cool to see a lot of other top players and great
athletes there,” said Nealis, who also plays baseball and basketball. “I feel that playing baseball may have put me at a slight disadvantage. Baseball takes up a lot of time that could have been used to practice these drills and work on quickness.”

But he said that won’t hold him back from his dream of being a Long Island standout like Sachem North’s Dalton Crossan, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February, and William Floyd alum Stacey Bedell, who just received an invite to the rookie minicamp of the San Francisco 49ers.

“The way the game is played is like nothing else,” Nealis said. “No other sport can you physically feel
the effort and intensity of your opponent. Seeing these guys make it to elite programs opens my eyes to the possibilities.”

Miller Place’s Tom Nealis grabs a catch. File photo by Bill Landon

Arline said the success of more recent graduates who have gone on to play Division I football, like Sayville’s Jack Coan (University of Wisconsin) and his former teammate Ethan Wiederkehr (Northwestern University) helps ignite a fire in him. Despite verbally committing to the University of North Carolina to play lacrosse as an eighth-grader, the sophomore is keeping his options open.

“This was a great opportunity for me to see where I am at as a player and athlete,” he said. “I wanted to attend this event to gain experience, find my highs and lows and compete against myself. It created a baseline and foundation for me to build on as I begin the football recruiting process.”

Hans Wiederkehr, Ethan’s father who is the president of the football coaches association, and a two-time Long Island championship winner while he was the head coach at Babylon, said since football doesn’t have travel teams, an event like this helps get student-athletes exposure.

“I’ve always thought it was a great tool for all the kids,” he said of the combine, that’s in its 16th year. “The best part for me is every kid really wants to be there and every kid wants to do great. They all have hopes and dreams, and some leave with a reality check while others get to see how good they really are.”

Arline said he thinks he has what it takes to shine at the next level in his favorite sport.

“The most difficult part about the combine was not knowing what to expect — I had very little to no preparation going in,” he said. “With hard work, perseverance and a little luck I believe I can get there.”

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By Desirée Keegan

Joe Panico will be taking his football talents far from Miller Place.

The senior defensive tackle has been selected to participate in the American Football Worldwide ELITE High School program, which gives well-accomplished high school football players from throughout the United States an opportunity to travel around the world to compete against the best U19 football players from other countries. This month, Panico and the AFW team will visit Italy. Panico was the only student from New York state who was selected to participate in this opportunity.

Joe Panico. Photo from Miller Place School District

“This was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up — how many players will ever get the chance to play American football in another country?” said Panico. “I’m most looking forward to bonding with new
teammates from all over the country in such a short amount of time, playing for my country and getting to see what the skill level is of the Italian team.”

To qualify for the roster, players needed to have been a starter for their high school team on offense, defense or as a specialist and have a history clear of disciplinary measures. Prior to playing against the Italian team, AFW players will also participate in educational tours of Rome, Vatican City, Tuscany, Siena, Florence, Cinque Terre, Lake Como and Milan.

“We’re extremely proud of Joe and wish him the best,” said Miller Place head football coach Greg Murphy. “This opportunity will enable him to create lifelong connections and experience a different country and  culture in person.”

“Joe has been an incredible role model within the Miller Place school district, both as an accomplished
athlete and as an engaged community member, and we are honored to support him as he pursues this wonderful opportunity,” Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said. “We wish him success at the highest level.”

“I’m most looking forward to …  playing for my country and getting to see what the skill level is of the Italian team.”

— Joe Panico

AFW is committed to providing growth experiences that impact its participants, combining the positive  values developed through American football with the education and academic experiences international travel uniquely provides. The program’s goal is to help young people channel their passion for football, propel them toward a greater understanding of the world and explore new possibilities and dreams for their future.

Team USA head coach Jim Barnes selected players based on evaluations of highlight films.

“Assembling this team that will have the opportunity and responsibility to represent the USA and American football in Italy has been a rewarding experience in and of itself,” Barnes said. “It is inspiring getting to know some incredibly ambitious young men and their supportive families who commit to make big dreams become reality. This international education and athletic tour will be a tremendous growth experience that will expand the horizons for these aspiring student-athletes. This journey will be used as a springboard that propels our AFW ELITE players to more success in college, collegiate football and in life.”

By Rich Acritelli

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”

Former Port Jefferson Station teacher and coach Tom Hespos holds the words of Lombardi near and dear to him, even reciting them to his former business class students at Comsewogue High School. A three-sport athlete, Hespos had the honor of playing for Lombardi in 1964 before being cut from the Packers’ training team.

Tom Hespos playing for C.W. Post. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, the quarterback and linebacker gained local success for more than his skills on the gridiron. He played baseball and basketball and was coached in the Babe Ruth League by his father, who was also a noted semiprofessional pitcher for the Jersey Blue Sox. Hespos’ mother was known for playing competitive softball.

During his senior year at St. Joseph of the Palisades High School, he captained his football team and performed well, but didn’t see as much time behind two of northern New Jersey’s top quarterbacks. Hespos turned down the chance to toss his mean curveball for the Boston Red Sox and headed to what was then called C.W. Post on scholarship where he played football and majored in business administration.

As a freshman, Hespos blossomed to 6’2’’, 205 pounds and quickly found the Pioneers wanted to take advantage of his passing skills. He took over as starting quarterback his sophomore year and was known for his 80-yard passes downfield.

During a 1964 contest, C.W. Post upset Northeastern University, defeating them 31-10. It was in that game Hespos, then a senior, made history, becoming the first quarterback in school history to reach 400 passing yards in a single game. He completed 22 of 30 passes and threw four touchdowns in the win. By the end of his collegiate career, he also amassed more than 2,000 passing yards, also a first. That year he was selected to the All-Eastern College Athletic Conference Small College Team and the Little All-America Team. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1963 and 1964 and was captain in 1964. Hespos was the first quarterback to lead C.W. Post to a victory over arch-rival Hofstra University in 1963.

Hespos was said to inspire his team to achieve the Hofstra win, but he credited his teammates.

“They made few mistakes, accepted a team-first mentality,” he said. “I appreciated the big linemen that the coaches placed on the offensive line to adequately protect me.”

For years, Hespos held all of the quarterback records for the Pioneers, that is, until Glen Cove-native Gary
Wichard entered the picture. Wichard was a two-time All-American, professional quarterback for the Baltimore Colts and  was a famous sports agent, who was said to be the inspiration for the main character in the movie Jerry Maguire. 

“They call it coaching, but it is teaching. You do not just tell them … you show them the reasons.”

— Vince Lombardi

Following his senior season, Hespos received letters from professional American and Canadian football organizations inquiring about signing him to a free agent deal. He ended up choosing the Packers, and signed with a modest bonus before being invited to training camp.

Lombardi, a Brooklyn native and former member of the Fordham University football team coached football and basketball at St. Cecilia High School, where he also taught Latin and physics, not far from Hespos’ roots in North Bergen. The coach attended every meeting between the offensive coaches and the quarterbacks, and Hespos recalled the stature of this respected teacher, noting he was “demanding,” and that he expected all his players to “produce.”  

“He had an agile memory that knew everything about every player that was on the field,” Hespos said.

The Port Jefferson Station teacher threw passes next to future Hall of Famer Bart Starr. One of seven quarterbacks invited to train, he was ultimately cut behind Starr’s backup Zeke Bratkowski.

After he left Green Bay, Hespos played for a minor league football organization within the Atlantic Coast League. He was signed by the Jersey City Jets, which had former players that also had professional experience in United States and Canada.

Like at C.W. Post, Hespos was a key member of his squad and helped it win a league championship.  After injuring his shoulder for a second time, Hespos was forced to put his football career behind him. By 1969, he began working at John F. Kennedy High School on Jane Boulevard in Port Jefferson Station. Well before this school received the name Comsewogue Warriors, Hespos coached the Spartans in football, baseball and basketball. In the early 1970s, he was hired to coach football in Sea Cliff for North Shore High School. While this was a long distance from his regular job, this position allowed Hespos the opportunity to coach with his teammates from C.W. Post, who he’d also formed with in a doo-wop group called Spider and the Webs. The group performed in the same venues that also featured The Times and The Duprees. In 1965, they sang at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller recognized the spirit of the group with a certificate.

During Hespos’ three years with North Shore, he helped lead the team to three league titles and a county championship.

Tom Hespos wearing his old Spiders & Webs T-shirt. Photo from Rich Acritelli

In 1975, Hespos began coaching Comsewogue’s varsity baseball team, which instantly became one of the most competitive teams in the county. By 1982, his program reached the pinnacle of excellence with a 27-4 record and winning the state title. Over seven years, Hespos’ teams, which won five league titles, a county title ad Long Island crown before the state nod, regularly won more than 80 percent of its games.

Following the state win, Hespos left coaching to begin Greenway Lawn Sprinklers, which serviced homes from Port Jefferson Station to Montauk and Orient Point.

Hespos’ athletic prowess was further awarded when he was inducted into six halls of fame, including the Hudson County, New Jersey and C.W. Post athletic halls of fame. His 1982 baseball team is also recognized on the Comsewogue Wall of Honor.

“They call it coaching, but it is teaching,” Hespos said recalling the words of Lombardi. “You do not just tell them … you show them the reasons.”

He said even before meeting his acclaimed Packers coach he was moved to become a teacher from some of his former ones.

“I will always remember the coaches and the mentors I had back then,” he said. “The coaches I had at St. Joseph challenged me, motivated me and inspired me.”

Hespos moved to Wading River before heading down to Port St. Lucie, Florida, where he still lives. He is a father of two and grandfather of six, and enjoys fishing, playing golf and watching the New York Mets at their minor league baseball complex.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Hans Wiederkehr, a former NFL player, decided to leave his playing career behind to coach high school football at Babylon for 15 years. Photo from Hans Wiederkehr

T.J. Lynch grew up without a father. With no direction or motivation, all he knew was that he enjoyed playing football. Hans Wiederkehr, the head coach at Babylon High School at the time, struck up a relationship with Lynch like he had with many players before him. He would pick up the athlete early in the morning to make sure he was going to school, take him to the weight room and speak to him about the potential he saw.

“He was the biggest positive influence in my life,” the 1998 graduate said of Wiederkehr. “He was a very caring man, and he guided me. He showed me how to train, breathed words of encouragement and wisdom about life into me and lifted me up. He made you want to be better on the field and in the classroom. He got you excited about life.”

Hans Wiederkehr coaches from the sideline. Photo from Hans Wiederkehr

Relationships like the one Wiederkehr had with Lynch are what the soon-to-be Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame inductee had hoped for when he decided to trade in an NFL career for a high school coaching gig back in 1988. Making a positive impact on someone’s life drew him from the gridiron to the sideline, and as a result he’ll hold a special place in Suffolk’s athletic history.

The Shoreham resident was born in Connecticut and played for East Lyme, graduating in 1981. He competed in the state championship his senior year, and after receiving multiple offers to play at the next level, decided to commit to Syracuse University on a scholarship. The 6-foot, 4-inch 322-pound offensive lineman played under defensive coordinator George O’Leary, a Central Islip native who went on to coach at his alma mater, and eventually with the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings. While leading Central Islip, O’Leary mentioned to Wiederkehr, who had a physical education degree, that if things didn’t work out with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was on the injured reserve list following college, that a teaching job and eventually head coaching position would be available at Babylon. While rehabbing, he spent a year as an assistant at Babylon under 20-year head coach Tom DiNuovo, which is where he caught the coaching bug. He returned the following year and took over the helm when DiNuovo retired.

“Probably the most enjoyable part of coaching is teaching a kid something that he really doesn’t think he can do, and then looking into his eyes after he completes something and say, ‘I told you so,’ that’s the biggest kick I get out of coaching,” Wiederkehr said. “You work with kids who are there because they really love the game, and I fell in love with coaching. I decided this is what I want to do.”

The head coach, who went on to enjoy a 15-year career, said he wanted to pay it forward, giving to others what coaches had given to him. When he was a sophomore in high school, his parents moved to Schenectady, but he wanted to stay in Connecticut because he saw potential in his team. Head coach Tom Smyth opened up his home to Wiederkehr and let him live with him until he graduated.

“He was the biggest positive influence in my life. … He got you excited about life.”

— T.J. Lynch

“He was a lead figure in my life next to my dad,” Wiederkehr said of Smyth. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for him. He got my name out there and opened up the doors for me. It’s unbelievable the pedigree of coaches that I’ve had, and all those guys have one thing in common — they preached outworking your opponent.”

While at Babylon, Wiederkehr amassed a 99-41-2 record, good for a 0.70 winning percentage. The Panthers reached the playoffs 12 times and won nine league titles under his guidance, going on to play in nine Suffolk County finals, winning five, followed by two Long Island championships. He coached alongside Rick Punzone, his defensive coordinator, and the pair of 25-year-olds led the team until Wiederkehr retired in 2002, leaving the team in the hands of
Punzone, who has now been the head coach at Babylon for 15 years.

“With his experience we had very successful teams,” said Punzone, the godfather of one of Wiederkehr’s daughters, who considers the coach a best friend of his for the last 28 years. “He’s a brother to me. He was professional, and always gave me free reign over the defense. We weren’t always the most talented but he got the most out of the kids, which is why we were always known as one of the tougher schools around. It’s because of his leadership, work ethic and organization.”

Wiederkehr left coaching to focus on his daughters, and eventually went on to coach his son in youth programs at Shoreham-Wading River.

“He stopped to watch my sisters develop,” his son Ethan Wiederkehr said. “It just shows you what type of person he is. He’s a family first type of guy. He’s not selfish, he cares about others and he’s a humble person. It’s been amazing to call him my father.”

One win shy of the coveted 100, Hans Wiederkehr left the helm of Babylon to work with youth in Shoreham-Wading River school district, including his son Ethan, above at a county awards dinner with wife Karen. Photo from Hans Wiederkehr

Punzone also noted Hans Wiederkehr’s work with and attention to detail regarding his position as president of the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association.

“He’s taken our association to the next level,” he said. “I’m a coach in the association and we’ve never had as good a leadership as we’ve had under his reign.”

Joe Cipp Jr., the head coach at Bellport for the 31 years, who has collected his own 202-84-3 record and been a coaching friend of Wiederkehr’s over his entire career, said he took on being president the same way he tackled anything else in his life, giving it 100 percent.

“He puts a million hours in, just like he does with coaching, without getting paid,” Cipp said. “I could say he puts in 150 percent of the effort, but there’s no such thing. He makes the football awards dinner something special to the kids in Suffolk County. He does a tremendous job, and it speaks to the type of person he’s been his whole life. And as a coach, he was able to demand tremendous [effort] of his kids and still be well-liked. It’s the best combination you could be.”

Wiederkehr is one of 11 honorees selected for the hall of fame out of 32 nominees. According to Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs, who was a head coach at Babylon’s rival Harborfields for 13 years, his former opponent is the first to get into the hall of fame his first time being nominated.

“It says a lot about what a good man he is,” Combs said. “It’s very competitive, especially their first time on the ballot, and Hans is just a great coach and mentor to a lot of people. His teams were always very well
prepared and it usually came down to our two teams for the head of our division. There were some fierce battles. He’s a hard-nosed guy but the kids loved that discipline and direction that he provided. You could see he motivated the kids, and they loved him.”

Hans Widerkehr with former players. Photo from Hans Wiederkehr

He added that giving up reaching the monumental 100 wins once again shows how he’s always willing to put others before himself. He eventually became an assistant coach to the Shoreham-Wading River varsity team under head coach Matt Millheiser. His son Ethan was part of two undefeated seasons and three straight Long Island championships. The 6-foot, 5-inch 273-pound offensive lineman accepted a scholarship to play at Northwestern University after winning the Bob Zellner Award, presented to Suffolk’s top lineman. He has aspirations of going pro.

“I fell in love with the team aspect of it, the relationships you build with your teammates and extend your family,” Ethan Wiederkehr said. “It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing since he taught be so much, but through hard work and dedication you can accomplish almost anything. I’ve learned to push through difficult obstacles to gain success. There was ups and downs having him in the sideline, but looking back now it’s been a blessing to have him by my side. He’s developed me as a person and an athlete through our experiences together on the field.”

Ken Gray, whose multisport standout son Chris played under Wiederkehr, remembered the first time he met the coach.

“Parents want their kids to win, and he was about teaching them about not always wining at an early age and expanding the program,” said Gray, whose son started playing football at 5 years old. “Shoreham-Wading
River wasn’t a big football community, and I’d say over 10 years he did a pretty good job of developing a pretty good program. I think that’s a result of Hans’ commitment to the community and the kids.”

Babylon athletic director Michael DeJoseph, was one of several who along with Cipp, wrote letters of recommendation for Wiederkehr to be inducted. DeJoseph said he was not at all surprised when he heard the news but, like many, said he wasn’t aware he’d been selected, because the coach remains humble.

“Probably the most enjoyable part of coaching is teaching a kid something that he really doesn’t think he can do, and then looking into his eyes after he completes something and say, ‘I told you so.'”

— Hans Wiederkehr

“It’s beyond well deserved,” said DeJoseph, who was hired by Wiederkehr as a teacher and coach of the junior varsity team, and eventually worked his way up the ladder. “He really cared about the kids, and he showed me and the players blueprints for success. As impressive he is as a coach he’s probably more impressive as a father, husband and family man. He’s a community guy who cares for others.”

Former athlete Drew Peters, a 2002 graduate, also said he knows about his former coach’s devotion firsthand. He played on the varsity team all four years of high school and said he and all of Wiederkehr’s players felt like he cared about him.

“He treated you like you were one of his kids,” he said. “When you’re on a team of 30-plus kids, every one of you felt very special to him, and I think that’s what made you play even harder. He had that father-like figure to everyone on the team and we always wanted to do our best for him.”

Peters spoke of his coaches sacrifices, saying Wiederkehr would drive from Shoreham, even during the winter months, to pick up his athletes at 6 a.m. and take them to the weight room before school started. He said he’ll never forgot how the man with three children would sacrifice his own time to come to each one of his teammates houses to pick them up. He became so close with so many of the players, he even attended
several of their weddings, including Peters’.

“He teaches you a lot more than just the sport, he prepared us young men to go through the struggles that you’ll face in life,” he said. “My senior year we lost in the Long Island championship and it was a tough game for us, but there was a controversial penalty that I was involved in and he took me under his wing after the game and said, ‘Hey, if this is the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you in life, losing a football game in high school, then you’re going to have a pretty good life.’ And I just remember that being something that obviously at the time was very upsetting but it’s true, it was a game that was very important to everybody, but he definitely had a way of putting things into perspective.”

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First Royal Division IV MVP break school records this season

The Port Jefferson Royals’ outgoing quarterback is officially royalty.

Jack Collins is the first Port Jefferson football player to be named MVP of Division IV. But if he had his way when he was young, the Royals senior wouldn’t even be a quarterback.

“I was a wide receiver,” he said, explaining how he played the position for almost two years before being told the middle school team was in need of a field general. “We had a little contest, and I ended up getting the job.”

Port Jefferson quarterback Jack Collins broke three school records this year and became the first Royals football player to be named the most valuable player in Division IV, an honor bestowed by the results of a vote by the division coaches. File photo by Bill Landon

Collins didn’t want to be a quarterback because being the center of attention seemed like too much for him. He said he was quiet and reserved by nature, qualities not normally associated with successful quarterbacks. But as the years passed he grew to love it, and others respected the way he played the position, too.

In his senior season, Collins broke school records for touchdowns (18), completions (143) and yards in a season (2,261). Being the first Division IV MVP from the Royals squad, which is voted on by division coaches, also qualifies him for the Hansen Award, which goes to the most outstanding high school football player in Suffolk County, and the Boomer Award, which is awarded to the top quarterback in the county. The winners will be announced at a Section XI dinner Dec. 4 at the Hyatt Regency Long Island in Hauppauge.

“We knew Jack had all the capabilities to handle the physical part of the position,” Port Jefferson head coach Andrew Cosci said. “What stood out even more was his maturity mentally. We knew he could handle anything we threw at him, and his work ethic early on was just one of those un-coachable things.”

Collins was called up to the varsity team his sophomore year and played in a handful of games toward the end of the season before being named the starter as a junior. He said the honor was unexpected, but felt encouraged after being recognized.

“I worked hard in the offseason — put my heart and soul into it — and getting called up made me feel more comfortable and prepared to be the leader of a team,” he said. “I think my coach made the right decision. It was a good learning experience.”

Cosci said the coaches immediately began tailoring routines and strategies so that the offense revolved around Collins. The quarterback had worked with an outside coach to enhance his accuracy, power and consistency, but also learned about leadership. The changes were noticed immediately.

As a result of the MVP nod, Jack Collins is automatically in the running for the Hansen Award and the Boomer Award, which will be given out at the Section XI football dinner Dec. 4. File photo by Bill Landon

“Jack is like no other quarterback I’ve played with,” senior wide receiver Marquis Feldman said. “He knows everything that’s happening on the field before it happens. It’s honestly like playing with a college quarterback.”

The senior’s head coach went one step further in his praise of Collins.

“He watches tons of film, tries to understand things better and fully, he never rests on his laurels — he thinks about what he has to do to get better and he continues to get better because of that,” Cosci said. “As a true leader and a true great player does, he made everyone around him better.”

Marquis said he saw his teammate develop on the field firsthand.

“Everyone on my team gave 110 percent every snap of every game — we were relentless,” he said, adding that he only just moved to the district in August. “To see Jack get recognized for his efforts is phenomenal, because we all knew he was an MVP. I couldn’t be more proud to call him my quarterback and already a very close friend on and off the field.”

To Collins, success is not about him, but more a reflection on his coaches and teammates, he said.

“At first, I didn’t see the good in it as much as I was afraid of the bad,” he said of taking on the quarterback role. “My teammates made me see it’s not that bad. It’s awesome to see the other coaches respected what we were doing, but honestly, we’re all putting in the work together and our coaches are putting game plans out that work. I’m the one that gets a lot of the credit for it, but it was definitely a team effort.”

Collins’ successes have also served to shine a light on the program.

Jack Collins broke school records for touchdowns (18), completions (143) and yards in a season (2,261). File photo by Bill Landon

“You can always look at the bigger schools and shake your finger and say ‘We’re too small, we’re never going to win anything,’” Collins said. “But we’re proving everyone wrong. We played with the big boys and it was a really good time. I just really hope this helps the program grow.”

While the extra attention could add pressure for any high school student, Port Jefferson athletic director Danielle Turner said nothing ever seemed to phase Collins.

“I’ve watched Jack from afar for two years now — on the field, in the hallways — and for as great of a football player he is, he’s an even better person,” Turner said. “He doesn’t say much, but his work ethic and the way he carries himself speaks volumes as to the type of person Jack is.”

Another important aspect of being a varsity football player is having young kids on the sidelines at games, according to Collins. They reminded him of himself when he first watched the Royals, wishing to one day emulate what he saw.

“I wanted to be like them in every single way,” he said. “I hope when the kids look at me they think that and that I set a good example.”

It’s a mentality he has already instilled in all facets of the program, according to Cosci.

“Jack has been the cornerstone for us in taking the next step,” he said. “He’s definitely more of a lead by example, but when Jack opens his mouth everyone listens. He never really talks about himself, he’s grounded, and it’s refreshing. The first thing out of other coaches’ mouths was ‘What a quarterback you have.’”

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By Bill Landon

Miller Place’s football team may have fallen just short of a Long Island championship title, but the Panthers have a lot to be proud of.

Despite losing the heart and soul of its running game at the start of the season, the team propelled itself in a positive trajectory for senior Tyler Ammirato. The Panthers finished second in the Division IV standings at 7-1 behind undefeated Babylon.

Miller Place’s football program shook off the semifinal round jinx by shutting out Shoreham-Wading River to advance to the Suffolk County championship game. It was the second time the Panthers beat Shoreham this season in pursuit of the program’s first county title, which was won with a 33-25 besting of Babylon Nov. 16.

“This team had its backs against the wall from the beginning … but we just kept plugging along,” Miller Place head coach Greg Murphy said. “To get to this point, it’s a true measure of their character.”

Taking care of the running duties all season long was senior quarterback Anthony Seymour, who struck first for the Panthers in a 29-27 loss to Seaford in the Long Island finals Nov. 24 on a keeper up the middle for a 4-yard touchdown with a chance to tie the game. With the point-after kick attempt hitting off the left goalpost, the team was down by one to start scoring for the first, 7-6.

Defense had been the Panthers’ strength this year, and the group came up big with an interception in the end zone by Sebastian Cannon, but Seaford returned the favor on Miller Place’s first play from scrimmage.

Ammirato, who returned to the team midseason, scored the next points by punching into the end zone in the second quarter, and caught a pass for a 2-point conversion to end scoring for the third, which closed the gap to leave the Panthers trailing by two, 22-20 after a Seymour-to-Tom Nealis touchdown pass.

Senior wide receiver Anthony Filippetti pulled down a 22-yard strike from Seymour and went the distance in response to another Seaford touchdown, and kicker Cameron Hammer split the uprights as Miller Place remained trailing by two with 8:50 left to play. The Panthers came up with another stop, but an interception with 1:46 left in regulation sealed their fate.

“These kids have gotten a taste of what it’s like to be a part of something you preach about since August — that goal was to get to the Long Island championship,” Murphy said. “They got here, they experienced all of it and hopefully that’s the motivation for the title going forward — to know that they can do it.”

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The defensive end's big stop, catches lead Panthers

By Bill Landon

Miller Place’s Panthers made a stand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Handful of cross country runners compete at state meet

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

By Jim Ferchland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Devin Demetres rushes with the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tyler Ammirato rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries in Miller Place's first Suffolk County semifinal win in seven seasons. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

It was an accomplishment seven years in the making.

Miller Place’s football team had its postseason cut short in a semifinal appearance each of the last six seasons, but Friday night was different.

Anthony Seymour completed two of six passes for 49 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 72 yards on seven carries during Miller Place’s win. Photo by Bill Landon

Despite frigid temperatures and howling winds, two Miller Place interceptions and two Tyler Ammirato touchdowns drove the scoring in a 28-0 shutout of No. 3 Shoreham-Wading River in the Division IV semifinals Nov. 11.

Ammirato, a senior running back, showed how anxious he was to get back on the field after missing several games to injury. Rushing for 130 yards on 18 carries, he scored both first-half touchdowns, the second set up by an Alex Herbst interception at the Wildcats 40-yard line. He broke free for touchdown carries of 55 and 30 yards, and with kicker Cameron Hammer scoring on the extra-point kicks following each of the runs, the Panthers were up 14-0 just five minutes into the contest.

“It’s the best feeling for us as a program — we’ve been to the semifinals six years in a row and to break through is a dream come true for everyone out here,” Ammirato said of the win. “On Sunday we’ll watch film to prepare for Babylon. We lost to them the first time so we’ll watch that film to see what we did wrong, we’ll watch a couple of other games of them and we’ll just keep rolling.”

No. 2-seeded Miller Place will face No. 1 Babylon in the county final at Stony Brook University Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment for this program — nobody realizes that this has been our swan song and to finally break through is a tribute to the kids because they believe in themselves,” said Miller Place head coach Greg Murphy said. “We’re finally healthy with Tyler [Ammirato] coming back — that’s a big piece of the puzzle for a kid who last year scored 30 touchdowns.”

Miller Place head football coach Greg Murphy smiles as he embraces coaches following the Panthers’ semifinal victory. Photo by Bill Landon

But Murphy’s “tough group of kids” had other athletes rising to the occasion.

After a scoreless third, junior linebacker Rob Morales also came up with an interception after stepping in front of a screen pass. He covered 35 yards before scampering into the end zone. He also had 13 tackles.

“When the plays come you’ve just gotta make them,” Morales said. “I saw the ball, I caught it and I ran. This is big this school has never won a Long Island championship and this is a big stepping stone towards that goal.”

Shoreham-Wading River, three-time Long Island champion, had its season cut short when Miller Place quarterback Anthony Seymour threw deep to the right side of the end zone to Tom Nealis who never broke stride for a 25-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach.

“They left me one-on-one with the cornerback and I knew they were going to come to me with a fade, and I was open, just beat ‘em,” Nealis said. “I’ve been coming to these games since I was 5 years old and to know that broke this streak, and to do it beating Shoreham-Wading River for a second time this season, it feels great.”

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