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Port Jeff Royals set the bar high this wrestling season

Vin Miceli controls his opponent during the Huntington Holiday Tournament Dec. 2. Photo by Bill Landon
Matt Murphy breaks free from his challenger during the Huntington Holiday Tournament Dec. 2. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

For Port Jefferson senior Vin Miceli, grabbing gold was a nice way to kick off the individual season. The 132-pounder placed first at the 47th annual Huntington Holiday Tournament Dec. 2, and was also voted Most Outstanding Wrestler by all of the coaches in attendance.

Miceli, who has committed to wrestle for Division I Bloomsburg University next year, said there’s no secret to competing at the level he does. He said the sacrifices he makes pay off on the mat.

“It takes a lot of hard work — there’s no stopping and there’s no offseason for me — I’m always in the wrestling room,” said Miceli, who will start the season competing in the 126-pound weight class, hoping to transition to 120 by midseason. “I have my brother and good friends to train with, so it’s nonstop. I have about 90 matches in the offseason.”

Despite its size, Port Jefferson has a rich tradition of cultivating wrestling talent year in and year out, and according to first-year assistant coach Jesse Meaney, the sport is unique in several ways.

“Wrestling isn’t like other sports where you need 100 kids coming out to have a successful team — the work that they put in is the success they will come away with,” Meaney said. “And repetition is the key. You have to drill things 1,000 times in order for it to become muscle memory, so at the end of the week, the kids have drilled things to where they’re technically perfect.”

Port Jefferson faced off against the best of Huntington, Kings Park, Farmingdale, Patchogue-Medford, Comsewogue and Grand Street Campus (Brooklyn).

Brendan Rogers attempts to turn his opponent onto his back during the Huntington Holiday Tournament Dec. 2. Photo by Bill Landon

Junior Rick D’Elia placed second at 113 pounds, as did senior Joe Evangelista at 152 pounds.

Meaney reiterated that being a large school with a larger talent pool isn’t the same type of advantage it is in other sports.

“Wrestling isn’t a sport that discriminates, if you have kids that are willing to put in the work and that are willing to listen to the coaches, you can have a successful program,” he said.

Junior Brendan Rogers placed third at 120 pounds, as did classmate Ryan Robertson and sophomore Jack Neiderberger at 138 and 195 pounds. Placing fourth were seniors Joe Longo and Chris Lepore and junior Harry Cona in 152, 182 and 220 pounds, respectively.

When asked what his goals were for his senior season, Miceli didn’t hesitate.

“I’m a senior on a mission — my goal is to win states,” Miceli said. “That’s been my goal since I’ve joined the team.”

The Royals compete in two more invitationals — Harborfields’ Steven J. Mally Memorial and their own Bob Armstrong Cup — before opening the league season on the road against Mattituck Dec. 21.

Kings Park shot putter grabs gold medal at indoor state track and field meet

Kings Park shot putter Danny Byrne stands atop the podium after placing first at the indoor state track and field championship. Photo from Danny Byrne

By Desireé Keegan

A local shot putter went to Albany in search of redemption, and he returned home with the ultimate hardware.

Kings Park shot putter Danny Byrne’s toughest opponent, Jack Zimmerman of Briarcliff, hadn’t thrown as well as expected, which lifted a weight off his shoulders and allowed him to just relax, and let it fly. Byrne’s 58-feet, 10.25-inch toss, a new personal best, won him gold at the state indoor track and field championships at Ocean Breeze Athletic Conference in Staten Island March 4.

Kings Park’s Danny Byrne hurls the shot put. Photo from Danny Byrne

“It was a surreal feeling — I dreamed about being a state champion,” Byrne said. “Right after the competition reality set in, and I started to cry. It was an emotional experience.”

The Long Island and Suffolk County indoor champ had won both meets during the spring of last year but didn’t perform the way he’d hoped when he made the trip upstate.

“It wasn’t what I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t prepare correctly for that meet last year, and now, I feel I definitely had revenge on the state championship. That spring performance definitely motivated me to work really hard to achieve what I achieved this season.”

Second-year head coach John Luis Damaskos said Byrne has been progressing since he took over the indoor team. He first had the chance to see his athlete compete when he attended a Kings Park football game, and said when he met Byrne on the track, he could already tell the type of competitor he was dealing with.

“He had a good mentality for training hard, and he was focused,” Damaskos said. “To see him train as competitively as he does but still be such a good, nice guy, it’s something a coach really looks for in an athlete.”

Assistant coach Rob Gelling said Byrne’s focus is what took him to the next level.

“I saw an intensity in his eyes for accepting nothing but first place,” he said. “I could see it when he was weight training, I could see it when he was doing drills, and I could see it in his desire to throw every day in practice.”

Byrne also took full advantage of a premiere throwing coach in Shoreham-Wading River’s Bill Heine and credits the football program for helping him add a few feet to his throw.

“It was without question one of the most emotional moments in my whole athletic career — from player to coach. Danny was overwhelmed. There were tears, there were hugs, and there were high-fives and fist pounds…”

—Rob Gelling

“I definitely did a very good weight-training program this year, and I credit the Kings Park football program for teaching me everything I know about lifting,” he said. “As for my technique in the circle, Bill Heine is the reason why I am where I am. His knowledge of track and field, and shot put specifically — I owe him a lot. It all came together and to reach my personal best, it made me feel really good to see all my hard work over the last four years pay off.”

His coaches were also moved by his state championship-winning moment. Damaskos said it was a long time coming.

“It was heartwarming,” he said. “He’s always trying to do more, and it was something he was really proud of — we were all really proud of. Being an elite thrower, he helps out the younger throwers on the team, and he has a great rapport with other throwers on the Island, so to see him be cheered on the way he was and reach this level of achievement, it was something special.”

Gelling echoed the head coach’s sentiment, adding that because he’s retiring, he feels lucky to have had coached a state champion in his final year with the team.

“It was without question one of the most emotional moments in my whole athletic career — from player to coach,” he said. “Danny was overwhelmed. There were tears, there were hugs, and there were high-fives and fist pounds from all the coaches who know him well from Section XI. His parents were ecstatic. He’s a pleasure to work with and I learned a lot from him.”

As Byrne looks ahead, the five-time All-Division, four-time All-County and three-time All-State selection has his sights set on the spring season.

“I’m looking forward to working hard, continuing to improve what I do and I think the sky’s the limit,” he said. “Whatever you put in, you get out, and I’m looking to defend this state title in the spring.”

The 4x400-relay team of Mark Rafuse, Lawrence Leake, Kyree Johnson and Anthony Joseph (on far right) took gold at the Suffolk County state qualifier meet (Jonathan Smith and Brian Pierre have also competed on the relay team). Photo from Huntington school district

When Huntington head coach Ron Wilson and his winter boys’ track and field team stepped into the Suffolk County state qualifier meet at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, they had one thing on their mind: redemption.

Kyree Johnson crosses the finish line in the 4×400-meter relay. Photo from Huntington school district

And that’s exactly what they felt when they went home.

In the last couple weeks, the Blue Devils had experienced their fair share of shortcomings, notably during its Armory Track Invitational Feb. 3, when senior Shane McGuire, a leg of the team’s 4×400-meter relay, tore his hamstring. The next day, at the large school county championship, the Blue Devils’ top sprinter Kyree Johnson felt a tweak in his own hamstring before competing in the long jump and, at the request of Wilson, sat out of competing altogether.

The team ended up losing the county championship 52-51. Had Johnson jumped that day, they would’ve won, the coach said, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

It was that tight loss that hurt them most, dropping from first to fourth in local published polls — only fueling the fire that would light up the track in Brentwood Feb. 13.

“Before we started, I said to the boys, ‘alright fellas, everyone thinks we’re not as good as we used to be, but we need to go out here and prove them wrong,’” Wilson said. “At the meet, we let everything take care of itself and when we finally started running, I was like ‘redemption at last.’”

That redemption came in the form of collaborative speed and agility.

Smithtown West’s Michael Grabowski with his first-place plaque. Photo by Kevin Redding

Johnson, whose week of resting paid off, placed first in both the 55-meter dash, with a personal best time of 6.41 seconds, and 300 dash, with a meet-record time of 34.8, qualifying him to compete in the state championships March 4 at Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island.

“After I won the 55-meter dash and saw my time of 6.41, that made me realize that I’m not hurt anymore,” Johnson said. “I just relaxed and stayed calm, and looked at it like every other meet … because if I didn’t, I’d start making myself nervous, so I just kept thinking ‘it’s just another regular meet.’”

Running the anchor leg, he also helped the Blue Devils take home gold in the 4×400 relay in a time of 3 minutes, 32.15 seconds, along with teammates Lawrence Leake, a senior, Mark Rafuse, an eighth-grader, and Anthony Joseph, a senior. The Huntington teammates will be joining Johnson at the state championship March 4.

Leake, who, according to Wilson, is one of the toughest and hardest working young men he’s ever coached, also placed first in a competition of his own. He took gold in the 600 run and broke the meet record with a time of 1:21.70. The record was previously held by Brentwood’s Greg Santiago, who finished in 1:21.99 in 2000.

Smithtown East’s Daniel Claxton leaps over the bar during a previous competiton. File photo from Daniel Claxton

“During the race, I figured everyone else was going to get out pretty hard the first two laps to make sure I wasn’t going to catch them, so I just stayed close and in striking distance until the last lap and put the pedal to the metal and let it go,” Leake said. “It feels pretty good to have a record beat all by myself.”

Smithtown West senior and state qualifier Michael Grabowski had a similar strategy on his dash to first place in the 3,200 run, which he finished in 9:29.19. Competing against  Jack Ryan of Westhampton Beach and Jonathan Lauer of Sachem North, Grabowski knew he had to play it smart by feeling the race out for the first five laps, and push it for the final sixth.

“I was comfortable with my pace and stuck with Lauer, until Ryan made a move and went past him with about 300 meters to go, and opened the race up,” he said. “As soon as Ryan went past Lauer, I followed Ryan and waited until the last lap and kicked. Once I started my kick, there was no going back and he didn’t really have a chance.”

Marius Sidlauskas of Smithtown East placed third in boys’ 1,600 with a time of 4:29.40; Daniel Claxton of Smithtown East placed first in boys’ high jump with a jump of 6 feet, 10 inches; Elijah Claiborne, Isaiah Claiborne, Tyler Dollhausen and Dan O’Connor of Northport placed first in boys’ 4×800 relay in 8:09.76; and Ryann Gaffney of Huntington placed fourth in girls’ 55 hurdles with a time of 8.75.

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