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Lax

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Miller Place senior attack Jake Buonaiuto dives and whips the ball toward the net in the Suffolk County Class B finals against Rocky Point last season. File photo by Bill Landon

Coming off a 2012-13 season where the team made it to the Class B Long Island championship, and a 2013-14 season where the Panthers made it to the Suffolk County Class B finals, the Miller Place boys’ lacrosse team is looking to continue its string of successes.

“Last season was a good experience for us,” Miller Place head coach Keith Lizzi said. “We had a lot of eyes on us and had to deal with some different pressures that we never really had to deal with before, and going back to a championship game like we did showed the endurance of these kids.”

The boys went 11-3 in Division II and 13-6 overall, and despite graduating 14 seniors last year, Lizzi said this season he has one of his biggest rosters.

“We’re carrying 35 guys and we bring back a lot,” the coach said, despite losing two Division I defenseman who are both starting on their current college teams as freshmen. “I think our strength right now would probably have to be in our depth. We’re deeper than we’ve ever been.”

The Panthers’ head coach said that although his teams have gone on to do big things through out the last couple of years, there’s only been a few main players that highlight Miller Place’s team. This year, however, he said he can run six midfielders and feel confident in the team’s ability to get the job done. In addition, he can mix and match people in different positions.

Miller Place senior defenseman Jacob Bloom races behind a Comsewogue opponent in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon
Miller Place senior defenseman Jacob Bloom races behind a Comsewogue opponent in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon

On offense, he will be looking to senior four-year varsity starter Jake Buonaiuto, an attack, who has also shined on the school’s football team, and Thomas Liantonio, a senior attack who is coming into his third year on the varsity team.

He’s also looking forward to returning senior midfielder Christian Stalter, an All-County player last year who handles the face-offs.

“I feel like all the guys are coming back hungry and ready to go to give it one final run at it,” Liantonio said. “The experience of these guys that have been on the team will help us as we work together to balance as a team.”

The team is looking to bounce back from last season, and work to enhance its defense to get back into top form.

“Last year’s Long Island championship loss does not define us as a team,” Buonaiuto said. “Defensively, we have a couple of other guys who are stepping into big roles who are very talented, and offensively, I think we’re going to be even better.”

Returning to the team on defense are seniors Jacob Bloom, Jeff Bloom and Brad Williamson.

Senior Joe Bartolotto, who is the cousin of Liantonio, is a transfer from Mattituck and a Cornell University-commit who will also be contributing on defense.

“We have a really high lacrosse IQ, guys know where to be and how to play,” Jacob Bloom said. “Me, Thomas Liantonio and Jake Buonaiuto have all been on the team since we were freshmen — we’ve been on the team in years where we just barely made the playoffs and years when we made it all the way to the Long Island championship, so we know what losing feels like, and we know, definitely, what winning feels like, so we can take that and harness it and push everyone in the right direction.”

That knowledge is something Lizzi said he wants his team to focus on as it moves into a League 3 schedule, which comes with some new stiff competition.

“We want to tap into our big-game experience,” he said. “We are in definitely in the most competitive league where there’s 15 teams that can all beat each other. It’s going to be a grind, but if we can harness that big-game mentality, take it day by day and one game at a time, then everything else will fall into place.”

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Jimmy Kickel looks up the field to make a play. File photo by Kevin Freiheit

With 17 seniors returning to this year’s Ward Melville boys’ lacrosse squad, the team said it is confident that it can once again achieve the state championship-like caliber it had in the 2012-13 season, when the Patriots went 21-0-1 and won the school’s first state title since 2000.

“We have a ton of senior leadership, which is important and what all of the great teams have,” senior midfielder Jake McCulloch said. “Our chemistry is something that really stands out.”

A significant amount of this season’s returning players were also on that state championship-winning team, which should be a boost even despite 13 seniors graduating at the end of last season. Despite the small hiccup last season, the Patriots still said they are ready, and hungry.

“I think we underachieved a little bit last season, quite honestly, but we also had a significant amount of injuries,” head coach Jay Negus said. “In terms of looking forward, I’m very optimistic with this group. We have a great group of senior leaders and the initiatives that this group has taken thus far, in terms of shoveling the field by themselves, the way they warm up, the way that they’re practicing; they’re all business.”

The Patriots finished last season with a 13-6 overall record and 10-4 mark in League I play, losing in the quarterfinals of the Suffolk County Class A playoffs to West Islip, 7-5.

The boys said they are using the disappointment as motivation this season, and Negus said he has taken notice.

Jake McCulloch maintains possession in a game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Jake McCulloch maintains possession in a game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“They look really good, they’re whipping the ball around, they’re focused and they’re really absorbing all the stuff we’re throwing at them this early on,” he said. “Right now we’re hitting the ground running and we’re very excited about the season.”

Senior attack Danny Bucaro said the team has been going over the offensive plays and positioning in practice, and working on the simple things like ground balls, endurance, catching, throwing and shooting. The team only has two weeks to prepare for the start of the season, because of the weather, which Bucaro said differs from years past, where the team normally had three weeks to practice.

“We have to work hard all the time and give 110 percent effort,” he said. “The only thing that will bring you success is working hard. The young guys have a lot of talent and it’s really nice that we click in all aspects both on and off the field.”

As a result of this, McCulloch said he thinks the offense is going to improve because of the depth, which leads to more options to score.

Negus said Bucaro and McCulloch would be leading the way on that front.

“They are the two focal points of the offense that also lead by experience and get the rest of the guys on board,” he said, also noting other strong senior returners like midfielders Jimmy Kickel, Mike Cusmano and John Burgdoerfer, who he’s hoping will also contribute on offense.

On the other side of the field, senior Tommy Reilly is returning from back surgery, according to the coach, and will join forces with senior Michael Cirrone, junior John Day and sophomore Andrew McKenna to solidify the defensive end.

John Burgdoerfer makes a pass. File photo by Desirée Keegan
John Burgdoerfer makes a pass. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“We’re really focusing on the conditioning aspect, especially early on, to get the guys ready so that they’re in shape and that the injuries don’t happen,” Negus said. “The athleticism and the speed that this group has from offense to defense is something that is really going to help us separate from the competition.”What will also distinguish the team is the stiff competition the boys will be up against. Negus said he is following his pattern from last season and scheduled nonleague games against top teams Chaminade, West Islip, Ridgefield and Yorktown.”It’ll allow it to be the sort of litmus test for us to see what our strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “When you go against a powerhouse like Chaminade, those things stand out right from the start.”After a scrimmage against Miller Place, the team’s first test will come in the form of Chaminade, on March 21 on the Patriots’ home turf.

Negus also kept these scheduled games as a result of the league realignment, which removed games against some top teams like Suffolk County champion Smithtown East.

“We scheduled a really difficult nonleague schedule to prepare us for that playoff push against some of the teams we’re not going to see during the year,” Negus said.

McCulloch said he is excited for the challenges ahead and is looking forward to going against high caliber teams that will show the Patriots what they need to do in order to achieve their goal.

“Even if we do come out ahead, they expose our weaknesses, and it’s better to get them out against good teams like that, and then we can work on them in practice, but playing the best competition brings out the best in us,” he said. “I think just playing as a team and the friendships that we build this year will be important, but a state championship is obviously the biggest goal.”

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Nikki Ortega moves around a West Islip player in the semifinal game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan

With four sets of sisters on the squad this year, the Middle Country girls’ lacrosse team is hoping its strong chemistry will help propel it into the postseason and beyond.

The Mad Dogs weren’t used to the success they had last year. While the girls have made it to the first or second playoff round before, last season the team made it to the semifinals, where a last-second goal helped West Islip nab a 12-11 win.

“We’ve never gotten that far,” senior midfielder and attack Nikki Ortega said. “It was really great, and we learned a lot, but now we know what we need to do to win and get to the county championship. I think last year was an eye opener to how much we have to work to get to where we want to be this year.”

While the girls thought most schools doubted their talent, sophomore midfielder Rachel Masullo said her teammates always believed in their potential.

“Everyone kind of looks down on us, but we definitely showed people that we’re actually good and that we can do big things,” she said.

The big things the team did last season led to a No. 1 preseason ranking, but the athletes aren’t focused on that. They’re just looking to improve upon last season’s 12-6 overall and 10-4 Division I record, as they have their sights set on something even bigger — states.

“I think they have an underlining drive this year of unfinished business; something to prove,” head coach Lindsay Dolson said. “No one cares about [the ranking], we just have to play our best lacrosse each and every day, get better and take it one game at a time.”

Jamie Ortega crosses into West Islip's zone. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Jamie Ortega crosses into West Islip’s zone. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Nikki Ortega’s younger sister Jamie, a sophomore midfielder, feels that unfinished business could be accomplished this season.

“I feel this year is our year because we connect so well on and off the field,” she said.

Rachel Masullo’s twin sister Amanda, also a midfielder, agrees.

“Even though we just started practicing I feel like we can beat whoever we want to if we have the right mind-set,” she said. “We have that connection and we’re comfortable. On the field we always know where each other is going to be; we don’t even have to say anything. If I pass it somewhere, I know my sister’s going to be there, or one of the [other] sisters is gong to be there. I think it’s our best quality in the team.”

Other pairs of sisters on the squad include returning eighth-grader Jennifer Barry and her sister Ava, who transferred back from St. Anthony’s, and sophomore returner Haley Timarky and her sister Emily.

According to the players, practices have been intense as the girls focus on limiting turnovers, transitioning on defense and continually building stamina.

The team did lose two seniors in defender Gabrielle Redding, who the girls depended on and were confident could make the stops, and the Masullo twin’s older sister Paige, an attack. Even so, they feel comfortable with the roster and will look to Nikki Ortega to lead the way.

“She’s always been an impact player since she’s been with me,” Dolson said of her six-year returner. “She’s really stepped up and is one of the leaders they look to.”

And the girls want to go far for her.

“I would love to go out with a bang for Nikki’s last season,” Rachel Masullo said. “Nikki deserves it. She works really hard and she should be paid for it. She should get rewarded.”

Nikki Ortega is humbled by her teammates’ sentiments but also wants the team to go far for her own reasons.

“They’re all like my little sisters so for them to want it for me is unbelievable, but I hope to accomplish it not only for me, but for them as well, because I know everyone has been working really hard for this,” she said. “It’s only the second week of practice and already we see a difference compared to all of the other years starting off. Our motivation is to get to states, and that’s what we hope to achieve.”