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Liam Davenport

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Ward Melville junior running back Nick Troy rushes with the ball during a practice. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Ward Melville senior running back Nick Messina breaks free of a tackle during practice. Photo by Bill Landon

The stinging loss in the Suffolk County championship game last fall left an open wound on every member of the Ward Melville football team, and the only effective medicine is redemption.

The 2016 season was history making, as the Patriots won three straight games to propel them to the county title game for the first time in 29 years. Trailing William Floyd by a touchdown, the team marched down the field only to be turned away in the red zone in the final minute of the contest.

“Obviously the kids want to get back there again, and these guys this season think they have something to prove,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Boltrek said. “They want to show we didn’t just get there because of last year’s seniors, but that they were a big part of it as well.”

Ward Melville is the No. 5 seed in Division I heading into this season, with William Floyd taking the No. 1 spot. Lindenhurst, Longwood and Connetquot are also in the mix, but Boltrek said the Patriots won’t take any team lightly.

“They have a chip on their shoulder going into this season,” the head coach said of his players. “These kids put in the work in the off-season, they have the mentality that nothing is given to you — you have to go out and earn it every year.”

Ward Melville senior wide receiver Liam Davenport makes a catch during practice. Photo by Bill Landon

Senior defensive end and offensive tackle Jimmy Small said reaching the county title game is something he won’t soon forget, taking that experience and applying it to games this year in the hopes of feeling the intensity and enthusiasm again.

“Me and the rest of the guys from last year — we got a taste of playing in front of all those people, that excitement and the whole town having their focus on us, and that hasn’t happened in a long time for football,” the co-captain said.

He said he thinks his team has the right tools to get back to the championship game and take home the title this time around.

“I think by far our brightest spot is our front seven on defense,” he said. “We have a ton of returning starters, but I think the question mark is our special teams, which was a big part of our game.”

Despite the loss of kick returner John Corpac, Small said the Patriots have two kids even faster than the Stony Brook University commit.

“If everything works out, I think we’ll be even better in that aspect,” he said.

Ward Melville senior quarterback Peyton Capizzi carries the ball during practice. Photo by Bill Landon

Senior running back Nick Messina, a three-year varsity player, reflected on the amount of work that goes into reaching the championship round.

“Just to reach that goal last year — the people coming back know what it takes to get there and it makes us want it so much more,” the co-captain said. “I think we’re strongest on our offensive and defensive line, but we’re going to have to work on our defensive secondary where we have a lot of new players.”

Senior co-captain Thomas Kutchma said to prove to other teams that last season wasn’t a fluke, and show they aren’t out of gas just yet, the Patriots have their goals set even higher this time.

“If we can do what we’re capable of doing we could win a Long Island championship this year,” the guard and defensive tackle said. “We think about that loss every day in practice and we give it 100 percent. We love the sport of football and we want to take advantage of it before it’s over.”

Ward Melville kicks off the season with a 6:30 p.m. home game against Central Islip Sept. 1. The Patriots will travel to Connetquot Sept. 8 for the second game of the year. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Teammates Dylan Pallonetti, Matt Grillo and Dominic Pryor swarm Eddie Munoz in celebration of one of his three straight goals that put Ward Melville back in the game. Photo from Matt Grillo

It was a special game the Patriots, or anyone who follows the program, won’t soon forget.

Matt Grilllo hoists up the state championship plaque after scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals on his birthday June 10. Photo from Matt Grillo

In a come-from-behind rally, the Ward Melville boys lacrosse team scored six straight goals — five during regulation and one in sudden death overtime — to claim the program’s first Class A state championship title since 2013 with a 10-9 win over Pittsford. In the final minute of regulation, senior Eddie Munoz scored three straight, and Matt Grillo tied it, then scored the game-winner on a solo dodge from behind the cage with one second left in overtime, during the June 10 game at St. John Fisher College.

It was the ninth state title for Ward Melville (20-2), which finished the 2017 season on a 15-game win streak, and the first for head coach Jay Negus, who took over the program when Mike Hoppey retired following the 2013 title. Hall of Fame coach Joe Cuozzo won the first seven.

“We’ve joked around all year long saying we’re the ‘comeback kids’ because we had a great second-half performance in each game we played, but that was a little too close for me,” Negus said, laughing. “We do what we have to do. Eddie [Munoz] is our emotional senior leader and he took over the game, he took over the locker room. He has the ability to rally and lead people to a place you can’t get to yourself. He got us to where we needed to be.”

For Grillo, who was also celebrating his birthday, those last minutes made for a dramatic day with extreme swings of emotion.

“This is the best birthday present I could ask for,” he said. “It went from the worst birthday of my life to the best birthday of my life within 53 seconds.”

Eddie Munoz and Matt Grillo celebrate Ward Melville’s come-from-behind win over PIttsford for the Class A state championship title. Photo from Matt Grillo

Ward Melville was trailing 9-4 with 3:43 left to play when Grillo received a pass from senior Liam Davenport to close the gap. Junior faceoff specialist Michael Giaquinto, who won 19 of 22 faceoffs, won the ensuing battle at the ‘X,” and every one thereafter down the stretch.

“At that point, there was no margin for error,” Giaquinto said. “I knew I had to win them all.”

With 1:01 remaining, after already having a shot saved at the 1:29 mark and following a Patriots timeout call, Munoz began his hat trick streak over a 34.4 second span.

“My teammates made great plays, and I felt, being a captain, that I owed my teammates a service,” Munoz said. “I told them I wasn’t going to let them lose.”

He scored his first goal on a sidearm shot, tallied a man-up goal on a feed from Grillo after a Pittsford slash call with 34 seconds left, and after a Giaquinto faceoff win and pass down the alley, scored his third 7.4 seconds later, to pull the Patriots within one, 9-8.

“The goals were all reacting to the situation,” Munoz said. “It was the heat of the moment and I saw my chances and took them. It feels amazing to pull through for my team, but I give all the credit to my teammates for supporting me all year and for setting up those plays.”

He agreed with his head coach, who said his Patriots never counted themselves out, having preached all season about never giving up, and knowing Ward Melville has always been more of a second-half team.

Matt Grillo hugs his family following the victory. Photo from Matt Grillo

“It was honestly scary, I was a little nervous at first, but we stayed poised, kept our composure and played hard until the final whistle,” Munoz said, “And now we’re champions, so it paid off.”

Giaquinto kept the ball rolling with another faceoff win, and after one errant shot, Grillo got open and converted a pass from senior Andrew Lockhart to tie the game with just eight seconds left.

Lockhart said they were running his play — called “22 Pop” for his jersey number and eventual position shift.

“I popped, they collapsed,” he said. “I dropped it off to Grillo, who of course finished it. It’s something we’ve done all season. But without Mike Giaquinto, we would have lost the game. Faceoffs never get credit, but that kid put the team on his back.”

Early in overtime, after a long Ward Melville possession, goalkeeper Gavin Catalano (11 saves) made a stop on Munoz and the Panthers (19-2) headed the other way. They had a clean look, but Ward Melville’s senior goalkeeper Perry Cassidy made his best and most important save to give Ward Melville the ball one more time. Munoz shot it wide, putting the ball in Grillo’s stick on the restart.

“In the moment, I wasn’t thinking,” Grillo said. “Coach called a play, and I didn’t think there was enough time for it. I saw that there was no slide, and I got to the cage and finished. It was the most amazing moment of my life. So many emotions were running through my mind at that moment. It’s something that I will never forget.”

Ward Melville’s boys lacrosse team scored six striaght goals to pull away witha 10-9 overtime win over Pittsford for the program’s first state championship since 2013. Photo from Matt Grillo

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Patriots power through Massapequa for second straight Long Island title

Call him Perry the protector.

In the final three minutes of the third quarter, with Ward Melville’s boys’ lacrosse team up 5-4 over Nassau County champion Massapequa, Perry Cassidy made three saves, and opened the fourth quarter with another, before his team scored three goals in three minutes en route to an 8-5 Class A Long Island championship victory. The Long Island championship win for Ward Melville was its second straight and 18th in program history.

“I was trying to do anything to keep our team in it,” said Cassidy of his back-to-back-to-back saves on the left corner to end the third. He made 10 stops in the win. “I didn’t want to go home not being able to play with my brothers again.”

At the 6:14 mark of the stanza, senior Andrew Lockhart put the Patriots ahead for the first time, 5-4, when he cut to the crease and received a backdoor pass from sophomore Dylan Pallonetti.

“We talked about it,” Pallonetti said of connecting with Lockhart. “We said we were going to watch each other on the crease, and back-doored them two times, and got them.”

Pallonetti also assisted on Lockhart’s game-tying behind-the-back goal at the 6:38 mark of the second quarter, to knot things up 3-3.

“I love playing with Dylan, he’s a great player and we have great chemistry,” Lockhart said. “He did all the work — gave me the ball where he knew I could shoot and score.”

Up to that point, Ward Melville had been playing catch up, with Pallonetti and senior Zach Hobbes (three goals) scoring the first two goals to tie the game at 2-2 to end the first quarter. Hobbes had another tying goal with 9:21 left in the first half, to make the score 4-all.

Ward Melville knew it was only a matter of time before a high-powered Massapequa offense would make another move. But Cassidy was up to the task.

“I always have the best shooters trying to score on me during warm-ups,” Cassidy said. “I felt good.”

He said the sideline chants and cheers motivated him to keep protecting the cage, along with the motivation to remain on the playoff ride for as long as possible. Lockhart said it was the saves that fueled a three-goal run from the 10-minute to six-minute mark of the fourth, with the game-winner coming off the first of those goals, from senior Liam Davenport with 9:41 left to play.

“Perry stood on his head like he’s been doing all season,” Lockhart said. “He kept us in the game, which got us pumped for our second-half run.”

He added that for him, being able to put on the practice pinnie on Monday was all the motivation he needed.

“All of us seniors have been talking about this moment since we were kids,” Lockhart said. “And we’re dictating the terms to our opponents.”

Ward Melville will prepare for the Class A state semifinals at the University at Albany June 7 at 4 p.m. But Cassidy said the team doesn’t need a run-through.

“We’re ready,” he said.

Ward Melville to face Smithtown East in Suffolk championship May 31

As the crowd and sideline erupted over a stretch of three minutes in the third quarter, it seemed like the Patriots couldn’t miss.

In fact, they didn’t, as the Ward Melville’s boys’ lacrosse team scored six times on six shots during that span, on the way to a 15-6 Class A semifinal win over Half Hollow Hills East May 25.

“We’ve been here before, and we were pumped up,” junior Zach Hobbes said. “We knew we had to come out fired up, because there was a chance we were going to go home.”

An early ouster from the playoffs seemed like a remote possibility coming into the game for two-loss Ward Melville, after Hills East gave the Patriots all they could handle in a triple overtime, 8-7 thriller during the regular season, but the second-half scoring spurt erased that possibility. Hobbes found the back of the net for the first of the six goals, which was his third of the game. Junior Matt Grillo scored twice to complete his hat trick, and junior Michael Giaquinto also scored twice, directly off faceoff wins.

“We played more unselfish,” Grillo said. “Last time we played them, we had a lot of individuals doing their stuff, and this time we looked for the open man, and it worked.”

The Patriots were riding a 6-2 halftime advantage into that 6-0 run. The last goal of the second quarter fired up Grillo and senior Eddie Munoz, inspiring the team to come out even quicker after the break.

Grillo intercepted a Hills East pass attempt by the goalkeeper, and with Kyle Bockelman outside of his posts, Grillo saw the opportunity at an empty-netter with Munoz at his side.

“I saw the rusty pass and I ran over to pick it off,” Grillo said. “Eddie’s always there to put it in, and I knew he was going to finish.”

Giaquinto, who split 10 faceoffs in the first half, won seven of eight in the third, and got lower on the draw to help him win 18 of 25 faceoffs overall in the game.

“I give Michael Giaquinto a lot of credit,” Hobbes said. “Those possessions were key.”

Munoz said his teammates have been hearing all season long how they’re the next resilient bunch to vie for the state championship, and he said he knew the next step toward getting back to where the Patriots were last year wasn’t too far out of reach.

“To be so close to another county championship — we needed to win,” he said. “Our drive is what got us here, and our confidence is through the roof, but you can’t be too cocky. We’re soaking it in, enjoying the moment, but once we get on that bus — get back to the school — we have work to do. It’s all about staying focused.”

Ward Melville will face Smithtown East May 31 at Stony Brook University at 3 p.m. with a chance for redemption. The Bulls halted the Patriots’ playoff push two years ago, with an 11-10 county final victory.

“We feel we have a standard to uphold at Ward Melville,” Hobbes said. “We need to get back to where we were last year, and take that title this time. We’re ready to play.”