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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.

The cast of ‘The Snow Queen,’ from left, Danny Meglio, Jacqueline Hughes, Stephanie Krasner, TracyLynn Connor and Matthew Rafanelli. Photo courtesy of Engeman Theater

By Heidi Sutton

In perfect harmony with the frosty weather outside, “The Snow Queen” opened at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport last weekend to a warm reception. Based on the beloved Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired Disney’s “Frozen,” the musical, co-written by Rick Lombardo and Kirsten Brandt, is told in seven short stories and revolves around a young girl name Gerda, her best friend, Kai, and the power of love and friendship.

The Snow Queen has kidnapped Kai and taken him to her icy palace. There she orders him to solve the Riddle of Eternity by counting all the snowflakes in the world. When Gerda realizes what has happened, she sets off on a dangerous journey to save her friend.

Reminiscent of an Alice in Wonderland experience, Gerda encounters many obstacles along the way including a sneaky Garden Witch, a band of robbers and the blistering cold. Fortunately, she also meets a talking crow, a lovable reindeer and a wise Woman of the North who help her reach the palace.

Alyson Leonard expertly directs a talented adult cast of five, all of whom, with the exception of the lead, play multiple roles throughout the show. Stephanie Krasner, last seen in the role of Rapunzel, returns to Engeman’s stage as Gerda, who proves to be a faithful friend willing to go to the ends of the Earth to save Kai. Her courage and determination has the audience rooting for her from the beginning. Matthew Rafanelli is terrific as Kai, trapped within the clutches of the Snow Queen but absolutely shines as the Crow who helps Gerda.

TracyLynn Connor gives the Snow Queen an icy regalness but also plays the role of a rose, princess and robber girl with ease. From her first appearance on stage as an old woman to her last as the Wise Woman of the North, Jacqueline Hughes’s performance is always top notch. Her solo “Breathe” takes your breath away and her various accents are impressive.

Last seen in “The Wizard of Oz,” Danny Meglio tackles the role of the troll, prince and sweet reindeer this time around. Helping Gerda reach the castle in the darkness and the cold as the reindeer is one of the most memorable scenes in the show.

Although at times Gerda’s journey may seem a bit long, the wonderful songs including “Flying,” “The Real Reality,” “Here I Am,” “Never Give Up” and “The End,” written by Haddon Kime, more than make up for its shortcomings, and you will find yourself humming these songs for days to come. Those familar with Andersen’s fairy tale won’t be disappointed with the ending and will go back out into the air with a warm heart after realizing that love conquers all.

The show is recommended for ages 8 and up because of its complex storyline, although younger children will enjoy it for the beautiful costumes, special effects and songs. Meet the entire cast in the lobby for autographs and photos after the show. An autograph page is conveniently located at the end of the program.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “The Snow Queen” on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. through March 5. Up next is “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” from March 25 to April 30. All seats are $15. To order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

The big guns brought it home for Mount Sinai.

John Parente won by a major decision, 12-0, at 195 pounds, and Bobby Christ edged his opponent, 4-3, in the finals to propel Mount Sinai to a second-place finish behind Half Hollow Hills West at the Bob Armstrong wrestling tournament at Port Jefferson Jan. 21.

“I told them if you want to wrestle in the county tournament this is the last time to show us what you’ve got,” Mount Sinai head coach Matt Armstrong, who is also Bob’s son, said he told his team. “A freshman that just came up, Adam Shata, had a big win at 160 pound with a solid pin, so we have some freshmen that are really stepping up.”

Jahvan Brown at 138 pounds and Neil Esposito at 145 pounds, made some noise and, according to Armstrong, are wrestling well for this time of year despite their inexperience. Although neither made it to the finals, four other Mustangs did. The team had nine place in total.

“We’re turning it around here toward the end of the season.”

—Robert Alberti

Northport finished with 168 points, just behind Mount Sinai, which finished with 174.

Unlike the Mustangs, the Tigers brought it home in the finals, as all three representing the blue-and-gold took home tournament titles.

“We’re turning it around here toward the end of the season,” Northport head coach Robert Alberti said. Seven of his other wrestlers placed.

Junior Jake Borland, a 113-pounder, is currently ranked sixth in the county in his weight class. He topped Mount Sinai’s Matt Campo, 9-2, who is a returning county champion.

“We expect him to win every time he goes out,” Alberti said of his grappler. “It was a good test for him leading up to counties.”

Borland placed third in the Armstrong tournament last year, and brought his A-game this time around. He won his first match with a pin, and the next two by technical falls.

“I feel confident scoring points,” he said, adding that he knew he had to have a strong mentality and wrestle smart to win in the finals, using his fireman’s carry, duck under and high crotch to help him gain points.

Borland said he can see improvements in his game from last season.

“I got better at getting out on bottom, because last year I struggled with that,” he said. “Now I get right up. Right after [Campo] took me down I got out and took a shot, and I got him right to his back and scored. I got two for a takedown and three for back points and from there I started scoring.”

“[Kenny Cracchiola] wants to make an impact and he’s really done it. He’s beaten some really good guys and overall, matchup-to-matchup, he continues to be a dominant wrestler.”

—Garry Schnettler

At 132 pounds, junior Chris Esposito clinched the championship title with a 9-2 decision over Ward Melville’s Rafael Lievano, who is currently ranked third in the county. Esposito beat his opponent last weekend as well.

“That was a good statement for Chris to come out and beat the kid for a second time in a row,” Alberti said. “He’s showing the county that he’s here to wrestle, and he’s not going to be happy without winning.”

Esposito was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler after recording the most pins in the least amount of time. He pinned his first opponent in 20 seconds, his second in 59 and his third in 1:30, before sizing up his final foe. He said he came into the match knowing what he needed to do, and he wanted to prove that his win last weekend wasn’t a fluke.

“I knew the first time I wrestled him I didn’t wrestle as good as I could,” Esposito said. “Mentally, every time I go out to a match I’m calm, no matter what. I always want to score first, but even if I get scored on I never lose it; I remain calm and keep working.”

Billy Shaw was the final champion for Northport, who won 6-5 over Mount Sinai’s Joe Goodrich at 152 pounds. It was the grappler’s first tournament win.

“He had a tough match at North Babylon on Friday wrestling the No. 1-ranked kid in the county — he got beat up a little bit,” Alberti said. ”So for him to come out the next day and win his first tournament as a varsity wrestler is good for him. For him to turn around is a testament to his hard work.”

Ward Melville finished fourth with 136 points. In a unique and rare scenario, Kenny Cracchiola beat teammate Richie Munoz by a technical fall, 16-0.

Cracchiola went 4-0 on the day, winning three of his matches by technical falls and the other by a pin.

“I shoot single legs to take them down and on top I do a variety of different tilts for back points, which rack up points for me pretty quickly,” he said.

“Even before I step on the mat I’m always focused on wrestling, nothing else distracts me.”

—Vin Miceli

Unfortunately, he had to use these moves against his teammate, but he said he liked seeing two Patriots make it to the finals in the same weight class.

Port Jefferson followed in fifth place with 126.5 points, and sent seven to the podium.

Vin Miceli edged Centereach’s Luis Fernandez, 6-4, and was named the Champion of Champions. He had two pins as he battled his way through the bracket.

He said he focused to be able to bring home the gold.

“Even before I step on the mat I’m always focused on wrestling, nothing else distracts me,” he said. “I put in a lot of work in the off-season, so it really shows how much you can get out of the work you put in.”

Joey Evangelista edged Half Hollow Hills West’s Joe Costa, 3-0, for his title at 145 pounds. He pinned his first three opponents, but said his finals match was tough.

“My coaches have preached mentality is everything, so I’ve been working on strengthening that,” he said.

According to head coach Mike Maletta, the junior has been a finalist in every tournament this season, and won two.

“As long as they both stay aggressive and take smart shots and pushing the pace, they’re going to be real successful in three weeks when they’re up in Albany,” Maletta said of the possibility of the Royals competing for state titles. “The excitement is that some guys are starting to exceed expectations.”

Centereach finished in seventh with 93 points. Jett Tancsik outscored his Half Hollow Hills West opponent 9-4, for the 160-pound championship title.

Centereach head coach Ray Bruno said he was pleased with his team’s performance. He said the tournament is a good tune up to get ready for the Cougars’ matches in the League III tournament.

“This is probably the 10th year for this tournament and I appreciate them doing it keeping my dad’s memory alive.”

— Matt Armstrong

Rounding out the scorers in the top 9 were No. 8 Harborfields with 88 points, and Comsewogue with 39.

According to Matt Armstrong, his father coached at Port Jefferson from 1969 to 1990, where they were league champions for eight years and won the New York State championship cup in 1986.

“They had some very successful teams here at the time,” he said. “It’s great to come back here as I see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time. Many of the kid’s parents wrestled for my dad. This is probably the 10th year for this tournament and I appreciate them doing it keeping my dad’s memory alive, it’s Mike Maletta who keeps it going, and he does a great job.”

Borland said his Northport team has exceeded his expectations, and he’s looking forward to rounding out the season with the final dual meet of the season Jan. 27 at Smithtown West at 6:45 p.m., before heading to Syosset for the Battle of the Belt tournament the next day.

“Coming into this year I thought we were going to be absolutely terrible,” he said. “I thought we were going to have three good kids and we were going to be that team that gets beat up on, but I realized we have a few freshmen that are going to make very good wrestlers. We’re a young team, but we’re doing damage.”

Bill Landon contributed reporting

Rafael Lievano went 3-1 in the tournament at Comsewogue, losing to Northport in the finals. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Ward Melville’s wrestling team had two Patriots, seniors Kenny Cracchiola and Sean Fitzsimmons, pull away undefeated during a multi-team dual meet Jan. 14 at Comsewogue High School. Ward Melville faced off against St. John the Baptist, Riverhead, Bay Shore and Northport.

“This is my fourth year on varsity and honestly this is the best overall team we’ve had,” Cracchiola said. “I think with this year’s team we can knock off [some] of the top teams in the county.”

A four-year varsity starter, Cracchiola won his first three matches against Bay Shore, St. John the Baptist and Riverhead, by technical falls — defeating each opponent by scoring 15 more points than his challenger had on him.

Nick Little faces off against his opponent. Photo by Bill Landon

He faced a Northport opponent in the 120-pound finals, and earned his 111th career win, going 4-0.

At 126 pounds, Fitzsimons defeated Bay Shore’s Carlos Espinal, an All-League player who Ward Melville head coach Garrett Schnettler said is a county-ranked wrestler. Fitzsimons pinned him in the first period.

“I’m 3-0 right now,” Fitzsimons said following the win. “I feel that we all have something to prove this year — I think some of the other teams are brushing us off and we’ll be looking to knock off a few big names this season.”

Fitzsimons defeated both his Riverhead and St. John the Baptist opponents by technical falls, and also went 4-0.

Junior Rafael Lievano, a returning All-League and All-County standout from last season, was also undefeated heading into the final match of the afternoon.

Preparing for the tournament, the 132-pounder said he worked hard on eating right and going to bed early, knowing he was going to be facing some tough opponents. After winning his first three matches by technical falls, his final match proved to be his biggest challenge.

Tyler Lynde went 3-0 in the tournament. Photo by Bill Landon

He and his opponent know each other well.

“I’m going to face a tough kid from Northport — Chris Esposito,” Lievano said. “It’ll be a tough match. We’re good friends.”

Lievano said he beat Esposito 4-3 last year, and the match proved to be another tough one, with the Ward Melville grappler coming out on the losing end this time around.

Despite battling injuries this season, losing key wrestlers and having to forfeit matches in some weight classes, according to Schnettler, his team ended up going 2-2 in the tournament, topping St. John the Baptist and Riverhead.

Ward Melville finished 3-2 in League I this season, and travels to Port Jefferson High School Jan. 21 for the final tournament of the season, the Bob Armstrong Tournament, which will begin at 8 a.m.

The Patriots will continue to rely on key grapplers to get the job done.

“We’ve had some big matches by Kenny Cracchiola, Rafael Lievano and Sean Fitzsimons,” Schnettler said. “Our three core guys that we expect big things from once again come in and get the wins that we need.”

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Kevin Cryer-Hassett is fouled heading to the basket. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

The Northport boys’ basketball team stayed within striking distance, but couldn’t disrupt Lindenhurst’s rhythm in the last two minutes, falling 60-52 Jan. 15.

“I was proud of their effort,” Northport head coach Andrew D’Eloia said of his team. “We didn’t lose because of a lack of effort, we got beat by a team who hit some shots down the stretch.”

Vin DeCeglia scores on a jumper. Photo by Bill Landon

After a slow start, Northport found its first lead of the game when junior Justin Carrano muscled his way to the rim to bring the score to 12-11 with two minutes left in the opening quarter.

Northport’s Kevin Cryer-Hassett and teammate Vin DeCeglia both scored from three-point land. The senior guards helped close out the quarter with the Tigers out front, 18-13.

With 4:49 left in the half, the Bull Dogs drained a pair of their own from long distance, as Shane Webster and Tyler Manger trimmed the deficit to 24-21.

Ryan Magnuson let his three-pointer fly to put Northport ahead 27-21. Sophomore Ian Melamerson’s shot found the rim next, and Cryer-Hassett tacked on two free-throw points for a 31-28 lead at halftime.

Lindenhurst made it a new game a minute into the second half when Manger hit his second three-pointer of the game to make it even at 31-31. Both teams traded points and Northport was able to hold the lead for most of the quarter.

Scoring twice from the paint, DeCeglia was fouled on his second basket, sending him to the charity stripe for a bonus point. He swished his opportunity for the three-point play, Carrano added three more and senior Connor Widmaier found the rim for a three-point lead.

Justin Carrano reaches for the rim through traffic. Photo by Bill Landon

Lindenhurst answered with a buzzer-beating three-pointer to make it a new game, tied 41-41, heading into the final eight minutes of play.

With 2:49 left in regulation, DeCeglia drove the lane and scored to retake the lead for his team, 49-48, but Lindenhurst answered right back scoring two and went to the free-throw line, converting a three-point play.

“Their best player, [Arthur] Brzozkas, scored 27 points and he made plays down the stretch and that was [the game changer],” D’Eloia said. “The ball went in for them and it didn’t for us, and that was really the difference.”

Northport ran into some foul trouble, and Lindenhurst spent quality time at the charity stripe, banking five of six free throws to edge ahead 56-49 with 29 seconds left in regulation.

Cryer-Hassett drained a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to make it a four-point game, but the Tigers didn’t come any closer.

DeCeglia led his team in scoring with 13 points, Cryer-Hassett followed with 11, and Carrano and Magnuson added 10 points each. With the loss Northport drops to 3-3 in League II and 5-6 overall, and will travel to face Walt Whitman on Jan. 17 at 4:30 p.m.

“Our guys left their heart out on the court,” D’Eloia said, “and that’s all you can ask for.”

Darin Parker smiles in front of Main Street Cafe in Northport. Photo by Ted Ryan

By Ted Ryan

For Darin Parker, owner of the Main Street Cafe in Northport, serving her community is about more than just filling cups of coffee and serving lunch.

Parker is dedicated to working for her community and making it the very best it can be, and for this reason Times Beacon Record News Media has selected her as a Person of the Year.

Parker has been the owner of the Main Street Cafe for 16 years, but she also serves as the first vice president of the Northport Chamber of Commerce as well as a fundraising organizer, and she hosts trips to Broadway shows for Northport Village residents. She is also a major supporter of events and foundations including St. Baldrick’s, Relay for Life, Adopt a Family and Strides for Cancer.

“Since Saint Baldrick’s has been initiated in Northport, we’ve supported it every year … we did the cancer walk this year,” Parker said in an interview. “It’s not just me; the customers here are just absolutely incredible. I send out an email [saying] we need money, we need this, and they respond really well.”

Parker also has holiday stockings lining the walls of her cafe, filled to the brim with donations for the Ecumenical Lay Council Pantry in Northport. Last year, the cafe made a $4,000 donation to the pantry.

Northport Fire Department Ex-Chief John McKenna said Parker is a priceless addition to the Northport community.

“Darin’s helped out in a bundle of ways,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s not a whole lot that Darin hasn’t gotten involved with altruistically. She’s just a very benevolent person and she genuinely cares about people.”

As the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, Parker organizes events such as raffles and gets local businesses in the Northport community to take part.

Funds received from the raffles and donations run by Parker and the chamber are used to offset costs of maintenance, decorations and events for Northport Village.

Parker said she didn’t foresee herself becoming a member of the Northport Chamber of Commerce at first, much less the chamber’s vice president. She said she’s noticed a distance between the chamber and business owners of Northport that she is trying to close.

“People don’t realize there’s a little rift sometimes between the local merchants and the chamber,” she said.  “I was one of those people, and I wasn’t involved with the chamber for a long time, but if you don’t get involved, you can’t make any changes.” 

Northport Chamber of Commerce Director Debi Triola vouched for Parker’s devotion to encourage local businesses to be a part of the local events.

“Darin’s excellent,” she said. “Years before she was on the board she was always the advocate for business, for the community supporting any other businesses even at times to her own detriment,” Triola said. “If something was good for the community, — even if it wasn’t necessarily good for her own business — she was very supportive of it. She’s always been.”

Parker said she wants to create a bond among patrons of her cafe, so she organizes events she calls “bus trips” where members of the community go on trips she organized to Broadway shows in New York City.

Parker said that the first time the cafe organized a trip about 20 to 30 years ago, they took a trip to Ireland. Parker has made a commitment to organize a trip abroad run by the Main Street Cafe every two years moving forward.

Parker feels very welcome in Northport and appreciates the receptiveness of her neighborhood in regards to helping the public.

“It does become a really neat community of family,” she said. “I’m not just saying that, it really is. They’re great people.”

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

One of America’s fastest mile runners has a habit of shattering not just records but expectations both on and off the track.

Mikey Brannigan is coming off a monumental year at just 20 years old. Diagnosed with autism at a young age, he said the odds were stacked against him, forcing him to work twice as hard as anybody else. But in 2016, the odds didn’t stand a chance as Brannigan continuously knocked them down on his way to the finish line.

For his athletic achievements and for inspiring so many people, Mikey Brannigan is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

In August, Brannigan ran a 3:57 mile at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina — becoming the first person with an intellectual disability to break the 4:00 record —and a month later, competed in the Special Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under the T20 Paralympic classification, where he took home the gold after a dominating 3:51 mile in the 1500 meters.

“He’s Mozart on the track,” Sonja Robinson, his coach at the New York Athletic Club, said in a phone interview. “When it comes to running, he’s a genius, and it’s mind-boggling what he’s accomplished and how far he’s come. He does not let the autism define him. I say to him all the time ‘you have autism, autism doesn’t have you.’”

Mike Brannigan smiles and holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

He came home from Rio not just a hero in Northport, where he’s always been celebrated, but around the country, serving as inspiration for any kid with special needs. Brannigan even participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year with his fellow New York Olympians.

“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” Brannigan said in a phone interview. “I accomplished a lot of my goals and achievements.”

When he’s not running, Brannigan and his mother, Edie Brannigan, speak to parents and educators in Northport about autism, bullying and accepting people with disabilities.

According to Edie Brannigan, his message to students is to “follow your dream, give it your all, and do well in school.”

“He’s doing autism awareness through the sports world,” his mother said. “People with autism see they can be elite athletes because somebody’s done it now. They have autism in their lives and see Mikey … he’s doing it for them. It’s incredible. He moves people.”

She said her son has had to work through a lot of disappointment and rejection, but he’s come out on top.

Brannigan was just 12 months old when his parents knew there was something different about him. At 2 years, he was diagnosed with autism, and when he turned 3, his parents were advised to start looking at group homes for him, as she said he wasn’t able to speak in a communicative way until he was 5, and struggled to keep up academically.

“He does everything he can to engage and he’s got the best outlook … but to have a conversation, unless you’re talking about running, is difficult for him,” his mother said.

When he was in fourth grade, his parents signed him up for Rolling Thunder, a not-for-profit running club aimed at kids with special needs. The club gave him structure and provided an outlet for his natural ability to run fast. He’s been hooked on the sport ever since.

It was the running that helped him become a better student, Edie Brannigan said. By sixth grade, he was capable of doing age-appropriate work in the classroom.

“The autism serves the running and the running serves the autism,” she said. “He can focus like nobody else can in running. It’s not just about feet and legs, it’s about your head. He has that intense focus and that serves him well. [From there] he was able to absorb information and process it in a way that he never had before. He just kept amazing everyone and excelling.”

So much so that Brannigan was running for the Northport High School cross country team when he was still in eighth grade.

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Under Jason Strom’s coaching, Mikey would become the two-mile record holder in the state with a time of 8:45, and by senior year he was recognized as one of the 10 best high school runners in the country.

“It’s been tremendous to see everything he’s gotten to do and experience over the last year,” Strom said in a phone interview. “[I] root for him every step of the way. He’s always been a really good kid and always been very focused and hard working toward his goals, so it’s nice to see that come to fruition.”

Strom said when Brannigan was on the team and went to meets, students from other schools would come up and ask to take pictures with him.

“Mikey transcended the ranks and was a rock star among high school track kids,” he said.

Even though dozens of colleges were interested in scooping him up, Brannigan was unable to attend any of them because his autism makes taking standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs near impossible.

Instead, Brannigan’s been training professionally with the New York Athletic Club under Robinson and going to Suffolk County Community College part-time.

In the last year, he’s trained all over the world, from Berlin to Saudi Arabia to Doha to Toronto and, of course, Rio.

“He’ll have a long career,” Robinson said. “This is what he wants to do. It’s his chosen career. When he has a passion for something he’s going to master it … and he loves the sport of track and field.”

His mother said everything the family was afraid of when Brannigan was a kid — that he wouldn’t be independent or have a job — has been put to rest, but she can’t take any credit for that.

“People say ‘oh you did such a good job [with him]’ to me and I think ‘yeah I don’t think I did that,’” Edie Brannigan said. “I think his success is his alone. He’s so dedicated and gives his all every single day.”

Young members of the Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force smile with their flag as they prepare to walk in a parade. Photo from Anthony Ferrandino

By Victoria Espinoza

The Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force took 2016 by storm.

The organization raised $19,000 for a local youth group, organized its sixth annual Recovery Awareness and Prevention educational week districtwide and secured a $625,000 federal grant — not a bad way to commemorate its 10th year in existence.

The local organization works to eliminate drug use and substance abuse in the Northport-East Northport community as well as promote prevention, offer educational resources for parents and community members and more.

For the work the task force does for the community, Times Beacon Record News Media has chosen the members of the Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force as People of the Year.

Anthony Ferrandino, co-chair of the task force, said he’s pleased with the work the group was able to accomplish this year.

“It’s definitely a good feeling,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ve grown so much, it’s nice to break through certain thresholds.”

Sean Boylan, Ferrandino’s co-chair, agreed the task force accomplished a lot in 2016.

“We’ve come a long way as a task force,” he said in a phone interview. “This year was a tremendous amount of work.”

Anthony Ferrandino, co-chair of the task force, back left, and Sean Boylan, back right, stand with members of the task force at a board of education meeting. Photo from Sean Boylan

Ferrandino said the mission of the task force is to educate as many students, parents and community members as possible about the dangers of drugs — and it’s safe to say they exceeded their goal this year.

In June, the task force worked with the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport to host the premiere of a short film “Grace,” created by Marisa Vitali, a former heroin addict. The film depicted the struggles and triumphs of living life in recovery, and after the film Vitali answered audience questions and discussed her own personal experience with drug addiction. At the event, Ferrandino said he was thrilled to see how many community members they were able to educate that night.

Boylan echoed the sentiment, saying the success of the fundraiser was great but the real achievement was the conversations had.

“The tremendous event was the question and answer portion after the show,” he said. “We had many different subgroups talk about recovery and have real conversations with our community members. It was awesome.”

The premiere raised $19,000 in ticket and raffle sales, which was donated to the Youth Directions and Alternatives, a nonprofit with a new establishment in Northport that hosts free programs and events for the Northport youth. The YDA recently started offering a prevention program for kids as well.

Ferrandino said organizations like the YDA are key to reducing the amount of kids who turn to drugs.

“We collaborate with everybody,” he said. “It really takes an entire community to be on the same page to create change. We create partnerships and try to change the culture of a community.”

“It really takes an entire community to be on the same page to create change. We create partnerships and try to change the culture of a community.”

— Anthony Ferrandino

The task force is committed to branch out into the community as much as possible. They have organized countless Narcan training programs, prescription take-back events and most recently town hall events to try and collaborate with leaders with their new federal grant.

Late this September, the task force received more than half-a-million dollars in a grant that is part of the Drug Free Communities Support Program, a White House project that works to reduce youth substance abuse by promoting communitywide participation and evidence-based practices.

For winning this nationally competitive grant, the task force will receive $125,000 per year for the next five years. It enables the hiring of a full-time task force coalition leader and supports a range of coordinated practices and evidence-supported activities aimed at prevention. The programs include parent education, social media initiatives, pharmacist/youth collaboration and stricter law enforcement practices.

This is where the group wants as much community input and support as possible.

“We’re trying to create partnerships with local doctors, business owners and more,” Ferrandino said. They hope to use their grant as effectively as possible and educate as many residents as they can.

This past October, the task force successfully hosted its sixth-annual RAP Week — a five-day event in every school in the district that featured special guest speakers, activities and assemblies dedicated to raising awareness of prescription drugs, alcohol and other unhealthy habits in an effort to highlight the dangerous impact they can have on a person’s life.

Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer praised the work the task force does within the schools.

“We are very pleased The Drug & Alcohol Task Force is being recognized for their continued efforts to confront a pervasive problem facing the youth of our community,” he said in an email.  “The Task Force, under the leadership of Anthony Ferrandino and Sean Boylan, is made up of a diverse group of community members who all share the same resolve: bringing an end to drug and alcohol abuse and providing resources, awareness and opportunities for healthy decision-making, free of addiction.”

Boylan said he is thankful for all the support the district gives the task force to allow them to dedicate an entire week to teaching the students.

He said one memory from this year that sticks out for him was walking in the Cow Harbor Day Parade down Main Street.

“We’ve done it for many years, in the past we’ve had ten kids walking with us,” he said. “But this year we had more than 70 kids and parents, holding banners and wearing shirts. It was so symbolic; to me that is the impact we’re having. It’s showing we’re making an impact on a lot of different levels.”

But the work is far from over, both co-chairs said.

“We have a long way to go,” Boylan said. The task force holds open meetings on the second Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the superintendent’s conference room at the William Brosnan Administration Building, and Boylan said new members are always welcome.

“What’s great about us is we’re made up of volunteers that bring their own passions to this,” he said. “They are dedicated to this community.”

The front entrance of Carl’s Candies. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By Victoria Espinoza

If you’re looking to treat your sweet tooth, Northport has just the spot for you.

Carl’s Candies, at 50 Main St., has replaced the well-known Harbor Trading, when it closed its doors earlier this year.

Sisters and co-owners of Carl’s Candies, Angela Nisi-MacNeill and Gina Nisi, are no strangers to Main Street. The Northport natives jumped at the opportunity to open a candy shop together and said they have had nothing short of a blast since opening in October.

Gina Nisi and Angela Nisi-MacNeill are the co-owners of Carl’s Candies. The new candy shop replacing Harbor Trading on Main Street in Northport. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Gina Nisi and Angela Nisi-MacNeill are the co-owners of Carl’s Candies. The new candy shop replacing Harbor Trading on Main Street in Northport. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

“When we heard the former owner was retiring and the building was up for sale, my sister took that as an opportunity to take over and keep it as a candy store,” Nisi said. “Everyone loved Harbor Trading so much, and I think the village always should have a candy store.”

Her sister said she’s had so much fun since opening at the end of October.

“I honestly don’t think I will ever get sick of it,” Nisi-MacNeill said. “I won’t get sick of coming in here every day — no matter how many years I work here. I just think that it’s fun and it’s a good creative outlet. I enjoy making candy and being creative with the window displays.”

Nisi-MacNeill was also able to get creative when a young girl came into the store suggesting they have a book exchange set up at the location.

“Her father came in with a little cardboard stand and asked if we could put it in the store, and I thought ‘I want to make it more special for her’ so we did this,” she said as she pointed to a large wooden shelf holding dozens of books and decorated with pages of other books all around it.

“It’s a really nice idea, and a lot of people are enjoying it,” she said.

Although this is the first joint venture for the sisters into co-owning a business, Nisi-MacNeill certainly has some valuable past experience as an employee of Harbor Trading back when she was a Northport High School student.

“I remember the smell of the candy store,” she said, thinking back of her time working there. “When we took over the candy store it was empty, so once we started to bring in the candy that’s when the reality hit and the memories really started coming back. Just that smell of all the candy together, it brings back really nice memories.”

“I won’t get sick of coming in here every day — no matter how many years I work here. I just think that it’s fun and it’s a good creative outlet.”

—Angela Nisi-MacNeill

Nisi-MacNeil said she is excited to get back to work in her community.

“[Northport] still maintains that old hometown feel,” she said. “That’s really hard to find.” Nisi said the shop already has a lot of regulars coming in.

The name Carl’s Candies is a tribute to the sisters’ late grandfather, Carl Foglia, another Northport native who worked at a butcher shop that used to be where Skipper’s Pub is now, as a limo driver for Northport residents, a real estate agent and more. He died in 2014.

Nisi said he would hang out in the village every day, stopping at many places like the Ritz Café.

“He was sort of like a fixture in town,” she said. “Obviously we miss him dearly, and when we saw the opportunity we agreed we had to name the shop after him.”

The co-owners said many shoppers have come in with stories and memories about Foglia. “We hear really funny stories that we haven’t heard before, which is fun,” Nisi-MacNeill said.

The sisters said there is plenty to come for the freshman candy shop. They plan to start making their own chocolate to sell in January, offer candy catering for events, set up monthly circle readings with local children’s authors, host make your own chocolate nights, sell homemade hot chocolate and more. They’ve already started creating some new ice cream flavors, the first name Tim’s Shipwreck Diner, after the popular breakfast eatery next door, which is a vanilla bean ice cream  with waffles and maple syrup ribbons in it.

The Northport Historical Society hosted its annual Holiday House Tour this past Sunday, Dec. 12. Several houses in the area were decked out in Christmas decorations, with musicians playing and treats for each guest.