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State Champion

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Team takes Division I title in Syracus, three Middle Country girls place in Top 10 in scoring

Middle Country’s girls bowling team took home its first state title since 2013 March 11 in Syracuse. Photo from Nicole Lettich

With a difficult oil pattern on the lane, the Middle Country girls bowling team knew what it was going to take to win a state title — and it had the talent to spare.

“We knew it would be tough bowling on a more challenging pattern, but we knew spares were going to be so important,” senior Nicole Lettich said. “As most of us say, strikes win games, but spares win tournaments. We are a strong team and knew we could take on whatever was thrown at us. We just needed to focus each game and make good shots. That’s exactly what we did.”

Amanda Scarfogliero leads off for Middle Country’s girls bowling team. Photo from Amanda Scarfogliero

Lettich, noted by head coach Mandy Dominguez as the most consistent bowler on the team, averaged a 191.67 over six games.

“She did great, she’s steady,” Dominguez said of his one of four seniors.

With her team up by just 118 pins heading into a crucial Game 6, she bowled a 223 to help seal the deal and a state title March 11 in Syracuse.

“My parents tell me all the time that I bowl with a poker face and don’t let bad scores phase me,” Lettich said. “I don’t really put any added pressure on myself, I just focus on making my spares and throwing good shots. When I throw a bad shot, I shake it off and get ready for the next frame.”

Lettich, who finished Sunday ranked fourth in New York, was one of three Middle Country bowlers to rank in the Top 10 in scoring. Junior Amanda Scarfogliero (No. 7) and freshman Hannah Skalacki (No. 2) were the others.

“I’ve never had a team improve in the offseason the way that this team did,” Dominguez said. “Last year we only had one 200 bowler, and this year I had five. The girls really stepped it up, and have so much grit and determination. We had a 280-pin lead at one point in the tournament and to lose that lead is hard for any team in any sport, losing a lead late in the game. They gut it out and brought it back. It says so much about their resiliency and willingness to never give up.”

Middle Country’s girls bowling teammates were all smiles on the bus ride home after being crowned state champions. Photo from Nicole Lettich

Middle Country won a state title in 2013 and since lost three battles to East Islip and one to Sachem for a ticket upstate. This year the girls took the league title before overcoming that county hurdle with a 43-pin win, and weren’t going to let an oil pattern stop them from going all the way. Scarfogliero said the team practiced for the 41-foot Tower of Pisa Kegel pattern, asymmetric in design with a shift to the inside, in the weeks leading up to the tournament. After averaging 215 at the county tournament, Middle Country finished with a 180 average upstate, according to Dominguez, proving even with practice how difficult the sport pattern can be.

“It was a whole new atmosphere,” said Scarfogliero, who leads off for her team. “It took us by surprise, but we worked together as a team so the oil pattern wasn’t as hard. We helped each other and with the oil pattern being so hard I didn’t even think I was going to make it up there [in scoring], but that wasn’t even a priority for me. I wanted to put my team in the best position to win states.”

For Skalacki, her freshman status shouldn’t be misunderstood. The three-year varsity team member bowled a 193.83 average, just about three pins under first. As the team’s anchor, she said there’s a lot of pressure when her team needs extra points at the end of each game, but she thrives under it.

Middle Country’s girls bowling team hoists up the state championship banner. Photo from Middle Country school district

“If we need a certain amount of pins to win, I have to get them, but I love the attention and the competition,” said Skalacki, who was strongest in the first three games, bowling a tournament-high 226 for Game 1. “It’s heart-dropping, and I love knowing I play a big part in helping the team come out with a win.”

She said after finally topping East Islip, she knew Middle Country had a lot to prove, and the team wasn’t going to settle for anything less than a perfect finish.

“We had the biggest motivation to win,” she said. “Now people know Middle Country and know how good we are. We wanted to prove people wrong — to show we have what it takes — and we did it.”

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Bowling right up twins’ alley

Bowling is how the Lettich twins roll.

The duo each competed for a state title last weekend in Syracuse, and clean swept their senior season with gold medals in their respective tournaments.

“It’s honestly breathtaking to make it this far and win it all,” Nicole Lettich said, noting that she was on the 2013 state championship winning team, but didn’t yet have the skills to be invited to compete. “Going to the state tournament with my brother who I’ve been so close with was probably the most amazing thing I could have done in my senior year.”

Middle Country twins Nicole and Thomas Lettich took home state gold. Photo from Nicole Lettich

The twins’ mother bowled in high school, and found they had their own itch to compete after competing in a league in second grade.

“Bowling is such an underrated sport in high school, and to finally win it all proves to schools that bowling shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet, but actually acknowledged more because it is a very difficult sport,” she said. “A lot of people don’t see it that way.”

Middle Country finished with a grand total 5,332 pins, nearly 200 ahead of second-place finisher Orchard Park (5,157). Her brother Thomas Lettich competed on the Section XI boys All-Star team. He’d averaged 224 during the regular season, and said even though he’d won his team’s MVP awards, and was named an All-Star, All-County and All-League bowler, he was most confident competing because of the last month’s worth of practicing six day a week.

“I have grown so much over the years, improving my physical and mental game,” he said. “Since I am a lefty and had an advantage and disadvantage since I’m the only one on the left side. The lanes were brand new, so I knew it was going to be difficult, but being chosen to compete on this team with a group of boys that I was very close with and were fun to bowl with was a goal of mine.”

He said it was a unique experience competing alongside his sister.

“When I am bowling bad she supports me and helps me, and when she’s bowling bad I support her and help her,” Thomas Lettich said. “She unfortunately didn’t have the ability to watch me, but I was able to cheer her on in her match and it was exciting to have the chance to be together. We had great accomplishments and it’s a great way to go out.”

Teams up with twin brother Elijah, Dan O'Connor and Thomas Fodor to take first in 4x800 relay

Isaiah Claiborne crosses the 1,000-meter run finish line at the state championships March 3. Photo from MileSplit

Isaiah Claiborne could see his Fairport foe hot on his trail. Like last year, the 1,000-meter run came down to a final lap sprint, but midway through it, Claiborne kicked it into high gear and never looked back. The Northport senior crossed the finish line in a state-championship winning 2 minutes, 26.95 seconds at Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island March 3.

“A week ago my arm was too locked up and I knew I needed to work on that,” Claiborne said. “Today, I got out and I just wanted to be fast, especially since I was on the outside. I didn’t want to be slow to get stuck behind. I left it all on the track.”

Elijah Claiborne comes in a photo-finish second place in the 1,600-meter run. Photo from MileSplit

After leading early in the race, Claiborne fell into third place, but worked his way back into prime position. With 150 meters left, and the field looking like it might leave him behind, he made the move that made all the difference. His time was a new school record and second-best in New York State. It also set a new meet record, breaking Liam Purdy of North Rockland’s 2014 mark of 2:27.63.

“It’s awesome to come out here and win among big competition,” Claiborne said. “I tried to stay relaxed, make it my own race and not get too nervous. My coach says stay composed, stay relaxed, and that’s what I did.”

Of three sets of twins in contention to sweep events at states, Claiborne’s twin brother Elijah was closest to making it happen. Schenectady’s Maazin Ahmed got in the way though, maintaining his lead to the end line to come through with a photo-finish win. The two runners completed the 1,600 in 2:15.543 and 2:15.548 in a race where no one person stayed in first for long.

Northport’s 4×800 relay team of twin brothers Elijah and Isaiah Claiborne, Dan O’Connor and Thomas Fodor were crowned public school state champs. Photo from NYSPHSAA

“After just missing placing at states last year, I used that emotion to propel me toward the finish line.” Ahmed said. “I knew the race was going to be tight — anybody had a chance to win. I stayed with the pack and kicked fast at the end.”

Babylon’s Vlad Cullinane, who has been the top high jumper in the state all season, made it official by clearing six feet, seven inches. Shoreham-Wading River’s Richard Casazza was second, clearing 6-6.

“I was battling with [Casazza] all season and we were inches away from each other,” Cullinane said. “Every time I saw him miss, it felt pretty good. I was working on my form, and it feels great to beat him again.”

Northport’s 4×800 relay quartet of Elijah and Isaiah Claiborne, Dan O’Connor and Thomas Fodor were also public school state champions, completing the event in 7:56.52. The same team minus Fodor, finished first in the outdoor state championship last year.

“I don’t like going head-to-head,” Isaiah Claiborne joked. “My guys always give me a gap so I don’t have to worry about it.”

He and the rest of his relay team will compete at New Balance Indoor Nationals March 9-11 at the Armory Track in New York City.

“I won’t think about it too much,” Claiborne said heading into this weekend. “I’m definitely confident, and I’m going to take it all in.”

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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Mustangs' suffocating defense holds off Skaneateles, while offense racks up 12 goals in win, to prove these girls are just as strong as those on last season's squad

By Adrian Szkolar

Even though Saturday was her birthday, Hannah Van Middelem was focused on other things.

The Mount Sinai junior goalkeeper’s mindset was instead the same as her teammates’, and all they were thinking was: officially prove the many doubters wrong with the last game of the season.

Playing against Section III’s Skaneateles in the Class C state final at SUNY Cortland, the Mustangs played their usual strong defensive game, shutting down the Lakers’ offense on their way to a 12-3 win and second consecutive state title.

Mission accomplished.

“We just wanted to come out, play as a team and win,” said Van Middelem, who made five saves and was named the tournament’s MVP after the game. “No one ever picked us to win any games. We just wanted to prove everyone wrong.”

All in all, the MVP award and the state title were pretty good birthday gifts.

“It’s special to me, but really my defense helped me win it,” she said. “We communicated with each other and listened to each other. We just played a great team game today.”

After graduating seven players from last year’s state title-winning team, including last year’s state tournament MVP in Kasey Mitchell, few gave Mount Sinai the thought of being able to repeat.

To start, the team’s younger players had to step up to fill the void on offense, and the team would have to improve defensively.

“People doubted us all year, and rightly so, but it’s a testament to our program that our kids have been able to step up and fill the breach,” Mount Sinai head coach Al Bertolone said. “We didn’t rebuild, we re-loaded. We pushed them all year, and they accepted the challenge and every week, we kept getting better.”

The improvement the team made since the start the season was especially evident against Skaneateles.

After Mount Sinai senior midfielder Caroline Hoeg and Skaneateles’ Abby Kuhns exchanged goals to start the game, the Mustangs opened the floodgates.

First came a goal from senior midfielder Erica Shea, who took a feed from Hoeg in front while unmarked and easily finished at the 13:22 mark.

Then there was a goal from sophomore Camryn Harloff. Then senior Meghan Walker. Then junior Leah Nonnenmann. Then sophomore Meaghan Tyrrell.

The Mustangs went into halftime with a 6-1 lead, with six different goal scorers.

“From the beginning, we knew we had to come out strong because [Skaneateles] wasn’t going to let up,” said Shea, who is also the team’s primary draw taker. “We had to come out of the box roaring, and that’s what we did.”

Harloff, an attack, and junior midfielder Rayna Sabella tacked on two more goals to start the second half to put the game out of reach.

Tyrrell, an attack, finished with three goals for the second straight game, and added an assist. Shea also had three goals, Harloff netted two goals and an assist, and Hoeg contributed a goal and an assist.

While Mount Sinai, which came into the game ranked third in Class C in the New York State Sportswriters’ Association rankings, and was the favorite coming into the finals, that was far from the case back at the start of the playoffs.

Most observers saw Bayport-Blue Point, an unbeaten team featuring All-American Kerrigan Miller, along with Nassau County’s Cold Spring Harbor, a team with wins against bigger lacrosse powerhouses such as Garden City and Rockland County’s Suffern, as the favorites for the state title.

Back in April, the Mustangs were dismantled by Bayport-Blue Point in a 10-2 loss.

“When you have adversity in your season, it can either galvanize and make you stronger or break you up,” Bertolone said. “It made us stronger. We believe in pressure defense, and our kids bought into it.”

A month later, the Mustangs turned heads by shocking Bayport-Blue Point in the county final, and followed that up with an upset over Cold Spring Harbor in the Long Island championship to get back to Cortland.

After that, the road to the championship was paved. Before Saturday’s game, the Mustangs got a comfortable 10-3 win over Section V’s Honeoye Falls-Lima in Friday’s state semifinals.

“It feels good to be the underdog and come out on top,” Shea said. “This year, it’s really special; no one believed in us, and we proved people wrong, from counties all the way to here. And now we’re state champs.”

After Saturday’s game, Van Middelem said that the team’s celebration of the title win, her birthday and proving the non-believers her team could remain its own powerhouse, would be relatively low-key.

“We’ll just have a fun bus ride home,” she said.

A fine way to celebrate proving the critics wrong.

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