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Suffolk County

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Mount Sinai’s cheerleading team, a county, state and national champion, bounced back after having its seven-year streak of first-place Empire Regional finishes snapped, to win the first meet of the regular season. Photo from Megan Wesolowski

For the first time in seven years, Mount Sinai’s cheerleading team fell short of a first-place finish at the Empire Regional championship. The girls could have sulked, hung their heads and given up the idea of maintaining their national prowess. Instead, the Mustangs used the slip to second place to fuel their fire.

“We put out an amazing routine that we were very proud of,” senior captain Alexa Tabile said of Mount Sinai’s 88.1 score Dec. 2 at Nassau County Community College that still earned the team a bid to nationals. “We took a step back and saw we need to be better, because the team that beat us was better. It’s just as simple as that.”

The girls went into the next practice asking what they could do to get back on top, and worked at it.

Mount Sinai sticks a routine. Photo from Megan Wesolowski

“I try to motivate my teammates before practice and tell them we need to be supporting each other,” Tabile said, adding that the team takes everything in stride. “It’s something I felt we did, and it led to our next first-place finish. We focus on what’s coming up next, but always have the big picture in mind.”

The Mustangs ended up in the No. 1 spot Dec. 11 at Longwood, redeeming themselves from a bobble in the pyramid at the regional competition and a fall at the  meet.

Tabile said she was still afraid of once again coming in second, because more points are deducted for a fall.

“There was a little bit of doubt,” she said. “We thought maybe the fall really put us back, but we knew we put out a routine that was clean, and everything else in the routine we hit beautifully. We kept going.”

Mount Sinai placed fifth in the state championship earlier this year after taking first in the inaugural state competition in 2016. The Mustangs won the county title last season and have a history of placing at nationals, coming in third in February and in 2015, and first in 2016 and 2014.

“They feel a great amount of pressure knowing that we have a long tradition of winning,” said first-year head coach Megan Wesolowski, who coached the district’s middle school team for the last five years and took over for long-standing leader Samantha Melella following the birth of her child. “They want to make the people that made this program proud. They’re proving that one fall or one mishap never carries through an entire routine, and Alexa Tabile is leading the team through everything. She’s one of our best back spots with great tumbling skills. Cheer-related or not, she’s there for every girl that needs her.”

Mount Sinai’s cheerleading team earned a bid to nationals next yea.r Photo from Megan Wesolowski

Mount Sinai, as Suffolk County’s only Division II Large team, competed against Division I Large schools, which made the win this time around even sweeter. Wesolowski petitioned for her team’s step up in competition.

“It’s great to have teams to compete against, and especially to be able to compete against schools with a bigger pool of girls to choose from,” she said. “Competing against yourself you kind of lose that competitive edge. We didn’t want to end up going down to nationals next year with a false sense of security.”

Tabile said the jump has not only forced her team to improve its skills and routine, but it has also been more fun.

“Now, we go to competitions and we know we have to be on point,” she said. “Going out there last year, it didn’t matter if we were doing forward rolls on the mat for two-and-half minutes, we were still getting first place. Now, we’re driven to put in the extra work because we’re competing against other teams with national titles.”

After new and old players quit the team, and through injuries and adjusting to a new coach, Mount Sinai worked to remain competitive, and Tabile said this learning experience is only making the Mustangs stronger.

“We’ve clicked very well,” she said. “Coach Wesolowski motivates us in every way and we want to do better for her. It hasn’t been the easiest season for us — we’ve had our fair share of challenges throughout the season — but I feel like we’ve never had a team with this kind of bond, where we pick each other up and say, ‘Hey, things haven’t been going as we’ve planned, and we’ve had our hardships, but we can move on from this.’”

Stock photo

Suffolk County shoppers, get your nickels ready.

In an effort to encourage residents to shop with reusable bags instead of plastic and paper “carryout” bags that harm the environment, the Suffolk County Legislature is rolling out a 5 cent fee on all disposable bags at a variety of retail establishments, from supermarkets to department stores beginning Jan. 1.

The new law, which was officially passed by the Legislature in September 2016, applies only to the single-use plastic or paper bags provided by cashiers at the end of a sale and used to carry goods from the store. There won’t be a fee, however, on bags found in produce sections for fruits and vegetables, frozen foods or on bags by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs, according to the law.

Cashiers are required to add the total fees to a customer’s receipt based on how many bags are used. Residents can avoid the fee by either buying a reusable bag — ones made of cloth or canvas, which are available in many retail stores — or shopping with a bag from home.

“Hopefully people will say ‘I’m not paying 5 cents’ and go with the other options,” said Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), who wrote the legislation to reduce the influx of plastic bag waste that gets trapped in trees, blocks storm drains and causes significant damage to water supplies and wildlife. “We’re hoping to change behaviors. While we won’t change everyone’s, this will change a lot of people’s and that can make a big difference. I think once people start to not use the plastic bags, they’re not going to really miss them.”

Spencer’s bill began in March 2016 as a ban on all single-use plastic bags, piggybacking off an initiative adopted by the Town of Southampton, but it didn’t receive enough support. This revised bill was co-sponsored and pushed by five legislators, including Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), and 140 out of 150 residents who weighed in on the initiative during a public hearing testimony.

As of Jan. 1, shoppers will be paying for paper and plastic bags at most retail stores, encouraging others to use reusable bags. Stock photo

The legislators also worked alongside a Suffolk County plastic bag working group, which consists of local scientists, educators, environmentalists, business people and government employees.

“We have to curtail the use of plastic bags,” Krupski said. “They’re everywhere. I would encourage people not to pay the fee. It’s all just a matter of changing your habits and keeping a shopping bag in your vehicle to have it at the ready. It’ll take time for people to get used to that, but like anything else, people will get used to it.”

A 5 cent fee on plastic and paper bags was adopted in Washington, D.C., in 2010 and the accumulated nickels have contributed a total $10 million to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, as of 2015.

As mandated by New York State, however, the fees collected in this bill will be retained by the stores. Not being able to apply the collection to an environmental cause convinced a Democratic legislator not to support the law.

“That 5 cent charge should go back into the environment,” said Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who voted “No.” “Instead, the fees are going back into the pockets of the stores. The legislation needed work.”

Anker also said she received outcry from constituents over the concept of fees.

“A lot of the community, especially the senior population, did not want to pay extra for the plastic bags,” she said. “But I will say, plastic is a really harsh environmental pollutant.”

Spencer said he plans to revisit the legislation after a year to evaluate the financial impact it’s having and ask the state to allow funds to be used for environmental purposes.

“It would be great to do that, but only the state has that ability,” Spencer said. “The state may make that decision.”

Jay Peltz, general counsel and vice president of government relations at Food Industry Alliance, which represents 800 state supermarket chains, convenience stores and wholesalers, including Stop & Shop and King Kullen, which will be charging the fees, said it’s a current law where everybody wins.

“It will help the environment and it will help the stores,” he said. “It’s a thoughtful, productive law and is the only way to both reduce plastic bag distribution while incentivizing people to increase their use of reusable bags.”

He added that the fees may be used to help pay for higher minimum wages expected to be put in place in the coming year, but store owners are still weighing the options.


Survey: Shoppers still prefer plastic
By Desirée Keegan

A local survey conducted shows that just 5 percent of shoppers bring reusable bags.

The finding, coming ahead of a 2018 Suffolk County law banning the free use of plastic and paper bags at a vast majority of retail stores, was concluded after students from Northport, Brentwood, Huntington, Smithtown, East Islip and North Babylon, with member of St. Joseph’s College, surveyed 11,395 shoppers in November and December, in front of grocery stores, convenience stores and a pharmacies.

New Suffolk County environmental law prohibits plastic and paper bags in favor of eco-friendly reusable ones. Stock photo

The polling, organized by a county-created task force to help educate the public about the bill, found 71 percent of individuals use plastic bags, while the balance use paper, a combination, or no bag.

The survey will be repeated next year to analyze the effect of the law on consumer behavior, according to
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She said she hopes between 60 and 70 percent of residents are bringing reusable bags by next year.

“Reducing litter, marine pollution and saving our oceans are worth changing our habits,” Esposito said.

While plastic bags drew the ire of environmentalists and lawmakers, the law also requires stores to charge for paper bags, as well as thicker “reusable” plastic bags, to prevent stores from circumventing the law, Spencer said.

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), the bill’s primary sponsor, said county residents should contact his office at 631-854-4500 for a reusable bag, especially if you cannot afford one.

“If you need a reusable bag, come see me,” Spencer said, adding he bought 1,000 reusable bags to give away.

The race between Republican Larry Zacarese and Democrat Errol Toulon appears to be over. Photo on left by Alex Petroski; photo on right by Rita J. Egan

The wait is over.

Nearly a month after Election Day, Suffolk County residents finally know who will replace outgoing Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C) in 2018. Former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain Errol Toulon Jr. (D) emerged ahead of Stony Brook University Assistant Chief of Police Larry Zacarese (R) by a slim margin Nov. 7 in the race to be the next county sheriff, and after thousands of absentee ballots have been counted, Toulon’s lead has held up.

“I am proud of the campaign we ran and the hard work of our volunteers,” Toulon said in a statement. “I look forward to combating gang violence and the opioid epidemic in Suffolk, and to introduce a strong re-entry program for those leaving county jails.”

The victory makes Toulon the first African-American elected official in a nonjudicial countywide position in Suffolk’s history, according to campaign manager Keith Davies.

“I think his experience just resonated with folks,” Davies said. “People wanted a sheriff that is ready to tackle the issues.”

In an emailed statement through a campaign spokesperson, Zacarese said he was disappointed and announced, “We did not make up the ground we needed in order to prevail.” A spokesperson from the Suffolk County Board of Elections confirmed Toulon had won the race, though a final tally was not immediately available at the time of print. The spokesperson said Toulon held a 2,000-vote lead as of Dec. 1 with about 1,000 ballots left to be counted.

“I want to thank all of the supporters and volunteers who spent countless hours working alongside me both on the campaign trail over the last year and at the Board of Elections over these last few weeks,” Zacarese said. “I am proud of the campaign we ran, the honest and tireless work of our volunteers and the light that was shown on the electoral process here in Suffolk County. I wish the hardworking and dedicated men and women of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office only the best and congratulate Errol Toulon Jr. on winning the election.”

Zacarese trailed Toulon by just 1,354 votes prior to the counting of absentee ballots, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections. The absentee ballots were counted by a bipartisan team of department employees in addition to representatives from both campaigns at the Board of Elections office in Yaphank over a few weeks. Nick LaLota, the department’s commissioner, said on election night at about 8:30 p.m. on Twitter the department had received more than 13,500 absentee ballots to that point, though more were expected.

Toulon began serving as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in 1982 and retired as a captain in 2004. For two years he was assistant deputy county executive for public safety in Suffolk, and in 2014 he was named deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Department of Corrections.

“I’ve been able to learn a lot on various levels inside of a correctional agency, and while that’s not the entire makeup of the sheriff’s department, it is a good portion of it,” Toulon said during a pre-election interview.

Toulon’s victory completes a sweep for the Democrats in the two high-profile Suffolk County races in 2017. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini (D) defeated Ray Perini (R) with 62.08 percent of the vote in the Nov. 7 general election to secure the county’s district attorney seat, a position left vacant following the indictment and resignation of Tom Spota (D).

DeMarco announced in May he wouldn’t seek re-election after 12 years in the position.

This post was updated to include quotes from Toulon Dec. 7.

Brianna Florio, on right, was honored by the Sound Beach Civic Association and president Bea Ruberto, on left, for her community involvement. Photo from Sound Beach Civic Association

A Sound Beach Girl Scout recently solidified the organization’s highest honor by helping children who live in a temporary shelter feel a little more at home.

Brianna Florio, an 18-year-old Sound Beach resident and a member of Rocky Point Girl Scout Troop 2945, has been working since last year to better the lives of 16 children who reside at Halo House in Sound Beach, a shelter for families in crisis.

While staffers within the home — which gets its funding from the Department of Social Services — do all they can to help the four families currently living under one roof get their cases under control, find employment and locate more permanent housing, helping young children adjust to their new environment is a constant challenge.

Brianna Florio will be receiving her Gold Award next month after working with children at Halo House in Sound Beach to paint a mural to make the place feel more like home. Photo from Brianna Florio

So when it came time to pick a community outreach project in summer 2016 to fulfill the requirements for her Gold Award, the Rocky Point High School graduate, who learned of the shelter from one of her troop leaders, set her sights on making it more kid-friendly.

“I knew this would be a good fit for her,” said Donna McCauley, her troop leader who first became aware of the Halo House through St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach. “Brianna is very dedicated, has a very generous spirit and is always ready to help anyone in need. It also gave her a way to express herself creatively, which she’s very good at.”

Florio utilized her artistic talent and painted a large mural on the wall in the shelter’s dining room depicting animals having a tea party, installed a bench to be placed in the property’s yard and hosted a toy and book drive at her high school. Through that event, Florio brought multiple boxes of donated entertainment for children of different ages to the Halo House — items that are sorely needed, according to shelter manager Joe Pellegrino.

“[Brianna] definitely helped bring the kids a sense of community within the neighborhood of Sound Beach,” he said, adding the children in the shelter were eager to be involved in her mural project. “The younger ones would wait for her to come, and when she got here, they would say, ‘Can you paint a snake? Can you put a hat and bowtie on it?’ It betters the children’s state of minds when they’re at the shelter, because they get a sense that it’s a home and not just a place they’re forced to live in.”

Pellegrino said the mural has become a center of pride in the home and is even used as an educational tool to teach the children about the different animals depicted.

“It really warmed my heart to see the kids and their smiling faces and just how excited they were about it,” Florio said of the mural. “It was really nice to see it all finished, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it.”

She will officially receive her Gold Award from the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County council in December.

Although it was an independent project for the Girl Scout, Florio was able to acquire paints and various supplies through local donations, like from Costello’s Ace Hardware of Rocky Point. She also received support from her school district, where she was a member of the Be a Nicer Neighbor Club, a group that cooked for the homeless and performed songs at senior citizen homes during the holidays.

“Brianna is very dedicated, has a very generous spirit and is always ready to help anyone in need. It also gave her a way to express herself creatively, which she’s very good at.”

—Donna McCauley

“I think if anybody is deserving of a Gold Award, it’s Brianna,” Rocky Point High School Principal Susann Crossan said. “What sets her apart from everybody else is she has a constant concern for other people. She’s been involved in so many activities within the high school that involve giving back. She was an extremely well-rounded and kind student.”

Florio’s project was also no surprise to Nancy Kloska, the director of an aftercare program for children at Mount Sinai Elementary School, where Florio currently serves as a mentor helping students with homework, playing games with them and leading fun activities.

“She’s warm, approachable, responsible and the kids really love interacting with her — Brianna always has a large group around her,” Kloska said. “I think she just brings out the best in the kids and is such a positive role model. I can’t say enough good things about Brianna. I think she’s wonderful.”

Florio was bestowed a certificate of appreciation by elected officials and community members for her Gold Award efforts during a Sound Beach Civic Association meeting Nov. 13. Civic president Bea Ruberto later said in an interview that Florio is a shining example of upstanding youth in the community.

“We were so proud to honor Brianna at our meeting — she’s very community-minded and is always there to help and give back,” said Ruberto, pointing out that Florio has helped with the civic’s pet adoption efforts and contributed a drawing in honor of the civic’s 40th anniversary. “We often hear about all the kids who behave badly and do this or that, and we really make an attempt in the civic to showcase the good kids. She’s a very fine young lady.”

Florio is currently pursuing a career in computer science and game programming as a freshman at Stony Brook University.

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By Bill Landon

Miller Place’s football team may have fallen just short of a Long Island championship title, but the Panthers have a lot to be proud of.

Despite losing the heart and soul of its running game at the start of the season, the team propelled itself in a positive trajectory for senior Tyler Ammirato. The Panthers finished second in the Division IV standings at 7-1 behind undefeated Babylon.

Miller Place’s football program shook off the semifinal round jinx by shutting out Shoreham-Wading River to advance to the Suffolk County championship game. It was the second time the Panthers beat Shoreham this season in pursuit of the program’s first county title, which was won with a 33-25 besting of Babylon Nov. 16.

“This team had its backs against the wall from the beginning … but we just kept plugging along,” Miller Place head coach Greg Murphy said. “To get to this point, it’s a true measure of their character.”

Taking care of the running duties all season long was senior quarterback Anthony Seymour, who struck first for the Panthers in a 29-27 loss to Seaford in the Long Island finals Nov. 24 on a keeper up the middle for a 4-yard touchdown with a chance to tie the game. With the point-after kick attempt hitting off the left goalpost, the team was down by one to start scoring for the first, 7-6.

Defense had been the Panthers’ strength this year, and the group came up big with an interception in the end zone by Sebastian Cannon, but Seaford returned the favor on Miller Place’s first play from scrimmage.

Ammirato, who returned to the team midseason, scored the next points by punching into the end zone in the second quarter, and caught a pass for a 2-point conversion to end scoring for the third, which closed the gap to leave the Panthers trailing by two, 22-20 after a Seymour-to-Tom Nealis touchdown pass.

Senior wide receiver Anthony Filippetti pulled down a 22-yard strike from Seymour and went the distance in response to another Seaford touchdown, and kicker Cameron Hammer split the uprights as Miller Place remained trailing by two with 8:50 left to play. The Panthers came up with another stop, but an interception with 1:46 left in regulation sealed their fate.

“These kids have gotten a taste of what it’s like to be a part of something you preach about since August — that goal was to get to the Long Island championship,” Murphy said. “They got here, they experienced all of it and hopefully that’s the motivation for the title going forward — to know that they can do it.”

Centereach Fire Department teamed up with Operation Christmas Child to collect shoeboxes filled with gifts to be donated to needy children. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

It wasn’t quite Santa’s sleigh, but it was large, red and carried presents, so an ambulance was good enough for the Selden Fire Department, which took over Santa’s duties last week and stuffed 100 shoeboxes with gifts for poor young children all over the world.

Volunteers help fill a Selden Fire Department
ambulance with shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Most of these boxes are going to go to kids who never even get a gift,” Selden Fire Department Treasurer Vincent Ammirati said. “This is something that will put a smile on a face, and this is the fire department — everything we do here is for other people. All we do is try put a smile on people’s faces.”

The shoeboxes were collected as part of Operation Christmas Child, a function of the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse. The organization takes the shoeboxes from drop-off points in local churches before sending them to distribution centers that will ship them to poor communities in Africa, South America, Asia and others. The shoeboxes are labeled by age and gender, and usually contain toys like inflatable soccer balls or stuffed animals, but mostly they contain hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes along with school supplies like books and pencils.

All seven companies within the Selden Fire Department helped contribute to the stack, with some companies acting as a group and other members of the fire department contributing indipendently.

Children in Uganda receive shoeboxes of gifts from
Operation Christmas Child last year. Photo from
Danielle McCarthy

Volunteer firefighter and Operation Christmas Child Long Island Coordinator Danielle McCarthy headed the fire department’s collection drive. She said she got the idea of filling an ambulance full of shoeboxes from watching the Los Angeles Police Department and how a funeral home had pulled in with a hearse full of shoe boxes.

McCarthy has been involved with Operation Christmas Child for more than a decade, first packing boxes before becoming a local packing leader, and then area coordinator. In 2012 McCarthy travelled to Uganda to help hand out shoeboxes.

“As we put shoe boxes into their hands and they opened up those boxes I saw their delight,” she said. “To look at them having physical needs met, to be able to see the joy that came to them from these simple things like school supplies and toys and that sort of thing, that impacted me. But what really impacted me even more, and what keeps me packing shoeboxes, were all the kids standing outside the place who didn’t get shoeboxes because there wasn’t enough to give to everybody.”

Shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child were collected with gifts to be
donated to needy children.
Photo by Kyle Barr

Every box also comes with a picture book called “The Greatest Gift,” put inside after each is packed. The book depicts a number of biblical stories told in that country’s native language. There was a $9 fee for every package, which pays for both the book and shipping costs. The fire department pulled together $900 to go toward this cost.

“Every one of these shoeboxes to us is not just a gift that we’re giving to a child, but around Christmas time Jesus is a gift we try to give, too,” said Victor Rossomano, an Operation Christmas Child Suffolk County-area coordinator. “It’s in their language and their culture. We try to keep it within their culture; we try not to send America to them, we want them to be who they are.”

Ammirati helped McCarthy drive the shoeboxes to the drop-off point at the Grace Gospel Church in Patchogue. He said he plans on using his officer status with the Suffolk County Volunteer Fireman’s Association to try and spread the idea out to all the different fire departments in the county.

“It’s a great way to show our community presence with the fire department and also for Operation Christmas Child,” McCarthy said. “It’s taken a few years to get this rolling, but when we challenged the fire department to fill the ambulance, as you can see, the guys stepped up.”

The 100 boxes kicked off national collection week, which ran from Nov. 13 to 20. In 2009, Suffolk County gathered 7,100 boxes, but the number has grown. The group is hoping to have 20,000 boxes packed this year

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The defensive end's big stop, catches lead Panthers

By Bill Landon

Miller Place’s Panthers made a stand.

The football team’s defense rose to the occasion when the Suffolk County championship title was on the line in a 25-25 game with just under two minutes left to play.

As No. 1-seeded Babylon barreled toward the end zone at Stony Brook University Nov. 16, No. 2 Miller Place’s defense forced a turnover on fourth-and-8 at their 34-yard line, and Anthony Seymour scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession to put the Division IV game away, 33-25. The win clinched Miller Place’s first football title since the championships began in 1992.

At the heart of it all was 5-foot, 3-inch senior Anthony Filippetti, who made the stop to force the turnover and followed it up by getting behind the secondary for a 27-yard reception to the Babylon 6 to set up the final score. The catch came after Seymour was sacked for a 7-yard loss.

To cap the championship-winning drive, Seymour faked a handoff to Tyler Ammirato heading over right tackle, and bolted off left tackle for a 3-yard rush into the end zone that snapped a 25-all tie with 21 seconds left.

“After we stopped them on downs I looked at Anthony [Seymour] and said, ‘If we don’t get in the end zone I’m never talking to you again,’” Ammirato said jokingly. “But he did, and we got the win. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

The county title-winning drive started with 1:45 left. Ammirato, a Seymour-to-Tom Nealis connection and Filippetti helped the Panthers drive 66 yards in seven plays.

“With our playmaker — Nealis — it’s comforting to know that you have a kid like that,” Miller Place head coach Greg Murphy said. “It makes you feel that you’re never really out of it. He’s been doing that all year long.”

Filippetti scored the first Miller Place touchdown of the evening on a 54-yard run on the second play from scrimmage and Cameron Hammer’s kick tied it at 7 with 7:43 left in the first quarter.

Babylon capped the first with another touchdown, but the point-after attempt failed, making the lead 13-7 heading into the second.

Seymour and Nealis were at it again to open the second, with Nealis catching a 34-yard pass from his field general. The teams were tied again when the Panthers’ point-after attempt also went wayward.

Nealis hauled in a 54-yard pass and run soon after, being forced out at the 2-yard line to set up Ammirato’s first of two touchdowns. The kicks failed on both and the scores were separated by a Babylon touchdown.

“In the beginning of the game we ran the ball trying to establish the ground game to eat up the clock,” Murphy said. “We needed that a little bit trying to get Tyler [Ammirato] going.”

Matt McNulty charged the Babylon holder after its final score and pulled off the block, which shifted momentum back Miller Place’s way.

“It was just a big moment — I had to pick up my teammates, I just had to do what I could,” the defensive end said. “I was hyped — I wanted that ball back and a chance to make a play and that’s what happened. We knew that the toughest defense was going to win today and making a stop like that in a championship game is what it’s all about.”

Miller Place (10-1) will meet Seaford (9-2) Nov. 24 at noon at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium in its first appearance in the Long Island Class IV championship game.

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Port Jefferson sophomore grabs gold in 100-yard backstroke, 200 individual medley for second season

Kyra Sommerstad represents Port Jefferson at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Sommerstad

By Desirée Keegan

Coach Mark Anderson asked Port Jefferson swimmer Kyra Sommerstad what her goal was heading into the 200 individual medley race at the Suffolk County championships Nov. 4.

“I want to go 2:04,” she answered, which would be a career best for the sophomore.

By the time she touched the wall, Kyra had completed the 200 yards in 2 minutes, 4 seconds, which also earned her a first-place finish.

Kyra Sommerstad represents Port Jefferson at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Sommerstad

“Watching her swim, she looked great,” said Anderson, her Three Village Swim Club coach for the last two years. “She had gone a 2:04, and I thought that spoke to the kind of person she is. She’s incredibly driven, very positive and she goes into every race knowing what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. It makes me proud to see someone grow the way she has over the last couple of years to someone that is capable of setting a goal in her mind and achieving it.”

On top of placing first in the individual medley, Kyra also grabbed gold in the 100 backstroke.

“I knew from last year that I could win,” said Kyra of the county meet at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus. “I really went into it determined and I really wanted to win the same events that I won the year before.”

Being the top seed gave her confidence going in that she could reclaim the county crown in both races, she said. She said Anderson and Port Jefferson head coach Mary Fleckenstein helped her work on her technique and mentality to get her ready to race. Prior to getting into the water, she stretched and listened to pop music to get in the zone.

“I swam some fast times before counties so I knew where I was going into it,” she said. “I get myself pumped up by listening to music. I just didn’t want to drop my spot.”

Port Jefferson athletic director Danielle Turner said seeing all that the swimmer has been able to accomplish at such a young age is inspiring.

Kyra Sommerstad represents Port Jefferson at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Sommerstad

“Kyra is an outstanding student and an overall great person,” Turner said. “She never looks for recognition or praise, however her accomplishments and incredible ability should absolutely be highlighted. She has represented Port Jefferson in the most positive of ways and on many stages.  We could not be more proud of Kyra, and we are excited to see what the future holds for this young talent.”

Fleckenstein shared a similar sentiment, adding that she’s been a joy to work with.

“She’s very impressive,” the coach said of Kyra. “She’s such a sweet girl. She’s gracious, she’s easy to work with. She doesn’t go in with an ‘I’m going to win because I’m the best’ attitude. She gets in the pool and does her job.”

Anderson and Fleckenstein have seen the sophomore mature over the last year, and said they think bigger and better accomplishments are ahead.

“She challenges herself every day,” Fleckenstein said. “She doesn’t like to miss practice. They’re all signs she’s headed in the right direction. There’s some untapped talent in there, and her club coach has been doing a great job bringing her along. By the time she graduates she’ll be sought after by many colleges.”

Kyra Sommerstad placed first in the 100-yard breastroke and 200 individual medley at the Suffolk County championships. Photo from Port Jefferson school district

Her Three Village Swim Club coach has been focusing on underwater work with his swimmer, including off-the-block movements, hand speed, tempo and turns.

“I’ve been extremely happy with how she’s raced so far without having time to rest,” Anderson said. “In the next couple of weeks she has the state championship, the winter junior nationals down in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then she’s going to have our team’s travel meet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of fine-tuning this week that goes into hopefully putting together the perfect race this weekend and it’s going to be a real test to see how she’s prepared over the last couple of months.”

He added, with her attitude, he knows she’ll succeed.

“She is incredibly positive, incredibly hard-working, dedicated, she’s a great student in the classroom and just getting to know her and getting to see her grow up and mature has been a real enjoyment for me,” he said. “She is a coaches dream.”

Kyra validated Anderson’s comments, saying she’s ready for what lies ahead.

“I’ll be working really hard in the pool and perfecting my technique,” she said. “I’m getting ready to swim fast.”

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Patriots claim county crown for first time in three years

Ward Melville’s swim team may have thought it was a rebuilding year, but the Patriots proved they’re faster builders than some might have expected.

After claiming the Suffolk County crown 23 years in a row, the Patriots had placed fourth and fifth at the last two county meets. This year, Ward Melville returned to form, taking home the League II title with a perfect 6-0 record, and retrieving the county championship at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus Nov. 4 with 269 points, well ahead of Connetquot with 231 points and Northport-Commack with 225.

“I don’t think going into the season we were looking at a possible county championship to be honest,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Gordon said. “We have a very young team and we thought we were rebuilding, but these girls surprised me. We still had depth, which has always been a team strength at Ward Melville, but some of these young girls shined.”

The team’s 200-yard medley relay opened the meet and finished first in 1 minute, 47.86 seconds to beat a 2012 school record. First off the block was senior Victoria Bogdanski.

“We have a very young team and we thought we were rebuilding, but these girls surprised me.”

—Chris Gordon

“I just thought about trying my best and being there for my team,” she said. “We didn’t know we were close to the record, so once we finished the race, we were all so excited. We all had this motivation and excitement that carried through the meet.”

Riley Gavigan, Sydney Boals and Kaitlyn Ehlers finished out the relay with personal-best times. Gavigan said she too was only thinking about her team.

“I wanted to score points, so I was going as fast as I could,” she said. “I knew I wouldn’t just let down myself, I’d be letting down my whole team. We had to be in the right mindset, and we got each other pumped and ready to win.”

Gavigan qualified for three individual events, the 100 breaststroke, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley but could only compete in two, forgoing the backstroke.

The sophomore placed second in both, finishing the individual medley in 2:08.22 and breaststroke in a school-record time of 1:04.98, just a hair off first-place finisher Margaret Purcell of Southampton, who won in 1:04.34. Gavigan said she was not expecting to break a Ward Melville record that had stood since 1990 in the individual medley, the only record Gordon had not seen broken during his tenure.

“I want to improve every year,” she said. “So heading into the meet I had tunnel vision. I was focused on myself and not everyone else around me.”

Sydney’s not the kind that backs down — she’s no wilting flower, she likes to meet the challenge and she wants to see the best swimmer. Riley is quieter, not as vocally out there, but she works hard and leads by example.”

— Chris Gordon

Boals qualified to compete in four events — the 100 and 200 freestyles, 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke — deciding to take part in both freestyles. She placed first in the 100 in 53.13 seconds and second in the 200 in 1:54.14.

“I was shocked I won the 100 freestyle — those girls were a lot older than me,” she said. “I’m usually a mid-distance competitor, so I was excited to get that time.”

She broke a 2009 record in the 100 freestyle at the league meet and outdid her time on the county stage. She said it only motivates her to dig deeper.

“We knew we had to show we were ready and we weren’t afraid of losing,” Boals said. “Now I know I can get even faster than I am now.”

Gordon said Boals and Gavigan mean a lot to the team, and noted their impact on the other girls.

“They’re both mentally tough kids and they like to compete and they like to race,” he said. “Sydney’s not the kind that backs down — she’s no wilting flower, she likes to meet the challenge and she wants to see the best swimmer. Riley is quieter, not as vocally out there, but she works hard and leads by example. Whatever I ask her to do, there’s never a problem. It’s never an issue.”

Ward Melville’s 400 freestyle relay team, which comprised Gavigan, Boals, Ehlers and Kylie Kramer, also qualified. The quartet finished third with a time of 3:40.13. Ehlers also finished ninth in the 100 butterfly; Kramer finished sixth in the 500 freestyle; and the 200 freestyle of Kramer, Hope Farrell, Frances Clever and Sophia Swanson finished third in 1:45.02. Bogdanski reached the finish line eighth in the 100 backstroke.

“We had 15 girls make the state qualifying meet, and 23 out of the 27 spots that we competed in we had best times or best dive scores.”

— Chris Gordon

“We had 15 girls make the state qualifying meet, and 23 out of the 27 spots that we competed in we had best times or best dive scores,” Gordon said. “At this point in the season, for them to be swimming as fast as they are and as young as they are, it’s exciting. We will be graduating 10 or 12 seniors, but right now we’re gathering steam and all of the sudden everyone is dropping time and everyone is doing really well.”

The season started off with a bump in the road for the Patriots. Ward Melville lost its opening nonleague meet to a tough Connetquot team, now the county runner-up for the last three seasons, but bounced back to top rival Half Hollow Hills, the defending county champion from last year.

“We worked our hearts out and tried to do our best,” Boals said. “We wanted the seniors to leave with a county championship. We wanted them to have fun and coach to be proud and once we beat Half Hollow Hills and we won the league, we knew we had counties in the bag.”

Gavigan said the momentum will propel the team toward success this weekend in the state finals Nov. 17 and 18 at Ithaca College.

“We were the No. 3 seed heading into counties, so it was good to win and show the other teams that we’re right there with them,” she said. “We’re in the right mindset to place well at states.”

If the county meet was any indication, Gordon said, the girls are peaking at the right time.

“They work very hard, they get along very well in and out of the pool and they’re just a great bunch of girls,” he said. “Some of their siblings have been past members of the team, so there’s some legacy there and they take this seriously. They’re very dedicated, which I appreciate. I’m hoping everyone has a little more left in the tank to go a little faster this weekend.”

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Handful of cross country runners compete at state meet

Port Jefferson's cross country team finished first in Suffolk County's Class C. Photo by Dick Olson

By Jim Ferchland

Coach Rod Cawley called runner Sam Walker a “take-charge kind of guy,” and at the Suffolk County Class C championship Nov. 3, the senior raced his team to its second straight title.

The Port Jefferson cross-country competitor finished first at the 5,000-meter Sunken Meadow State Park course, crossing the finish line in 17 minutes, 48 seconds.

Sam Walker, who placed first at the Suffolk County meet, rounds a corner before punching his state qualifying ticket. Photo by Dick Olson

Walker has claimed gold his junior and senior season and said placing first two years in a row to cap off his final county cross-country meet was icing on the cake. He also was quick to point toward it being more about the team than himself this time around.

“I’m not going to lie, it felt pretty good,” Walker said. “This year didn’t entirely go as I wanted it to, but I was proud of myself because my main concern was if the team was going to qualify.”

The Royals finished 5-1 in League VIII, winning all but the final meet of the season with a loss to Shelter Island by a single point, 27-28. In all other meets, Port Jefferson dominated its opponents by 30 or more points.

“They worked very hard all season,” Cawley said of his athletes. “They did what they had to do.”

The head coach has led the Royals to 13 county crowns in his 25-year tenure. He said he gives all of the credit to his runners, especially Walker, who he said he’s had the privilege of coaching for four of them.

“He leads by example,” Cawley said. “He works hard and does what he has to do. He continued to improve each year.”

Walker said his focus this time around was on the underclassmen because of the fact the team hasn’t had many state qualifiers over his last four years.

“That whole race was trying to get the younger guys to the state meet and get that experience,” he said. “I know those guys have got a lot of talent and a lot of promise. And I know they’ll do the same for their younger guys.”

Grant Samara finished right behind teammate Sam Walker for second place. Photo by Dick Olson

The Port Jefferson team ran an average of 18:48.21, and had three runners place in the Top 5, with freshman Grant Samara placing second in 18:41 and freshman Cooper Schoch rounding out the fifth spot with a 19:05 finish. Right behind Schoch was Mike Ruggiero with a time of 19:06, and three others placed in the Top 15 — Brian Veit finished in eighth, Alex Rebic placed 11th and Owen Okst finished 15th.

“It’s amazing to see,” Walker said of the talented underclassmen. “I know when I go off to college, I’m going to be coming back to watch these guys. I know they have so much promise in this sport, especially since we are such a small school compared to the bigger Class A schools. We got so lucky with these freshmen that have such a future. I wasn’t even that driven when I first participated in the sport.”

Cawley said he too is liking what he’s seeing from his young guys.

“Samara’s an outstanding freshman,” Cawley said. “He came along quite a bit. He was the fourth guy in the beginning of the season and he ended up being the second. He improved considerably over the course of the season. For Schoch, he’s very talented and right there with Grant. Both of them ran as eighth-graders.”

Cawley said there were some challenges this year, but they were primarily a result of mother nature.

“It was a warm season — it was difficult to train sometimes and difficult to compete,” he said. “One meet got canceled because they ran out of ambulances, so I would say the weather was a difficult challenge for us this year. Cross-country is designed for the 50s and maybe the 60s, not the 70s.”

Cooper Schoch placed fifth at the Suffolk County meet. Photo by Dick Olson

With this, the weather once again became a colossal obstacle for Port Jefferson in the state meet at Wayne Central School District in Ontario Center just east of Rochester. The conditions were in the 20s with snow and wind, according to Cawley, a drastic change from what the Royals were getting used to. Port Jefferson finished the meet in ninth place.

“The ground was frozen,” Cawley said. “It wasn’t pleasant, and everyone had the same conditions, but the upstate schools are a little better handling that than us Long Islanders.”

Walker hit a major setback in the state meet as he suffered an injury in the tough conditions, costing him a Top 20 finish.

“I was feeling good,” Walker said of his confidence before his injury. “I tried catching up with the lead pack, but it was so muddy and there were foot tracks from the previous day that had frozen over. There were a bunch of holes and I rolled my ankle, fell, and it took a while to get back up. I knew that race was over. I couldn’t run as well as I wanted to, but it’s something to learn from.”

Despite the rough upstate experience, Cawley continues to remain optimistic about the future with his young, talented team.

“I’m very excited,” Cawley said. “I have very high expectations for the next few years.”

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