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Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame

Matt Ryan, a Miller Place graduate, is a former Olympian and captain for Team USA in 1996. Photo from Matt Ryan

Miller Place native Matt Ryan keeps a phrase in his back pocket: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

“I knew I could control the hard work, and where it led I didn’t know,” he said. “But I knew the hard work would get me there.”

His athletic determination led him to a nine-year professional handball career, becoming Team USA’s 1996 Olympic captain and three-time U.S. Handball Player of the Year. His 225 official international matches are an American record and he’s noted as one of the greatest handball players in American history. Now, he’s part of the 2018 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame class.

Matt Ryan, now the Executive Director
of Regional Development at Georgia Tech, shows off his Olympic jacket. Photo from Matt Ryan

“It certainly paid off,” the current executive director of regional development for Georgia Institute of Technology, said laughingly.

A three-sport athlete for Miller Place, his Panthers success started in basketball. He also played for the baseball team and ran cross country.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that was my case in Miller Place,” said Ryan, who has two older brothers and a younger sister. “Everyone was wonderful from teachers to coaches to parents, and the bond with fellow classmates, it’s a bond like none other. It’s reinforced daily, even now through Facebook. We always supported each other.”

Being in a large family on a block with many kids pushed him to his athletic limits.

“Older friends in the neighborhood pushed me to come up to their level,” he said. “I learned a lot in that — how to overcome obstacles and battle through any circumstance. A lot of my work ethic came from that as well.”

In 1984 as a high school senior, Ryan was the New York Basketball Player of the Year. As a junior, he was second team All-Long Island and won a gold medal at the Empire State Games with the Long Island squad.

Physical education teacher and baseball coach Don Pranzo met his soon-to-be outfielder in seventh grade, and said he knew he was destined to be a great athlete.

Matt Ryan competes in the Olympics for team handball. Photo from Matt Ryan

“He was amenable to teaching,” Pranzo said. “He was a good, nice kid who listened to you and tried out what you suggested.”

Pranzo introduced handball to his students during class after former Miller Place physical education teacher and field hockey coach Judy Kopelman presented it to the other teachers. Kopelman, a 2008 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame inductee, was selected to the U.S. national handball team from 1974-76.

Pranzo said he had one problem asking Ryan if he’d play the game — the footwork was completely opposite of basketball. In handball, an athlete runs three steps before dribbling, and after dribbling once, can take three more running steps before dribbling again, passing or leaping into the air to shoot. Ryan was willing to give it a shot, and Pranzo said the teachers concluded that if it affected his basketball game, he’d be excused from class.

“As it turns out, he played with some intensity, especially during the tournament, and he continued to play basketball and had no problem with the footwork,” Pranzo said. “He had the visual skills, the physical ability at 6-4 to go over the defense and fire the handball at the goal cage. He was very good.”

Ryan went on to play basketball in college and said he thought it would be the last time he’d play handball.

The U.S. Olympic committee doesn’t have a pipeline for nontraditional sports, where team handball would fall, and instead sends recruiters out to college campuses trying to identify elite athletes across the country. Ryan took part in NFL combine-style testing after graduating, and emerged as one of the top 30 entering training camp.

“I was fortunate enough to know a lot about handball thanks to Miller Place,” Ryan said. “I took a shine to it there, looking forward to those end-of-the-year tournaments.”

“I was blessed, given a tremendous opportunity, and I wasn’t going to squander it. I was
going to make every drop of sweat matter.”

— Matt Ryan

He immersed himself into training three or four times a day, six days a week and competed internationally.

He said representing Team USA was the experience of a lifetime.

“I was blessed, given a tremendous opportunity and I wasn’t going to squander it,” Ryan said. “I was going to make every drop of sweat matter, whether it was in the weight room, on the track, through mental preparation and visualization, or being out on the playing field. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I wanted to walk away knowing I gave it my all.”

He said while many look forward to the opening ceremony of the Olympics, he was in it for more than that.

“I couldn’t wait for competition to arise,” he said. “That was an absolute charge, not only representing my team in the opening ceremony in 1996 but leading my team into competition for the six games we played.”

Miller Place pitched into his Olympic appearance. Having to fund his own training and trip to the 1996 Atlanta games, his mother hosted a variety show fundraiser that thousands attended.

“I was just overwhelmed with the response,” he said. “I shook everyone’s hand or gave them a hug. They sent me off with their well wishes and I was completely moved by that. It’s one of those experiences I’ve taken with me through the journey — to realize my life of sport wasn’t just on the court, but I was able to make an impact in the community and on other people in a positive way.”

Matt Ryan met then-president Bill Clinton during his Olympic journey. Photo from Matt Ryan

In 2004, Ryan was honored with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America National Service to Youth Award. In 2013 he was inducted to the Miller Place Athletic Hall of Fame.

“The success Matt achieved both as a Miller Place student and as an alumnus is a testament to his hard work and drive,” Miller Place Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said. “His commitment to positive sportsmanship is emblematic of Miller Place athletics.”

Ryan said he struggled through his Miller Place hall of fame acceptance speech because his father had just had a heart attack and wasn’t able to attend. He said he’d hoped his dad would be around if he were to be inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. He will be attending the induction ceremony May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Watermill Caterers in Smithtown.

“My father drove me everywhere — completely gave of himself, and now being the parent of a 12-year-old who plays sports, I know how difficult it is when he did that with me, and had three other kids involved in sports,” Ryan said. “The opportunity for him to be there and embrace this recognition with me, which is an extension of him and my mom, it’s completely overpowering.”

Almost as moving as the induction honor itself.

“This whole thing is humbling, quite frankly,” Ryan said. “I never set out for successes. I just put the work and effort in, the focus and drive, and let the chips fall where they may. To be part of this 2018 class, mentioned in the breadth of so many Long Island greats, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Bob Burkley and Harry Schneider will be inducted into Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in May

Middle Country track and field coaches Bob Burkley and Harry Schneider are being inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame this May. Photo from Facebook

It was once said kids would run through a brick wall for Bob Burkley, and Harry Schneider would show them how.

Middle Country school district’s dynamic duo co-coached the track and field programs for more than 30 years, leaving behind a legacy of winning streaks, championships and motivated athletes, nearly 100 of whom have gone on to become coaches. As a result of their accolades and achievements, the pair are being inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame this May.

“They have very different personalities — the way they interacted with athletes — and somehow they blended,” said 1972 Centereach High School graduate Harold Schwab, owner of Schwab’s 2nd Wind shoe store in East Setauket. “Coach Schneider was very much a one-on-one coach, while coach Burkley was very high energy, and you got caught up in that. As an athlete you sensed there was no limit to how hard they were ready to work, how much they were willing to sacrifice for the team, how important the team’s success was — and the athletes reciprocated that.”

Harry Schneider. Photo from Facebook

Schwab raced for his coaches, who began at Newfield in the late 1960s, and moved with them to Centereach once the new school opened. As a sprinter and jumper, he said he saw firsthand his coaches’ qualifications to lead the team to success in any event.

“Some coaches may not know anything about the high jump or the triple jump, so they don’t compete in those events,” he said. “Every event was coached thoroughly at Centereach High School. There was never an event where we weren’t taught the right technique and supervised so we knew what we were doing.”

According to Bay Shore head coach Steve Borbet, who began a push for more track and field hall of fame inductees, the pair continued to learn.

“They also went to clinics and read up wherever they could get more knowledge of the sport,” said Borbet, who began coaching against the Cougars in 1975. “I watched how they won and I wanted to emulate that. Their winning attitude that they instilled in the
players was huge.”

Strategic thinking was a driver behind the pair’s successes. When Burkley, for instance, saw another team didn’t have a triple jumper, he’d pull his top triple jumpers out, let younger kids compete for the points and then use his standouts in other events. Schwab said every athlete received a performance write-up after meets, pointing to areas that were strong as well as areas in need of improvement.

“Nobody wanted to be pointed out for not living up to expectations,” Schwab said, laughing. “We were always trying to maximize our points, and we’d do whatever we could to help the team. Coach Schneider and Coach Burkley really did run a very hard practice, and there’s something about when you share that kind of sacrifice on a daily basis, when you share pain in practice, it brings the group together. It created a bond, not far from what soldiers feel.”

Harry Schneider, on right, with the 1995 Suffolk County championship-winning cross country team. Photo from Harry Schneider

A team-first mentality is not always preached in track and field, but for Burkley and Schneider, it was first and foremost.

“We were a team in the truest sense,” 1994 graduate Charles Crowley said. “We were an unusually tightly knit group. They had a vision of what we were capable of and they were committed to everything we did. They created a culture where we didn’t want to let them down.”

The year after Schwab graduated was the start of Centereach’s 26-year, 158-match dual meet winning streak. Crowley was on the team when its streaked was snapped, coincidentally, by Borbet’s Bay Shore team. Despite the loss, Borbet said the team was gracious about it, and Crowley said the unit remained resilient.

“That was a hard day, but [our coaches] were so positive and helped us rebound,” Crowley said. “They both have such passion for seeing athletes push themselves further than they thought possible.”

The pair combined for 95 league titles, 25 division titles and 42 county titles. Because they assisted each other in the spring and winter seasons, and Burkley headed the cross-country team, Borbet said that to the hall of fame board, they diluted their success. Previous hall of fame inductees Borbet (2014) and Schwab (1993) felt the pair of coaches should have been inducted long before they were.

“They were who everyone was going after, and you pick up from the best,” Borbet said. “Those guys were successful from the beginning. They were able to really reach their kids — a lot of coaches can’t say that. It’s been a goal of mine and a movement of mine to nominate track coaches every year. These two guys certainly deserve to be in there. They’re the best track coaches around, and two of the best coaches out of any sport in Suffolk history.”

Bob Burkley. Photo from Facebook

Every individual on the team was coached to be the very best that person could be, according to Schwab.

“When you know that the coach cares deeply about your individual success as well as the team success, to know we were all seen as equals, it created this hunger to succeed,” Schwab said. “Everybody on the team saw how being part of the team made them a better person. Whether they were going to be a star or not, they wanted each person to achieve his potential.”

Crowley was one of the athletes coached by Burkley and Schneider to go on to lead his own team. An Ironman triathlete who has raced in 28 marathons, he’s the head coach of the JackRabbit Sports marathon team in New York City. He said Burkley and Schneider taught him how to be a captain and a motivator.

“They taught me that success takes commitment and discipline — that there were no limits to what you can achieve if you are mentally tough and work hard to achieve goals,” he said. “They molded so many athletes both on and off the track. I try very hard to impart these lessons onto the athletes that I coach.”

Schwab remembered Schneider teaching him about being a student of the sport, and said it’s a skill he has applied in every aspect of his life.

“You didn’t just show up to practice and go through the motions,” he said. “If you were in a hurdle event, he encouraged you to read about the hurdles, to dig into it for yourself. We treated the sport just like we did any of the other academic classes we were in. That attitude has followed through in just about anything that I do now. Any time I’m involved in something, rather than just learn enough to get by, I try to be an expert at it. It’s not just about winning competitions. It’s about learning how to succeed in every endeavor.”

Hans Wiederkehr, a former athlete, NFL player and football coach at Babylon and Shoreham-Wading River, is a member of Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame's 2018 induction class. Photo from SSHOF

Seeing coaching as an action, not a title, has yielded great success, and now a prestigious honor for a few local leaders.

Former Babylon head football coach and Shoreham-Wading River assistant Hans Wiederkehr, and Middle Country track and field coaches Bob Burkley and Harry Schneider were named members of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame’s 2018 induction class, announced by the organization Feb. 13. The three will join eight other selectees at the induction ceremony May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Watermill Caterers in Smithtown.

“I’d like to thank all the kids that played for me — they’re the main reason I’m here,” Wiederkehr said. “I love the kids. I’d do anything for them.”

Former Middle Country head track and field coach Bob Burkley, currently an assistant at Northport, is one of 11 to be inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame this year. Photo from SSHOF

After a successful career as a lineman at Syracuse University, Wiederkehr spent a season with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an offensive lineman in 1985-86. From 1986 until 2002 he served as a physical education teacher and director at Babylon, and coached varsity football from 1987 to 2002. The Panthers won 10 league crowns, six Suffolk County titles and two Long Island championships during his tenure. From 2014 to 2016 he was an assistant coach at Shoreham-Wading River. The Wildcats won three Long Island championships and two Rutgers Trophies, given annually to Suffolk’s top football team.

“I had tremendous parents, tremendous support, and then I took the time to coach my own son at Shoreham and dealt with the same type of people,” Wiederkehr said. “I’ve been very lucky to have that support, and I think that’s the foundation of amateur athletics.”

The former Division I athlete and NFL player is also one of the longest tenured athletic administrators of any coaches association in Long Island history. He has served as president of the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association since 1999, known for its famed awards dinner that draws more than 900 guests annually. Widerkehr is also an inductee of the East Lyme High School Hall of Fame (2004) and the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame (2009).

Burkley was the varsity track and field coach at Newfield High School from 1964 to 1970, and at Centereach from 1971 to 1998. He won 28 league championships and 10 county championships. Following his time in Middle Country, he was an assistant at Bayport-Blue, from 1999 to 2004, at Center Moriches from 2005 to 2009, and has been at Northport since 2010. Burkley has coached 60 student-athletes who went on to have their own track and field coaching careers. He coached five national champions, two national record holders and five New York state record holders. Burkley’s teams went 26 years and 158 matches without losing a dual meet. He was also a lifeguard captain at Jones Beach for 42 years and was named New York State Lifeguard of the Year in 2010.

“I’ve been very lucky to have [the parents’] support, and I think that’s the foundation of amateur athletics.”

— Hans Wiederkehr

“I’d like to thank my wife for letting me spend all this time the last 55 years coaching student-athletes,” Burkley said, smiling. “I still love it, and I love it because of the athletes — their dedication, responsiveness. It’s so rewarding to work with kids that love what they’re doing and stick with it.”

Much like Burkley, Schneider taught physical education in the Middle Country school district for 32 years, coaching boys cross country, boys winter track and boys spring track and field during each of those seasons and beyond. Since retiring from teaching and moving to Sedona, Arizona in 2000, he has continued to coach boys and girls cross country and track and field.

Schneider’s boys cross country teams at Middle Country won 10 division titles, 18 league championships and 11 county titles. His dual meet record was 165-20. In 1995, his team was ranked No. 8 in the nation. Boys winter track teams at Middle Country won seven division titles, 21 league championship and 11 county titles under Schneider’s guidance, which also produced a 103-3 overall record. Burkley coached 85 individual champs, two national champs and 11 state champs. In the spring, he won eight division titles, 28 league championships and 10 county titles. His record was 189-4-1. He coached 78 county champs, four national champs and 15 state champs among his spring track campaigns. He won more than 80 coach of the year awards and more than 65 of his student-athletes went on to coach throughout the United States.

Ed Morris, former executive director of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, is being inducted into it this year. Photo from SSHOF

Among other coaches, referees and players to be inducted is Miller Place native Matt Ryan, noted as one of the greatest handball players in American history. The 1996 U.S. Olympic captain was a three-time U.S. Handball Player of the Year, and his 225 official international matches are an American record. Ryan also played professional handball overseas and starred in multiple world championship tournaments. His athletic prowess, however, began on the basketball court. As a senior in 1984, Ryan was named New York Basketball Player of the Year. As a junior, he was second team All-Long Island and won a gold medal at the Empire State Games with the Long Island squad. In 2013, he was inducted to the Miller Place Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was honored with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America National Service to Youth Award.

Former executive director of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, Ed Morris, is also in this year’s class. He served on the executive board since 1992 prior to taking over the organization in 2000. A Sachem alum, he is also the first recipient of his namesake award, the Edward J. Morris Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also served on the board of directors of Suffolk County PAL.

Half Hollow Hills graduate Stephen Bowen, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL, and Shannon Smith, a three-time first-team lacrosse All-American who is among the most decorated players in the sport, and is also the head women’s lacrosse coach at Hofstra University, also highlight this year’s class.

“When I found out that I was one of the new members I almost felt guilty, because there are so many wonderful men and women coaches in Suffolk County,” Wiederkehr said. “There so many that work hard, and sometimes don’t achieve some of the success some other coaches have, but that doesn’t bother them, they just keep working and working and working.  I’m very honored and humbled to be a part of this induction class.”

2016 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame inductees Tom Combs, Chuck Downey and Rich Cimini pose for a photo at the induction announcement press conference. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame announced on Wednesday that they will be inducting eight new members in 2016. The class includes Setauket resident Rich Cimini, the New York Jets beat reporter for ESPN; Commack resident Chuck Downey, the first Stony Brook University athlete to sign a professional sports contract; and Setauket resident Tom Combs, the athletic director at Patchogue-Medford High School and a standout football star for Smithtown, among others.

Television and radio host David Weiss introduced the inductees at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hauppauge during the press conference.

“It’s an honor to be associated with such great inductees, great athletes and coaches,” Cimini said during the press conference after he was introduced. “I’m just a guy who got cut from his varsity baseball team by Bill Batewell. At least he’s a Hall of Famer, so I can say that I got cut by a Hall of Fame coach.”

Cimini graduated from Sachem High School in 1981. He has covered the Jets for Newsday, the Daily News and now ESPN during his long career as a reporter.

“It has been such a great ride that I have a fear that I’m going to wake up one day and realize it’s just been a dream, and that I actually have to go out and get a real job,” Cimini said.

Downey, who is currently a Battalion Chief for the FDNY, credited his parents for instilling values of hard work that led him to be successful in life. His father Raymond, who was also an FDNY firefighter, was killed in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Suffolk is very special, and to be here today with these other inductees — thank you very much,” Downey said during the press conference. He was a three-sport athlete at Deer Park High School, before playing football at Stony Brook University, and ultimately signing an NFL contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1988.

Combs has played, coached and been an athletic director in Suffolk County dating back to the 1970s. He is also a member of the Hall’s board of trustees.

“This is quite a talented class,” Combs said. “I’ve been involved with the Hall of Fame for the last five years and I can honestly say this is a very intimidating group with some amazing accomplishments.”

The other inductees include Jillian Byers, a thre-sport standout from Northport who went on to become a four-time All-American in lacrosse; Frank Romeo, who was a longtime boys’ basketball coach at Comsewogue High School who was inducted into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame last year; and Laura Gentile, Maria Michta-Coffey and Isaac Ramaswamy, all of whom went to Sachem.

Richie LoNigro, owner of Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, will also receive a Special Recognition Award for his dedication to the athletes of Suffolk County. He is one of only six people in the country to receive the Rawlings Sporting Goods Silver Glove Award, which has been given to some of the most respected people in the sporting good industry

The ceremony for the 2016 inductees will take place on May 6, also at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hauppauge. Tickets are $95. For more information visit http://www.suffolksportshof.com.

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By Elana Glowatz

A hall-of-fame coach will step in as the Port Jefferson school athletic director when longtime leader Deb Ferry leaves in the new year.

Debra Ferry helped establish the lacrosse program at Port Jefferson and has led its other teams to success. File photo
Debra Ferry helped establish the lacrosse program at Port Jefferson and has led its other teams to success. File photo

The board of education appointed Ed Cinelli as interim director of health, physical education and athletics on Dec. 8, about a month after accepting Ferry’s resignation. Cinelli, who was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in 2014 for his work as an educator and a coach, will fill her spot and help the school district find a permanent replacement.

The incoming director spent 30 years in the Patchogue-Medford school district, serving as the athletic director for more than half of that time. Before taking on that administrative role, while still teaching physical education there, he coached football and track — including a 1982 spring track team that, according to the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, “was recognized at that time as one of the best track teams in the history of New York.”

He has also served as the executive director of Section XI, the regional organization under the umbrella of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

“We are very excited to have Mr. Cinelli serve in this position while the search for a new director commences,” Superintendent Ken Bossert said in a statement after the Dec. 8 board meeting. “His vast experience and wealth of knowledge within the areas of health, physical education and athletics will be a great asset to our students, staff and district.”

Until Port Jefferson has a long-term replacement, Cinelli will have a substantial pair of cleats to fill. Ferry, who has been athletic director for nine years, has been credited with establishing the boys’ and girls’ lacrosse teams and is known for being anywhere and everywhere the students are playing.

“The kids are sometimes surprised to see her at games, especially making the hike all the way upstate for big playoff competitions, but she was there,” said Rod Cawley, the boys’ cross country and track and field coach. “In my 32 years at Port Jefferson, she’s been our best athletic director. She’s very honest, she’s supportive and she’s fair.”

Cawley said in a previous interview that when the girls’ soccer team won the state title this year for the first time in program history, Ferry was at the final game upstate — and also went to a cross country competition that same weekend.

“I kept busting her chops, telling her I’m not letting her go,” he said with a laugh.

Another coach, Mike Maletta, who heads the wrestling team and has taught in Port Jefferson for 23 years, said that Ferry was always at his squad’s state tournaments.

“You could see her walking around with a camera around her neck, taking pictures,” he said in an earlier interview. “A lot of those pictures make it to the end-of-the-year senior awards banquet and it went above and beyond what a lot of athletic directors do. She was always there supporting our program and those pictures meant a lot.”

Ferry will remain in her role as the Section XI first vice president when she takes the helm of the Half Hollow Hills athletic program, but her other roles within the organization will change because her new, larger district is in a different conference. She said in a previous interview that she will miss the people and the atmosphere at Port Jefferson.

“The intimacy of a small school district and knowing the kids is definitely a benefit,” she said. “The coaches and players make you feel like you’re part of the team.”

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