Sports

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Brian Willetts moves the ball around the cage in the Suffolk County Class A championship game against West Islip last season. File photo by Bill Landon

The Bulls have come charging out of the gate.

The Smithtown East boys’ lacrosse team proved it’s still a force to be reckoned with, dominating its season-opening, nonleague game against East Islip Tuesday, 17-6.

Last season, the Bulls went 16-4 overall, 12-2 in Division I and nabbed the school’s first Suffolk County Class A boys’ lacrosse championship; and as the team’s motto says, the Bulls are hungry for more.

“We had great leadership, we had a really close team, everyone was there for each other and it shows that we may not have had the best players in the league last year,” senior midfielder John Daniggelis said. “But we definitely had the best team, and we worked as one, which allowed us to get to the county championship, win it, and then move on to the Long Island championship.”

Despite graduating 16 seniors off the roster, many of the team’s key playmakers have returned, especially on offense. Daniggelis said five out of six starters are back this season and they possess a lot of firepower.

“We have kids that are experienced, which is something that you can’t teach on the varsity level,” he said. “We know that our offense can be very explosive and can put up a large sum of goals, and the big key is going to be on defense. We’re really buckling down and focusing and paying attention to detail so that we can hold teams to a low score.”

This vision came to fruition Tuesday as the team scored nine straight goals in the first quarter before East Islip scored its first, which helped many Bulls see playing time. Senior goalkeeper Sean Turner, who is starting between the pipes for the first time this season, made three saves and only let up the one goal before he was taken out.

“[He] played a great game,” senior attack Brian Willetts said of Turner. “The defense was busy today and it was nice to see them come together and work together, but offensively we moved the ball great, we won faceoffs — it was a great overall game and a great team win.”

John Daniggelis maintains possession in a game against Northport last season. File photo by Bill Landon
John Daniggelis maintains possession in a game against Northport last season. File photo by Bill Landon

Junior midfielder Gerard Arceri, known for dominating at the “X,” combined with sophomores Steven Cuccurullo and Brian Herber to win 20 out of 23 faceoffs in the game.

“He was phenomenal least year,” Smithtown East head coach Jason Lambert said of Arceri. “We’re pretty fortunate that right now we have three kids that take faceoffs for us that are committed to play Division I already, which is very rare and we’re very lucky, so we feel most confident, as far as having the most depth on our team, at the faceoff ‘X.'”

The team said it remains confident on offense, and it showed. Willetts, an offensive co-captain, scored five goals and added an assist in the game; junior attack Dan Rooney added two goals and four assists; sophomore midfielder Connor Desimone tacked on two goals and two assists; and Daniggelis, the second offensive co-captain, finished with two goals.

And on defense, the Bulls said they thought they needed the most work on the back end of the field. But that didn’t seem apparent during the game.

“We have new defenseman coming in, [seniors] Ryan O’Connor, Cole Valinoti, and [sophomore] Sean Yorke, who can hold down the fort and are all good defenseman,” senior defenseman and Smithtown East’s final co-captain, James Sarrocco, said. “We couldn’t get outside the first few days of practice and we had to be in the gym, which was kind if tough, but once we got outside, we were rolling right from the beginning and it carried over into the first game.”

Willetts, a four-year varsity starter, said the offense has been clicking, while being unselfish and sharing the ball, and even some young, skilled players have stepped up to help out, while the seniors continue to lead the way.

Daniggelis, another four-year varsity starter, said he thinks this senior leadership is important to the Smithtown East program.

“Being on the team for four years you get to see players come and go, and if you can take one lesson from each guy, you can instill it in these younger guys and hope they can take one thing from you,” he said. “Our thing has always been leaving the program better than you found it. So when I was a sophomore, we went to the semifinals, and last year’s seniors were able to take us to the county championship and Long Island championship, and I think our team has the full intention to go farther than that this year, leave the program better than we found it, and hopefully make a run in the playoffs.”

With the league structure changing, the Bulls will still go up against some stiff competition, and Lambert has also set up a tough nonleague schedule against teams like Locust Valley, Greenwich and Bronxville, to keep the playing level high. But according to the boys, one of its biggest tests will come in the form of Half Hollow Hills West on Friday at home at 4:30 p.m., against a team that returns 24 seniors.

“If we keep our heads down, if we keep our nose clean, if we just strive to push each other and get better in practice each day, everything else will take care of itself in the end,” Lambert said. “It worked well for us last year, so if we keep working hard, when the dust settles, we want to make sure that we put ourselves in a good position to be one of the few teams left standing in the end.”

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Kyle Johnson takes a cut during batting practice. Photo by Bill Landon

The Newfield baseball team is on the hunt for a postseason spot this year, and with several returning players from last years’ varsity squad, key seniors among them are shortstop Joseph Pepe and pitching ace Brandon Alberto, they may be able to do it.

Pepe, a returning All-League player, will likely fill the role of lead-off hitter as he did last season, and Newfield head coach Paul Pedersen expects him to be in the conversation of top player in League IV.

“This year we have better leadership; people are stepping up — we’re a stronger team,” Pepe said. “We open up against Half Hollow Hills West with three in a row, so that’ll set the tone of the season.”

Bobby Vath tosses the ball. Photo by Bill Landon
Bobby Vath tosses the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

Alberto, a four-year varsity player earning academic All-League honors last season, is one of the dominating pitchers in the league.

“He is a strike machine who can throw middle 80’s with multiple pitches for strikes, and is one of the most competitive personalities I have ever coached,” Pedersen said. Alberto will be attending the New York Institute of Technology on a baseball scholarship next year.

Alberto said that he was pleased with the dedication of the players; how hard they’re all working this early in the season. Alberto said Half Hollow Hills West is the team to beat in the league.

“They have a good pitching staff, good defense, good hitting,” he said. “So they’re the top dog.”

J.J. Lindgren, a senior outfielder and pitcher and returning All-League player, has a nice combination of power and speed, and according to Pedersen, will be one of the best players in a league that is stacked with talent. He will be playing at SUNY Old Westbury next year.

Pedersen also sees this years’ Wolverines team as being a tighter group of kids who have been working hard from the first day of practice, with two freshmen, Bobby Vath and Kyle Johnson, earning a spot on the varsity roster. Vath shows confidence on the mound with command of his pitching.

“He throws multiple pitches for strikes and understands the importance of hitting spots, changing speeds and getting ahead of batters,” the head coach said. “I think he is going to prove to be an asset to the program as he clearly shows that he knows what he’s doing on the mound.”

Brandon Alberto hurls a pitch during practice. Photo by Bill Landon
Brandon Alberto hurls a pitch during practice. Photo by Bill Landon

Pedersen expects sophomore third baseman and pitcher Tom Desena to serve as a power bat in the lineup and added that juniors Kyle Wappaus and Frank Diantonio both show a solid skill set behind the plate with the ability to hit the ball in big spots.

With a roster 18 players strong, including nine seniors, six juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen, the team has the senior leadership and veteran potential to improve on last season’s 7-13 overall record.

Pedersen said he has several notable returning players, including senior pitcher and infielder Justin Barnhill; senior outfielder and catcher Danny Towne; senior catcher and pitcher Jared Prevete; senior pitcher, first baseman and outfielder Jared Consiglio; senior infielder and pitcher Joe North; and senior outfielder Michael Ruggiero; all will be looking to contribute both offensively and defensively to the program.

“I think the biggest difference this year is the kids seem to be doing all the right things in the gym and there really doesn’t seem to be the ‘me first’ attitude,” Pedersen said. “There are definitely players that are more talented than others on the team, but every player will compete for a spot and earn their playing time.”

Newfield opens the season with two nonleague games against Miller Place, before beginning league play against Half Hollow Hills West on Tuesday, April 7.

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Jake MacGregor prepares to send the ball into play. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Comsewogue boys’ lacrosse players are returning a year wiser and are looking to avenge a bitter loss from the end of last season.

Despite starting a lot of underclassmen last year, the team made it to the Suffolk County Class B semifinals, where the Warriors fell to Miller Place, 6-5.

“We wanted to win the county championship, so I think it gives the returning players a little bit more of an edge this year to achieve that goal,” junior defender Matt Spahr said. “Every practice everyone comes out with a lot of intensity and energy. It makes everyone really compete for a spot. No one is ever complacent and everyone is always on their toes.”

Matt Spahr reaches for the ball. File photo by Bill Landon
Matt Spahr reaches for the ball. File photo by Bill Landon

The Warriors have benefited from a clean turf field this preseason. Persevering through the tough winter, the boys have shoveled snow off the field three times and haven’t missed an outdoor practice, which will get them off to a good start.

“It’s a lot better for us to be out there on the turf because some of the other teams don’t have the opportunity to play out there, so we’re getting a lot of touches and open field looks,” junior goalkeeper Jake MacGregor said. “It’s better than being in the gym and having all of those tight spaces where we can’t run and stretch our legs out a lot.”

According to Comsewogue head coach Pete Mitchell, the improvements the team made last year should carry over into this season and the Warriors are returning some strong players on defense, which is the heart of the team.

“Defense at Comsewogue is always a focal point,” MacGregor said. “We rely mainly on our defense. I feel like we could push lots of transitions and score lots of goals off our defensive turnovers.”

Mitchell will be leaning on three-year starters MacGregor, an All-County player; Spahr, who recently signed to play with the University at Albany; senior faceoff specialist Zach Deutsch; and junior defenseman Stephen Reed, who is also All-County.

All of those defensive returners will be crucial to pulling the team together to start the season, as the young offense continues to progress in outdoor practices.

“Our defense creates a lot of offensive opportunities for us, but we have to be able to score,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been working a lot with the offense, trying to hone their junior varsity skills into varsity skills. We’re still very young on that end, so there are going to be some growing pains at the beginning of the year.”

Zach Deutsch wins the ball off the faceoff in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon
Zach Deutsch wins the ball off the faceoff in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon

Another adjustment for the team will be new competition in Hauppauge and Kings Park, as a result of a league realignment. Comsewogue and the other Class B schools are now in League 3.

“I think the Class Bs are very, very good,” Mitchell said. “Our [league] is, I think, very diverse, and there are 10 teams that could be county champs this year. It’s very balanced, and it’s good for lacrosse — there should be a lot of exciting lacrosse games.”

MacGregor said although there will be a bunch of tough matchups, the guys are taking it one game at a time, with the first coming on Thursday, at Mount Sinai at 7 p.m.

“I’ve been playing with these guys since I was in third grade, so we know each other really well — we have good connections and chemistry,” he said. “I feel like it’ll transfer well into game-time situations. We have a lot of good players that can make some great plays, and we’re just focusing in on Mount Sinai right now.”

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Miller Place senior attack Jake Buonaiuto dives and whips the ball toward the net in the Suffolk County Class B finals against Rocky Point last season. File photo by Bill Landon

Coming off a 2012-13 season where the team made it to the Class B Long Island championship, and a 2013-14 season where the Panthers made it to the Suffolk County Class B finals, the Miller Place boys’ lacrosse team is looking to continue its string of successes.

“Last season was a good experience for us,” Miller Place head coach Keith Lizzi said. “We had a lot of eyes on us and had to deal with some different pressures that we never really had to deal with before, and going back to a championship game like we did showed the endurance of these kids.”

The boys went 11-3 in Division II and 13-6 overall, and despite graduating 14 seniors last year, Lizzi said this season he has one of his biggest rosters.

“We’re carrying 35 guys and we bring back a lot,” the coach said, despite losing two Division I defenseman who are both starting on their current college teams as freshmen. “I think our strength right now would probably have to be in our depth. We’re deeper than we’ve ever been.”

The Panthers’ head coach said that although his teams have gone on to do big things through out the last couple of years, there’s only been a few main players that highlight Miller Place’s team. This year, however, he said he can run six midfielders and feel confident in the team’s ability to get the job done. In addition, he can mix and match people in different positions.

Miller Place senior defenseman Jacob Bloom races behind a Comsewogue opponent in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon
Miller Place senior defenseman Jacob Bloom races behind a Comsewogue opponent in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon

On offense, he will be looking to senior four-year varsity starter Jake Buonaiuto, an attack, who has also shined on the school’s football team, and Thomas Liantonio, a senior attack who is coming into his third year on the varsity team.

He’s also looking forward to returning senior midfielder Christian Stalter, an All-County player last year who handles the face-offs.

“I feel like all the guys are coming back hungry and ready to go to give it one final run at it,” Liantonio said. “The experience of these guys that have been on the team will help us as we work together to balance as a team.”

The team is looking to bounce back from last season, and work to enhance its defense to get back into top form.

“Last year’s Long Island championship loss does not define us as a team,” Buonaiuto said. “Defensively, we have a couple of other guys who are stepping into big roles who are very talented, and offensively, I think we’re going to be even better.”

Returning to the team on defense are seniors Jacob Bloom, Jeff Bloom and Brad Williamson.

Senior Joe Bartolotto, who is the cousin of Liantonio, is a transfer from Mattituck and a Cornell University-commit who will also be contributing on defense.

“We have a really high lacrosse IQ, guys know where to be and how to play,” Jacob Bloom said. “Me, Thomas Liantonio and Jake Buonaiuto have all been on the team since we were freshmen — we’ve been on the team in years where we just barely made the playoffs and years when we made it all the way to the Long Island championship, so we know what losing feels like, and we know, definitely, what winning feels like, so we can take that and harness it and push everyone in the right direction.”

That knowledge is something Lizzi said he wants his team to focus on as it moves into a League 3 schedule, which comes with some new stiff competition.

“We want to tap into our big-game experience,” he said. “We are in definitely in the most competitive league where there’s 15 teams that can all beat each other. It’s going to be a grind, but if we can harness that big-game mentality, take it day by day and one game at a time, then everything else will fall into place.”

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Ward Melville senior shortstop Brianna Dade tosses the ball during practice Monday. Photo by Bill Landon

With just two seniors on the Ward Melville softball roster, first year head coach Joseph Burger will lean on the under classman to make a significant contribution, as the Patriots field two juniors, four freshman and three eighth graders, to help make some noise in League I this season.

Burger, who coached at McGann-Mercy last season, knows he’s got his work cut out for him as he looks to build a program with a very young squad in a preseason where all of his practices have been indoors.

“We haven’t been outside yet, so we’ve only been able to hit in the net — you don’t get the same kind of grounders that you get outside,” senior shortstop Brianna Dade said. “It’s not the same feel and it’s a lot harder; you’re in a closed area you’ve got the [overhead] lights so it’s totally different.”

Burger said that his team will fundraise in the off-season to travel to Disney for spring training, which will become part of the Patriots preseason preparation.

“We’ve made changes already,” Burger said. “We have new dugouts, new uniforms, new helmets; which is all part of our new direction [we’re headed in]. I coached a travel team for 10 years where I took my team to Disney several years and it’s a way to show the team how this is a year-round program. It adds value and it’s a good way to recruit players.”

Although Burger said softball isn’t as big at Ward Melville as other sports, his girls put in a lot of effort and are ready to win.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be successful with softball,” Burger said of the sports lower popularity. “These girls work hard, they’re fast, they aim to please, they don’t take anything personal and they listen to direction and act on it.”

Ward Melville senior left fielder Mary Garr winds up to throw the ball across the gym during practice Monday. Photo by Bill Landon
Ward Melville senior left fielder Mary Garr winds up to throw the ball across the gym during practice Monday. Photo by Bill Landon

Dade said that although there are a lot of younger girls on the team, she thinks its small stature and speed will be an advantage as the Patriots play a lot of small ball.

Kristina Maggiacomo, an eighth-grader, will be tested right from the season opener as a starting pitcher and infielder. Despite starting two eighth graders, senior left fielder Mary Garr was optimistic about her teams’ chances of success this season.

“Every team we’ll face this year will be a challenge, but our pitching is definitely better and we try our hardest,” Garr said. “You have to play at 100 percent with every pitch, with every catch and with every throw if you want to win.”

According to Burger, the team’s leaders are Garr, junior first baseman Natalie Rodgers and junior pitcher Lauren Vivenzio, who will also be counted on to anchor a young pitching staff.

Burger said that if his team plays strong defense, and doesn’t hurt itself with errors, the Patriots can expect to win every time they take the field. Rodgers agreed, adding that she sees every girl giving each practice 100 percent.

“I think we have a lot of potential,” she said, although concerned about the lack of outdoor practice. “The ball’s slower on the dirt, but in here [on the gym floor] it really rolls, so it’s faster and it’s hard on the outfielders. You really can’t practice catching fly balls because of the ceiling.”

The young squad will be tested in its home opener on Thursday, when the patriots host Commack at 4:15 p.m.

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Jimmy Kickel looks up the field to make a play. File photo by Kevin Freiheit

With 17 seniors returning to this year’s Ward Melville boys’ lacrosse squad, the team said it is confident that it can once again achieve the state championship-like caliber it had in the 2012-13 season, when the Patriots went 21-0-1 and won the school’s first state title since 2000.

“We have a ton of senior leadership, which is important and what all of the great teams have,” senior midfielder Jake McCulloch said. “Our chemistry is something that really stands out.”

A significant amount of this season’s returning players were also on that state championship-winning team, which should be a boost even despite 13 seniors graduating at the end of last season. Despite the small hiccup last season, the Patriots still said they are ready, and hungry.

“I think we underachieved a little bit last season, quite honestly, but we also had a significant amount of injuries,” head coach Jay Negus said. “In terms of looking forward, I’m very optimistic with this group. We have a great group of senior leaders and the initiatives that this group has taken thus far, in terms of shoveling the field by themselves, the way they warm up, the way that they’re practicing; they’re all business.”

The Patriots finished last season with a 13-6 overall record and 10-4 mark in League I play, losing in the quarterfinals of the Suffolk County Class A playoffs to West Islip, 7-5.

The boys said they are using the disappointment as motivation this season, and Negus said he has taken notice.

Jake McCulloch maintains possession in a game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Jake McCulloch maintains possession in a game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“They look really good, they’re whipping the ball around, they’re focused and they’re really absorbing all the stuff we’re throwing at them this early on,” he said. “Right now we’re hitting the ground running and we’re very excited about the season.”

Senior attack Danny Bucaro said the team has been going over the offensive plays and positioning in practice, and working on the simple things like ground balls, endurance, catching, throwing and shooting. The team only has two weeks to prepare for the start of the season, because of the weather, which Bucaro said differs from years past, where the team normally had three weeks to practice.

“We have to work hard all the time and give 110 percent effort,” he said. “The only thing that will bring you success is working hard. The young guys have a lot of talent and it’s really nice that we click in all aspects both on and off the field.”

As a result of this, McCulloch said he thinks the offense is going to improve because of the depth, which leads to more options to score.

Negus said Bucaro and McCulloch would be leading the way on that front.

“They are the two focal points of the offense that also lead by experience and get the rest of the guys on board,” he said, also noting other strong senior returners like midfielders Jimmy Kickel, Mike Cusmano and John Burgdoerfer, who he’s hoping will also contribute on offense.

On the other side of the field, senior Tommy Reilly is returning from back surgery, according to the coach, and will join forces with senior Michael Cirrone, junior John Day and sophomore Andrew McKenna to solidify the defensive end.

John Burgdoerfer makes a pass. File photo by Desirée Keegan
John Burgdoerfer makes a pass. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“We’re really focusing on the conditioning aspect, especially early on, to get the guys ready so that they’re in shape and that the injuries don’t happen,” Negus said. “The athleticism and the speed that this group has from offense to defense is something that is really going to help us separate from the competition.”What will also distinguish the team is the stiff competition the boys will be up against. Negus said he is following his pattern from last season and scheduled nonleague games against top teams Chaminade, West Islip, Ridgefield and Yorktown.”It’ll allow it to be the sort of litmus test for us to see what our strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “When you go against a powerhouse like Chaminade, those things stand out right from the start.”After a scrimmage against Miller Place, the team’s first test will come in the form of Chaminade, on March 21 on the Patriots’ home turf.

Negus also kept these scheduled games as a result of the league realignment, which removed games against some top teams like Suffolk County champion Smithtown East.

“We scheduled a really difficult nonleague schedule to prepare us for that playoff push against some of the teams we’re not going to see during the year,” Negus said.

McCulloch said he is excited for the challenges ahead and is looking forward to going against high caliber teams that will show the Patriots what they need to do in order to achieve their goal.

“Even if we do come out ahead, they expose our weaknesses, and it’s better to get them out against good teams like that, and then we can work on them in practice, but playing the best competition brings out the best in us,” he said. “I think just playing as a team and the friendships that we build this year will be important, but a state championship is obviously the biggest goal.”

Group would also determine costs of repairs

Above, a view of Northport High School's grass field. Parents have been calling for athletic upgrades at the district's facilties. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Northport-East Northport school board member Regina Pisacani has spearheaded a new committee that would advise the board on the conditions and the potential needs of the district’s fields and the athletic facilities.

The board approved creating an Athletic Facility Advisory Committee at its Monday night meeting. Pisacani said she’s currently working on attracting candidates for the positions by putting ads in the paper and reaching out to community members. The application process is underway and the due date to apply is April 30.

This committee will focus on inspection and evaluation of the present state of athletic facilities and grounds and rehabilitation versus replacing fields, equipment and facilities. It is charged with reviewing, analyzing and summarizing the state of the district’s athletic facilities in a written report to the school board and creating a list in order of safety and importance of recommended repairs and/or replacements.

Other tasks of the group include determining the costs of the recommended repairs and analyzing outside funding opportunities to help pay for upgrades.

The committee must present a five-year plan to identify priorities for the board by Dec. 14, 2015. It must also prepare a presentation for the 2016 budget meeting.

Membership will total at least 13 people, with at least six residents appointed by the school board; two parents appointed by the president of the PTA Council; one teacher appointed by the president of the United Teachers of Northport union; two support staff members selected by their peers; one school board member appointed by the board’s president; and one administrator appointed by the superintendent. Also, the superintendent of building and grounds as well as the athletic director would be present at each of the meetings as requested.

The committee would expire on June 30, 2016.

Parents have been calling for upgrades to the district’s athletic facilities at recent meetings. In January, 27 people emailed the school district on the matter, saying the current state of the facilities at the district is “embarrassing.”

“I have to say that I am disappointed in the sports facilities (with the exception of Vets Field), particularly at the high school,” Steve Kils wrote in an email at the time. “For example, lighted football/soccer/lacrosse/field hockey fields with either well-groomed grass or, preferably, artificial turf is the standard. Our children are competing with others throughout the country with these basics, and I believe strongly that we need to make these upgrades a priority for our community and school district.”

Rohma Abbas contributed reporting.

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Senior runner finishes final indoor track and field season with a multitude of achievements

Head coach Rod Cawley, runner James Burke, athletic director Debra Ferry and Burke's mother Maureen pose for a photo. Photo by Jim Burke
James Burke stands atop the podium after earning a gold medal in the mile at the state championship. Photo by Jim Burke
James Burke stands atop the podium after earning a gold medal in the mile at the state championship. Photo by Jim Burke

Almost no one can catch him.

This past weekend, Port Jefferson high school senior James Burke earned a silver medal at the New Balance Nationals Indoor at the Armory in Manhattan, making him the second fastest miler in the country at 4 minutes, 8.48 seconds.

It’s just one highlight of his final and most memorable indoor season.

“I’ve just been more about trying to win races and disregarding time, not really watching the clock, because my mentality with that was every record you get will eventually be broken, but every title you get can never get taken away from you,” Burke said.

Although he wasn’t watching the clock, Burke ran a new national No. 1 time in the 1,000-meter at the Molloy Stanner Games in January, finishing in 2:26.35.

Burke said the 1,000 is, of course, not his forte, but he was excited to be able to show his range.

“It was definitely a big confidence booster for me to know that there’s a variety of events that I can excel in; to know that I’m not limited to one event,” he said.

Besides topping the country, the mark also broke the Long Island record of 2:27.39, set by Chaminade’s Sean Kelly last season.

Following that race, Burke competed in the New Balance High School Boys’ Mile at the New York Road Runners’ Millrose Games in February, and finished first with a time of 4:11.25. He also nabbed his first New York State gold medal for the mile at the state championship meet earlier this month.

Head coach Rod Cawley, runner James Burke, athletic director Debra Ferry and Burke's mother Maureen pose for a photo. Photo by Jim Burke
Head coach Rod Cawley, runner James Burke, athletic director Debra Ferry and Burke’s mother Maureen pose for a photo. Photo by Jim Burke

“Anything he had, he put it out there this year,” Port Jefferson head coach Rod Cawley said. “He performed to the best of his ability throughout the entire season, and it showed in the result.”

The medal was special to Burke not only because it was his first time earning gold in a state competition but also because of the memories that haunted him from the same meet the year prior.

Last winter, Burke made his move with about 600 meters to go in the race and was passed with nearly 20 meters left, resulting in a second-place finish.

“That image was in my head pretty much all year, because I didn’t get a chance in the spring,” Burke said, explaining that he had mononucleosis last spring and could not compete at states. “I was waiting the whole year for that day. Remembering what happened last year, every day, for the whole year, it was definitely a good feeling to place first.”

Then came the national championship, which went a little differently for the Royal compared to his previous races, but his coach was still proud of his athlete.

“He ran beautifully, he did what he had to do, he went out faster than he ever went out before,” Cawley said of his six-year varsity runner. “James persevered and he never gave up. He always tried to catch [Michigan’s Grant Fisher]. It was a phenomenal performance — very gutsy, very smart. He did a great job.”

The difference this time around was the pace of the first 800 meters. During the state meet, the first half of the race was completed in 2:17, but at nationals he finished that distance in 2:01.

The pressure didn’t bother Burke. The mile was just run differently because the stakes were high and the competition was fiercer. But as a result of the speed, Burke believes he got in his own head.

James Burke runs in a previous outdoor competition. File photo
James Burke runs in a previous outdoor competition. File photo

“That was the fastest I’ve ever gone through 800 meters, by 10 seconds, in the mile, so it was interesting because as I was going through it at that pace, I saw the clock and thought I should be really tired but I wasn’t,” he said. “Going through at a pace I’m just not used to going got in my head a little bit, so I told myself I was more tired than I really was.”

But Burke got through the mental minefield to secure his second-place finish.

As a result of the new feat, Burke believes that he can continue to shave time off his mile to reach his goal of four minutes.

“So much of racing is staying in the right mental place throughout the race,” he said, which is also why each time he sets foot on the track, he remains confident and determined that he will win.

Cawley said this quality is critical to his senior’s success.

“To go in to a race with that attitude gives you an advantage, because when you doubt you’re going to beat somebody, you’re not going to beat them,” he said. “James is a reality check, because with him around, no matter what you do, you just don’t look as good. He’ll always exceed your expectations and he will always perform to the best of his ability. There’s no doubt in his mind, when he stands on the track, that he’s going to beat everybody else.”

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Nikki Ortega moves around a West Islip player in the semifinal game last season. File photo by Desirée Keegan

With four sets of sisters on the squad this year, the Middle Country girls’ lacrosse team is hoping its strong chemistry will help propel it into the postseason and beyond.

The Mad Dogs weren’t used to the success they had last year. While the girls have made it to the first or second playoff round before, last season the team made it to the semifinals, where a last-second goal helped West Islip nab a 12-11 win.

“We’ve never gotten that far,” senior midfielder and attack Nikki Ortega said. “It was really great, and we learned a lot, but now we know what we need to do to win and get to the county championship. I think last year was an eye opener to how much we have to work to get to where we want to be this year.”

While the girls thought most schools doubted their talent, sophomore midfielder Rachel Masullo said her teammates always believed in their potential.

“Everyone kind of looks down on us, but we definitely showed people that we’re actually good and that we can do big things,” she said.

The big things the team did last season led to a No. 1 preseason ranking, but the athletes aren’t focused on that. They’re just looking to improve upon last season’s 12-6 overall and 10-4 Division I record, as they have their sights set on something even bigger — states.

“I think they have an underlining drive this year of unfinished business; something to prove,” head coach Lindsay Dolson said. “No one cares about [the ranking], we just have to play our best lacrosse each and every day, get better and take it one game at a time.”

Jamie Ortega crosses into West Islip's zone. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Jamie Ortega crosses into West Islip’s zone. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Nikki Ortega’s younger sister Jamie, a sophomore midfielder, feels that unfinished business could be accomplished this season.

“I feel this year is our year because we connect so well on and off the field,” she said.

Rachel Masullo’s twin sister Amanda, also a midfielder, agrees.

“Even though we just started practicing I feel like we can beat whoever we want to if we have the right mind-set,” she said. “We have that connection and we’re comfortable. On the field we always know where each other is going to be; we don’t even have to say anything. If I pass it somewhere, I know my sister’s going to be there, or one of the [other] sisters is gong to be there. I think it’s our best quality in the team.”

Other pairs of sisters on the squad include returning eighth-grader Jennifer Barry and her sister Ava, who transferred back from St. Anthony’s, and sophomore returner Haley Timarky and her sister Emily.

According to the players, practices have been intense as the girls focus on limiting turnovers, transitioning on defense and continually building stamina.

The team did lose two seniors in defender Gabrielle Redding, who the girls depended on and were confident could make the stops, and the Masullo twin’s older sister Paige, an attack. Even so, they feel comfortable with the roster and will look to Nikki Ortega to lead the way.

“She’s always been an impact player since she’s been with me,” Dolson said of her six-year returner. “She’s really stepped up and is one of the leaders they look to.”

And the girls want to go far for her.

“I would love to go out with a bang for Nikki’s last season,” Rachel Masullo said. “Nikki deserves it. She works really hard and she should be paid for it. She should get rewarded.”

Nikki Ortega is humbled by her teammates’ sentiments but also wants the team to go far for her own reasons.

“They’re all like my little sisters so for them to want it for me is unbelievable, but I hope to accomplish it not only for me, but for them as well, because I know everyone has been working really hard for this,” she said. “It’s only the second week of practice and already we see a difference compared to all of the other years starting off. Our motivation is to get to states, and that’s what we hope to achieve.”

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28-year-old skeleton racer will go to Sochi, Russia

John Daly competes in the World Cup in Lake Placid in December. Photo by Pat Hendrick

By Daniel Dunaief

Four years ago, he was just happy to be there. Weeks before the world turned its attention to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Smithtown’s John Daly had no idea whether he’d be watching the games from home or representing the country in the high-speed sport of skeleton racing.

Now, Daly, 28, is preparing for his second winter games in Sochi, Russia. He finished 17th in Vancouver and is approaching the competition, which is scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15, with a different attitude.

“I’m confident, I think I could do really well,” Daly said via Skype while in St. Moritz, Switzerland for one of the pre-Olympic qualifying races. “In the last game, I was a long shot. In this one, I’m truly prepared. If ever there was a race to win, it’s this one coming up.”

Daly competes in skeleton racing, where he digs his spiked shoes into an ice track, extends his arm and dives headfirst onto the sled. He races at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour, his chin inches above the frozen track. He steers by shifting his weight slightly, as spectators hear something akin to a freight train seconds before he becomes a bullet blazing down the bluff.

Daly said the four years of training and living have helped him maintain his focus in a race where the difference between a medal and fourth place is measured in hundredths of a second.

Thoughts about the action, the crowd and “how crazy would it be if I medal” may have hurt him in Vancouver.

“That’s when you start to put yourself days and hours ahead. I’m staying in the moment. I will take it one day at a time, one curve at a time.”

Tuffy Latour, the coach of the men’s and women’s skeleton team for the United States, suggested that the focus shouldn’t be on winning medals. Instead, his team needs to have “good starts and good drives” while “believing in themselves.”

As the number of days dwindle until he takes those last deep breaths before diving down the mountain, Daly and his family are preparing for a trip that’s more than 5,200 miles from their home.

His mother, Bennarda, a nurse at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, is thinking about “all the silly little things,” including making sure her husband, James, son, James, daughter, Kristen and sister, Sabina Rezza of Kew Gardens, make their flights.

The designers of the Sochi track originally wanted to make the course among the fastest in the world. A fatal accident in Vancouver, however, caused them to redesign their course, which now includes uphill sections that cut down on a slider’s speed.

“They wanted [the racers] to go to 100 miles per hour,” Daly said. “But they slowed it down to 83 miles per hour.” It makes the track especially unforgiving of any mistakes.

“With those uphill sections, you can’t mess up, or it’ll mess up the race,” Daly said. ‘You don’t want to teach perfection, but you need to be pretty close.”

Still, Daly has a short, but encouraging, history with this track. He placed fourth last February in a test run, a mere seven hundredths of a second behind third place. He also finished ahead of Latvian Tomass Dukurs, one of the two brothers who have been the dominant force in skeleton racing.

This year, Daly said, everyone on Team USA, including his friends Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress, has beaten at least one of the powerful tandem.

“It shows they are human,” Daly said. “It’s anyone’s game.”

Latour is encouraged by the way his competitors have performed.

“The Dukurs are beatable,” he said through an emailed statement. “Our team has had some fantastic races despite some small mistakes. If we’re going to beat those guys, we have to be at our best. I think we can get there.”

Daly said the only one of his entourage who might want a medal more than he does is his father James, a retired EMS worker for the FDNY.

The elder Daly said he’s so eager to see his son succeed because “when his dreams come true, so do mine.”
In addition to safety, Bennarda Daly has another goal for her son.

“If he knows he did his best, that’s all that matters,” she said.

James Daly said the agony of standing near the track, watching his son prepare for a race, is almost unbearable.

“You almost don’t know how to act,” he said. “There’s so much I want to do. Clapping my hands is all I can do.”

Daly’s mom plans to bring a cowbell to the other side of the world. Lining the track like pieces of metal drawn to a magnet, spectators shout encouragement and clang their cowbells, amplifying their sound and warming up their arms on mountains where icy winds seem intent on defeating wool sweaters, socks and hats.

Daly’s family and friends have been instrumental in getting him to Sochi, he said. When he needed money or he had to change a plane ticket, no matter what the hour, his father would get it done. Daly said he hopes he’s as helpful to his children some day.

James Daly said he learned how to support his family from his father, the late Joe Daly, a police officer in New York City.

As for what Daly will do after the Olympics, he’s considering a career in advertising.

“That’ll be my first actual job,” he said.

The trail from frozen tracks all over the world to the white-hot lights of the Winter Olympics has included its share of financial, physical and emotional sacrifices. He said he still has unaffordable college loans from Plattsburgh State University, where he was an All-American in the decathlon in 2007.

He has also bumped into walls during competitions and finished the races with bruises or blood dripping down his ankle.

Each year, he missed important personal events, including his mother’s birthday early in January, Thanksgiving and weddings. He couldn’t attend seven weddings in recent years.

Still, the opportunity to race down a mountain and represent the country is worth the trade-off.

“I get to be a kid and ride a sleigh,” he said. “How many other 28-year-olds can say that?”