Rich Castellano, the legendary Northport Lady Tiger Basketball coach, had many reasons to celebrate on Saturday.
He notched his 736th victory, padding his mind-blowing total as Long Island’s all-time winningest coach. By doing so, his team’s record improved to 20-1 on the year and they advanced to the semi-final round of the Suffolk County Playoffs with their breezy 71-28 victory over Patchogue-Medford.
It was also Castellano’s birthday — and his players showered their hard-driving skipper with gifts of championship-caliber play pretty much from the opening tap in what was the Tigers final home game of the year.
“It was a great birthday present,” Castellano said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Northport was far from overworked on Saturday against the Lady Raiders as the 43-point margin of victory would suggest, but the Lady Tigers never take a day off.
Tough-as-nails senior point guard and captain Payson Hedges scored on a driving layup in the opening moments of the game and had seven points in the first quarter, as Northport took a 15-9 lead after one. Hedges also made several nifty passes to junior Kennedy Radziul, who led all scorers with 18 points and sophomore Claire Fitzpatrick, to highlight the first quarter.
“Payson is such a complete player,” Castellano said. “She makes the correct pass every time and she sees angles on the court that only a good point guard is able to see. She also gets rebounds when she needs to and plays great defense. I think she gets the number one star in this game.”
Hedges had five assists and seven rebounds to go along with her 13 points. As she typically does with the sharing of the basketball, she shared the credit with her tight-knit Lady Tiger teammates.
“Our whole team had a great game today,” said the cross-over lacrosse star Hedges. “We stayed focused and played hard all the way through.”
Coming in as heavy underdogs, the Lady Raiders were dealt a harsher blow to their chances when their best player Diamond Pertillar suffered an ankle injury early in the second quarter that sidelined her for the rest of the contest. Pertillar is Pat-Med’s leading scorer, averaging 16 points a game.
After Pertillar’s injury, Northport built a 35-15 lead. But the Tigers didn’t escape the first half without a painful scare of their own.
Oft-injured senior guard Emma Kezys, who has been with the varsity program since the Lady Tigers won the Suffolk County crown in 2020, hobbled off with a knee injury with only 15 seconds remaining in the half. Kezys, who missed 11 games earlier in the year with a concussion and has also missed time with various knee injuries over the past two seasons, was expected to be available on Wednesday — results not available at press time — when Northport took on William Floyd in the Suffolk semi-finals which was played at Longwood High School in Middle Island.
“Emma is the heart and soul of the team, and she gives 110% all the time,” said Castellano. “She goes out there and in the first five seconds she’s on the floor, she takes a charge. That’s just the way she plays.”
Despite her latest injury, Kezys is confident that she will be cleared to play on Wednesday.
“This game is a big deal and I’ll be ready,” said the four-year letterman. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
With the Kezys injury and a lead that ballooned to 40 points with two minutes left in the third quarter, Castellano removed his starters and gifted every one of his active bench players with some playoff experience.
The younger kids didn’t miss a beat.
Sophomore Isabella Bica, whose sister Sohpia was also a 10th grader on the 2020 championship team, played 14 minutes and hit a three pointer in the third quarter. Freshmen Jillian Ryan ran the point and had a couple of buckets, and sophomore guard Lily Beamer also got a chance to run the offense. Eighth-grader Ava DeMarco also logged some time and earned a rousing ovation from her teammates simply for making a free throw as time wound down. The Tiger celebration had begun.
Castellano then got a chance to insert players who have been brought up from Junior Varsity for the playoffs. Eighth-grader Riley Cash, freshmen Ella Johnson and Grace Gilmartin and sophomore Sophia Lang, who made a three pointer on her only attempt, all got the pleasure of finishing the ballgame.
Starter Fitzpatrick, who is still only a sophomore but is a three-year starter, finished with 12 points despite sitting for most of the second half. She was giddy to gift Castellano yet another win, but she wants to shower him with more.
“I would love to give him a Long Island Championship for his birthday and for everything he does for us,” said the precocious 10th grader. “He absolutely loves us with his whole heart and would do anything for us, and to get him ‘The Chip’ this year would be amazing.”
And that would be a very happy belated birthday present for Northport’s coaching Grand Poobah Castellano. The man with most famous yet ever-graying mustache in Suffolk agreed.
“That would be a great gift.”