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The 2016 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame induction class was honored at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hauppauge. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Greatness in the world of athletics was on display to be celebrated Friday night. Members of the 27th class of the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame were inducted at a ceremony held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hauppauge. They will join past inductees like Boomer Esiason and Craig Biggio in the pantheon of impactful Suffolk sports figures.

“Each year we induct the very best of Suffolk County,” Master of Ceremonies and 1999 Hall of Fame inductee David Weiss said to kick off the evening. “These are men and women on and off the playing field who had a positive and lasting impact, and have left a legacy for all of Suffolk County.”

Among the inductees were Northport star lacrosse player Jill Byers; Setauket resident and 27-year New York Jets beat reporter, Rich Cimini; legendary Harborfields football coach and Smithtown football star, Tom Combs; the first varsity boys’ basketball coach at Comsewogue, Frank Romeo; and Deer Park three-sport standout and football All-American at Stony Brook University, Chuck Downey. Richie LoNigro, owner of Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, which has been open since 1973, was also honored with a special recognition award.

Byers graduated from Northport in 2005. She is the only athlete to be named All-Long Island team in three sports during her high school career, playing basketball, soccer and lacrosse. She was a two-time All-American in lacrosse during high school, and also received the distinction four times during her career at the University of Notre Dame. She also competed on the United States women’s lacrosse national team.

“African proverb states that it takes a village to raise a child,” Byers said during the ceremony Friday. She credited, among others, her three older brothers for her success, stating that they never let her win at anything. “Thank you to my village for giving me the opportunity to represent you here tonight.”

Setauket resident Rich Cimini was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a beat reporter for the New York Jets. Photo by Alex Petroski
Setauket resident Rich Cimini was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a beat reporter for the New York Jets. Photo by Alex Petroski

Cimini is the longest tenured Jets beat reporter in team history, working for the Daily News, Newsday and for the past six years, ESPN. He has received awards from the Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers of America for his work over the years.

He joked that he didn’t feel like he belonged in a class with people who accomplished so much on the field, being that his accomplishments took place entirely in the press box.

“I feel like the nerd who got invited to the cool kids party,” Cimini said.

He mentioned his supportive parents and his understanding wife of 25 years, who is okay with planning their lives yearly around the NFL schedule.

“She’s the real hall of famer in our family,” Cimini said of his wife Michelle, who is actually a lifelong New York Giants season ticket holder.

Tom Combs has been the athletic director in the Patchogue-Medford school district since 2003. Before that, he played Division II football at Ashland University in Ohio following his four years at Smithtown. He became the head football coach at Harborfields in 1990, where he won five county championships and two Long Island Championships over a 13-year run.

“I am humbled by the talent and accomplishments of this class,” Combs said. “I’m just very honored and blessed to be up here.”

Combs has two daughters who followed in his footsteps and became teachers and coaches.. He thanked his family, friends and players for helping him to achieve the successes that led to his induction.

“Being a football coach is always something I wanted to do,” he said, adding that his players earning scholarships to attend college and play football was always important to him. “That’s what I’m always proud of as a coach.”

In 1968, Frank Romeo became the first varsity basketball coach at Comsewogue. During a 24-year span, Romeo led Comsewogue to eight league titles, one large school Section XI title and 15 straight playoff appearances. From 1987 to 1990, Romeo’s record was 62-5. He left Comsewogue to become the head basketball coach at Suffolk County Community College in 1992, where he made the playoffs in all of his seven seasons there.

Romeo used the word “we” repeatedly about his spot in the Hall of Fame.

“For all of my former players at Comsewogue and at Suffolk Community College — they were the main ingredient in the term ‘we,’” he said. “They did the playing and they made the sacrifices. Some years we were good enough to win championships and other years we played just as hard and we didn’t win championships. They can now be assured that they made their mark in Suffolk County. They got us to the Hall of Fame.”

Frank Romeo was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as varsity basketball coach at Comsewogue High School and Suffolk County Community College. Photo by Alex Petroski
Frank Romeo was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as varsity basketball coach at Comsewogue High School and Suffolk County Community College. Photo by Alex Petroski

Chuck Downey was a standout wrestler, football player and lacrosse player during his years at Deer Park. He was a part of Stony Brook University’s first football team in 1984, where he still holds nearly 30 school records and 12 NCAA records. He was a three-time All-American while at Stony Brook, which earned him a professional contract with the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles. That marked the first time a Stony Brook athlete signed a professional sports contract. Downey has since followed in the footsteps of his father Raymond, an FDNY Battalion Chief. His father died in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001.

Weiss gave Downey a memorable introduction.

“What a great way to end a wonderful evening with an inductee who epitomizes the word hero from a family of heroes,” Weiss said of the last member to be announced.

Downey joked that he’d rather be in a burning building then standing in front of a room full of people to speak.

“I’m truly honored and deeply grateful to be up here tonight along with these other amazing athletes,” he said.

Many of Richie LoNigro’s 12 children, 25 grandchildren and five great grandchildren were present to honor the man who has become a fixture in Port Jefferson.

“I own a business that makes trophies and trophies are things that we’re all very proud of. I brought my trophies with me tonight and they’re all sitting out there in the audience,” he said, talking about his family. “These are my trophies and awards, and I take them with me wherever I go.”

To learn more about the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame visit www.suffolksportshof.com.

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Sean O’Shea moves the basketball around the paint. Photo by Joe Galotti

By Joe Galotti

After suffering its first loss of the season on Saturday, the Northport boys’ basketball team wasted little time in getting back to its winning ways. On Tuesday night, the Tigers jumped out to an early 17-2 lead on visiting Lindenhurst, and never looked back, as they came away with a 55-41 victory.

The win improved the Tigers’ record to 15-1 on the year, and clinched a League II regular season championship for the program. While Northport’s players realize they have plenty of work ahead of them still this winter, the achievement was certainly not lost on the club.

Lukas Jarrett holds possession while looking to make a pass. Photo by Joe Galotti
Lukas Jarrett holds possession while looking to make a pass. Photo by Joe Galotti

“This is a really great accomplishment for us, because we play in probably the best league on Long Island,” Northport senior guard Brennan Whelan said.

Northport senior guard Sean O’Shea echoed his teammate’s sentiment.

“This is huge for us,” O’Shea said. “It’s great knowing that we’ll have a banner up on the wall, and that it will hang there forever.”

O’Shea finished with a game-high 15 points in his team’s win over the Bulldogs, while Whelan dished out 10 assists. The club also got nine points apiece from junior guard Kevin Cryer-Hassett and senior guard Rory Schynder.

In total, 11 different players scored for the Tigers in the contest. Ball movement has been a key for Northport all season long, and on Tuesday the team’s passing and court vision was once again on point.

“We’re an unselfish team by nature, and we also work a lot on passing,” Northport’s head coach Andrew D’Eloia said. “Our guys really do understand that if they move the ball, they get an open shot, and they enjoy playing that way.”

Northport’s veteran group seems to have fully bought into this philosophy.

“We’ve all been playing with each other for a couple of years now, and we always look to make the extra pass, because that’s what makes our offense work so well,” Whelan said.

The Tigers also put together a strong night on their own end of the court, giving up just four points in the opening quarter and 12 points in the first half. This allowed Northport to take a commanding 22-point advantage into halftime, and give rest to its starters down the stretch.

Ryan Magnuson makes a play. Photo by Joe Galotti
Ryan Magnuson makes a play. Photo by Joe Galotti

Senior forward Lukas Jarrett was a major catalyst on the defensive end, registering five blocks on the night.

“Our defense started everything tonight,” D’Eloia said. “We just really committed to helping each other, and trying to stay in front of them. We made them take tough shots, and that helped generate our offense early on.”

Lindenhurst outscored the Tigers 29-21 in the game’s final 16 minutes, but was never able to draw within single-digits again. Manny Oyakhilome led the Bulldogs with 14 points in a losing effort.

With a league title now in hand, Northport looks to have a strong finish to what has been a memorable regular season campaign to this point.

“We definitely want to go undefeated [in league play],” O’Shea said. “But we also know that we have to take it one game at a time.”

The Tigers, now 10-0 in League II, will next travel to face off against Walt Whitman on Friday, Feb. 5, at 6:30 p.m. The Wildcats have struggled of late, but D’Eloia is not overlooking the league rival.

“They’re a very well coached and disciplined team, and they would like nothing more than to knock us off,” D’Eloia said. “So we’re going to prepare for that game the same way we’ve prepared for all the other games.”

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Middle Country’s Christine Gironda may switch to midfield position at Iona College

Gironda bobbles the ball to take possession off the draw. File photo by Desirée Keegan

By Clayton Collier

After serving as an integral part of the Middle Country girls’ lacrosse team that went undefeated in the regular season, Christine Gironda will continue her playing career at Iona College.

The 6-foot 1-inch All-County defender said Iona was an easy choice for her.

“Everybody always talks about the feeling they get and after visiting so many schools,” she said. “I didn’t get it until I went to Iona. Everything from the coaching staff, players, campus, academics and atmosphere made my decision very easy.”

Michael Gironda, Christine’s father, said the location is perfect for all parties.

“We’re really proud of her,” he said. “And it’s great because it’s far enough where she feels she is away, but close enough where we can still make her games, or even do her laundry.”

For Middle Country head coach Lindsay Dolson, she said she is happy for her senior, but also sorry to see her go.

“She’s been taking the draw for us for the past three years,” she said. “We don’t have anyone near her height coming up, so it’ll definitely be a big miss.”

Gironda’s father said he originally thought soccer would end up being his daughter’s primary sport, but, eventually, she began to gravitate more toward lacrosse. Because Gironda became fully committed to lacrosse later in her high school career, her father said he believes the best is yet to come.

“Because she started so late, I honestly feel her best lacrosse is in front of her,” he said. “She hasn’t peaked; she has more upside.”

Also as a result of joining lacrosse later on, Iona did not get a look at Gironda until the Under Armour All-American tryouts, where she caught the eye of head coach Michelle Mason. It was there that they invited her to practice at the program’s camp, where Mason said Gironda shined.

“She just crushed it,” Mason said. “She just kept getting better throughout the whole day; like every drill we ran, she was picking it up really quick.”

Now that Gironda is committed to attend Iona in the fall, Mason said she will look to get her new player involved in a variety of roles, including potentially moving the Middle Country product to the midfield position.

“I think she’s got a great finish to her shot and her decision making and lacrosse IQ are great,” she said. “There’s a really good foundation for us to build on.”

Mason said she hopes to increase the aggression of Gironda on the field come this fall.

“If we could get her to be a little more aggressive and not as much of a gentle giant, then I think she could be a real dominant force on offense for sure,” she said. “She has a lot of intangibles that really set her apart.”

Gironda listed her aggression as one of her biggest improvements over the course of a banner year for the Mad Dogs in which the lacrosse program made it to the Suffolk Class A finals, falling in double- overtime to West Islip, 11-10.

Overall, Dolson said it was the senior leadership of Gironda — as well as fellow seniors Nikki Ortega, Ashley Miller, Serena Ruggiero and Alison Dipaola — that proved to be crucial in putting together as successful of a season as they did.

“This group has been dedicated and hardworking in and outside the classroom, on the field,” she said. “They really bring everyone together on the field.”

As for Gironda, although she said it will be hard to leave her second family behind, she is excited for the opportunity ahead at Iona.

“A new chapter is always so bitter sweet,” she said. “I will miss this team so much, but will always have these memories. I am so excited to go on this new journey and now I will get to experience two amazing teams.”

Kasey Mitchell changes direction with the ball. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Written inside Kasey Mitchell’s yearbook is a quote from Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt: “Success isn’t owned. It’s leased, and rent is due every day.”

From a young age, the midfielder for the Mount Sinai girls’ lacrosse team was living by those words.

Mitchell first played lacrosse when she was in second grade, on the boys’ team at Comsewogue.

“It definitely helped me grow as a player,” she said. “I was a lot smaller than everyone else, but my dad wouldn’t let me back down to any boys. He still doesn’t.”

She joined the Mount Sinai girls’ varsity team in seventh grade, and was originally brought up as an attack.

“She was always a kid that was destined for greatness,” Mount Sinai head coach Al Bertolone said. “She was tough. Earlier on, she was just a confident attacker. I often feel that if she hadn’t torn her ACL in her freshman year, we probably would’ve gotten upstate [to the state championship] one more time. But every year she’s played, she’s done better and better — leading up to her finest year this year.”

Mitchell suffered her injury during a junior varsity basketball game, and came back three months later, competing on the lacrosse field in the county championship, where the Mustangs lost to Shoreham-Wading River.

During that healing period, her father, Pete, who is also the boys’ varsity head coach at Comsewogue, installed turf in the backyard to be able to practice with his daughter.

“When she tore her ACL, I made a commitment to train her,” Pete Mitchell said. “It’s kind of amazing that she ended up being the player that she is. She works hard every single day and there’s no substitute for hard work.”

He said his daughter’s commitment from a young age, much like the quote she lives by, contributed to her becoming an important piece of the Mustangs’ puzzle that helped the team achieve greatness.

“She was a tough kid — very athletic, and she worked real hard,” he said. “She loved the game and she was always around the boys, always around my team, and she got a good sense of the game and I think that’s one of her biggest assets. Her lacrosse IQ is very good. She goes to the gym every day, she has a personal trainer, and all those things and her successes have been a dream come true considering where she came from and how hard she’s worked to come back from her injury.”

During Kasey Mitchell’s sophomore year, the Mustangs went 20-0 overall and claimed the school’s first-ever Class C state title. In her junior year, the team went 18-1 overall with an undefeated, 14-0 mark in Division II. Mount Sinai made it to the Suffolk County Class C final, where the team lost to Bayport-Blue Point, 11-9.

Bertolone said the coaches sat her down at the end of that season to go over her individual and team goals, and to come up with a plan that could help her achieve them. The solution was moving her to midfield.

“When it comes to talking about Kasey, it’s just her evolution,” Bertolone said. “She was always a very, very good lacrosse player and her skills of course got better over the course of time. This year we moved her to the midfield and she was good on both sides of the field — offensively and defensively. She doesn’t care where she plays as long as she plays. Sometimes you’ll have to put your personal goals aside for team goals and she did that.”

She finished above 75 percent on draw controls, and scored 75 points off of 57 goals and 18 assists for a Mustangs team that went 20-1 overall en route to its second state title.

Besides her contributions to help win games, Bertolone said she was thankful for all Mitchell was able to do as a team captain.

“She was more like a coach on the field, and has great leadership skills in all facets,” he said. “She took care of business on the field and she took care of business off the field. She was really nurturing to the younger players; she was one of those quintessential senior leaders this year. She was outstanding.”

These contributions on and off the field earned her All-American honors — the major goal she had set for herself and Bertolone worked to help her achieve before she heads off to play women’s lacrosse at Stony Brook University. She was also named All-Tri-State and All-Long Island among other accolades.

“Lacrosse is what I grew up doing and since seventh grade lacrosse has been my life, day in and day out,” Mitchell said. “Bertolone is like my second dad, he’s helped me be the person I’ve become and without Mount Sinai lacrosse I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

A main reason why Mitchell said she chose Stony Brook is because despite her injury, head coach Joe Spallina was still interested in having Mitchell be a part of the program.

“After my ACL surgery, I was a little slow and kind of limped, and while a lot of colleges didn’t look at me, he never gave up on me,” she said. “Spallina didn’t hesitate to contact me and recruit me, so that was one thing I really appreciated about him.”

And she’s excited to see not only what she can do for the program, but what Spallina can do for her.

“He doesn’t doubt people — he’s completely turned around a couple of athletes,” Mitchell said. “I’m really excited to see what he can help me do and accomplish. Ever since I was a little kid lacrosse has been my entire life and I love playing it. There’s not a day that I don’t play it, honestly, and to just have the opportunity to play at such a high level with such a great team that has a great coach and great teammates … I just can’t wait. It’s a dream come true and I’m honored to be privileged enough to play at Stony Brook.”

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Marissa Spinazzola will play two sports at Mercy College

Marissa Spinazzola defends the open cage. File photo by Bill Landon

Marissa Spinazzola was given an opportunity she couldn’t refuse — to play both lacrosse and field hockey at Mercy College.

“When I first met with the lacrosse coach, she said she didn’t want to recruit a lot of people that were playing both sports, but I asked her if it was possible if I could play both and she told me it was okay, so I’m excited,” Spinazzola said. “I knew I didn’t want to leave field hockey behind because lacrosse wasn’t the only sport I had a love and passion for.”

The Warriors’ dual-threat first got her hands on a lacrosse stick when she was in first grade, and she said she knew it was the sport for her. While she also played basketball, Spinazzola said she knew she wanted to try her hand at field hockey, and made the middle school team in seventh grade. Come her junior year, she had to pick between basketball and field hockey, and said she thought continuing on with the latter was something that would benefit her in the long run.

“My mother thinks I’m better at field hockey,” the athlete said, laughing. “At first I didn’t know if I liked it because I didn’t know if hunching over my stick the whole time was going to bother me, but I stuck with it and found I had a passion for it.”

She was good at it, too, which is what caught the eye of Mercy field hockey coach Kayte Kinsley.

“The first time I saw her play I could tell how aggressive she was,” Kinsley said. “She was a hard worker, never quit on any play and she was all-around driven.”

Once she started a conversation with Spinazzola, the coach said she knew that much more that the athlete would be a strong fit for the program.

“Her personality is kind of contagious,” she said. “I think the first conversation I ever had with her I was hysterically laughing; she’s funny. She fits the whole mold of what we’re looking for in a player here at Mercy.”

Although originally playing midfield in both sports, the now-converted defender said she is excited about the role she plays on her teams.

Spinazzola calls out a play while defending. File photo by Desirée Keegan
Spinazzola calls out a play while defending. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“I love defense because I feel like you get so much action and you have to be a team player and communicate with one another to stop opponents from getting a goal,” she said. “I like that the defense works as a unit and no one is selfish. Playing defense helped me become the person I am.”

Spinazzola had the stick and personal skills that her high schools coaches were thrilled about having on their team.

“She doesn’t back down from anybody. She had a very good stick on the defensive end, you don’t have to worry about her throwing the ball away, “ Comsewogue girls’ lacrosse head coach James Fernandes said. “But more so, when I think about Marissa, I think about more than the lacrosse aspect, but about her as a human being. She’s a very good person. There’s not many kids like her that have the heart that she does.”

Fernandes said that what he noticed on and off the field was Spinazzola’s ability to become a phenomenal senior leader, taking the younger girls under her wing and helping them become comfortable on a varsity team with a diversified age.

That ability to be a leader earned her the Scott Hession Memorial Award, named after the former athletic director and boys’ basketball coach at Comsewogue, and given to a player that may not necessarily be the best player, but exemplifies what it is to be a leader.

“If there was one kid that touched my heart this year, it was her,” Fernandes said. “She was a great leader. There was no animosity or hatred; it was all love. And that’s what I’ll remember most about Marissa Spinazzola.”

Kinsley said she was looking for an immediate impact from Spinazzola.

“We are losing a couple of defenders, so with her skill level and her work ethic, we’re looking for her to come in right off the bat and be an impact player for us, and I believe that she is definitely going to be that for us,” she said. “I’m excited about her coming in. We’re looking forward to preseason.”

Spinazzola said she is looking forward to her new athletic careers at Mercy, and also hopes to be able to not only make an impact, but also learn from and grow with her new team.

“My goal is to step up, learn the game better than I already do, get playing time and be a unit with that team like I was at Comsewogue,” she said. “I learned from my coaches and tell myself that my stick doesn’t affect how I play, it’s the person behind the stick. When I think I’m having a bad day or something, it’s not my stick’s fault. I just know I need to focus harder to achieve my goals.”