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Steven Zaitz

Evan Kay and Brendan Fenlon try for loose ball in Commack’s 44-41 victory on Feb. 2. Photo by Steven Zaitz

By Steven Zaitz

It was only the second day of February, but ‘March Madness’ is already running white hot for both the Commack Cougar and Northport Tiger boys basketball teams.

In one of the loudest, most intense, and competitive games this season, Commack held on for dear life to beat their crosstown rival Northport, 44-41, last Friday night. The game featured six lead changes and neither team ever led by more than six, as raucous fans from both schools went bonkers with every loose ball, lead change, hustle play, and made basket.

This contest also featured two of the best guards on Long Island — the 6’0” senior Nick Waga for the Cougars and the 5’11” senior JoJo Cipollino for the Tigers — and this head-to-head battle did not disappoint. The two squared off in their own personal showdown that climaxed with each coming up big in the dying moments of the game.

But who would have the final say?

Cougars and Tigers battle to the finish on Feb. 2. Photo by Steven Zaitz

As is the case with most thrillers, this 32-minute slugfest had plenty of plot twists, triumphs, blunders, unbridled joy, and bitter regret —all bathed in the backdrop of the ultra-competitive Suffolk League II playoff picture, with the Tigers sitting just behind the Cougars in the standings.

“It was one of the craziest atmospheres I’ve ever played in,” Waga said, who scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds. “It felt like a playoff game, and it was awesome to see both student sections packed because it made it feel like every possession mattered.”

Waga was a key cog in last year’s Cougar machine that made it to the Suffolk County finals at Stony Brook University, so he knows a thing or two about playing in a playoff atmosphere. He is a four-year letterman under head coach Peter Smith and has come of age in the Commack basketball program.

“Nick is a great leader,” Smith said. “He’s been on the team since his freshman year, and watching him develop as the player and leader that he has become has been a lot of fun.”

This night of high school basketball was a reminder of how much fun this game can be. The Commack faithful, many of whom were dressed up in full superhero and Ninja Turtle costumes, were at fever pitch even before the opening tap, screaming and waving home white towels as if they were connected to a hidden power source underneath the bleachers. 

Although they had sans towels, Northport’s fan base was just as loud when things went in their team’s favor and Cipollino was a major source of this. Like Waga, he has developed into a star. Jojo is still lightning quick with his first step, despite adding inches and muscle to his frame this season from last, and he is even more fearless going to the basket; no matter how many taller defenders are waiting for him in the paint.

“It was one of the loudest games I’ve played in, and that was great, but we couldn’t get the job done in the end,” an exhausted Cipollino said. 

While disappointed, Northport head coach Andrew D’Eloia, whose team has a record of 9-5, sees the bigger picture.

“We are very close to being in a position to win these types of games,” D’Eloia said. “It comes down to one or two plays, and to their credit, they made them down the stretch. They play the game the right way; they share the ball, they play defense, and we try to teach our kids the same thing at Northport, and that’s why the games are often so close between Commack and Northport.”

Despite the late fireworks, both teams suffered through a sleepy first quarter, shooting below 20% from the field. Northport led 5-4 after eight minutes.

Cougars and Tigers battle to the finish on Feb. 2. Photo by Steven Zaitz

Commack leveraged a 6-0 run to end the first half, and they took an 18-13 lead into the break. Cougar star quarterback Jeremy Weiss, who plays power forward for Smith, had an athletic rebound and put-back to spark the run with three minutes left. The Commack portion of the crowd was content to cheer his name for the remainder of the quarter.

Northport sliced the lead to one entering the fourth quarter. At the very end of the period, senior guard Liam Sevey collected the rebound of a last-second, half-court heave from teammate Owen Boyland and was able to barely beat the buzzer to pull the Tigers to within one at 27-26.

“That was a great example of game awareness, hustle, and playing to whistle by Liam,” D’Eloia said.

Enter another hustler into the mix, Commack senior swingman Evan Kay, who would figure prominently in the final quarter.

With four minutes left in the game and Commack up by three, Kay fought for a loose ball with Cipollino and Tiger forward Brendan Fenlon. All three would pile on top of each other, but the possession arrow pointed to Commack. Waga hit a three moments later to make it 39-33.

Cipollino countered with a triple from the elbow, and it was the Northport cheering section’s turn to scream their heads off. Kay, who was scoreless in the first three quarters, made his second bucket of the fourth, to give the Cougars a five-point lead with less than three minutes to go. Kay pumped his fist in the air as he ran back down on defense and the Cougar crowd had a new hero to holler for.

“Evan has been a great addition to our team because he brings a lot of energy off the bench,” Smith said. “He has a ‘no-lose’ type of mentality to everything he does, and he brings that extra dynamic and fight to our team. It’s something that every team needs, and Evan gives it to us every night.”

Kay, who played for Smith as a sophomore but decided to rest last winter for baseball, really didn’t seem to mind the fans in the Northport section showering him with disparaging chants about his physique.

“I play with a lot of passion, and to have the fans notice me from both sides, means a lot to me,” Kay said. “I heard the Northport people chanting ‘Eat a Salad’ and I feed off stuff like that. It just fueled me even more because I knew that I was having an impact on the game and helping us win.”

Nick Waga led the Commack Cougars to victory over Northport on Feb 2. Photo by Steven Zaitz

But Kay and Commack were not sitting down for a celebratory post-game meal just yet.

With 1:45 to play in the game, Cipollino stole the ball as a result of Northport’s press, drove to the hoop, and was fouled by 6’5” Cougar forward Devin Spahn. It made the score 42-41.

After the basket, the usually stoic Cipollino slammed the padded wall behind the basket and screamed with primal delight. He was mobbed by his teammates and serenaded by the Northport student section, just feet away.

“I really wanted to get this win and at that moment, the emotions came out of me,” Cipollino said, who led all scorers with 19. “It was a great game.”

Cipollino’s three-point play brought the Tigers to within one point and Northport continued to apply pressure in the backcourt. They created another loose ball and it squirted to Fenlon at three-quarter court and he quickly fired a pass to Boylan, who would have had an uncontested layup. But the pass was too far in front of Boylan. It sailed underneath the basket and out of bounds, and the ball went back to Commack, who was extremely fortunate to still have the lead.

“I just misjudged the pass, and it’s going to stick with me for a while,” said a distraught Fenlon, who played another solid game with six points, seven rebounds, and four blocked shots. “It changed the game, but I have to use it as motivation and not make the same mistakes in the future when it matters most.”

Always the teacher, D’Eloia was philosophical in his post-game remarks.

Evan Kay and Brendan Fenlon try for loose ball in Commack’s 44-41 victory on Feb. 2. Photo by Steven Zaitz

“I told Brendan and all of the guys that everyone who steps on the floor is charged with finding something they could have done a little better throughout a game, and it’s never about one single play,” D’Eloia said. “A close-out, a sharper pass, getting to a loose ball. When you’re playing in a game like that, those little plays that you make, or don’t make, can put you either up by three or down by three. Tonight, they made more of those plays down the stretch.”

There was still time in the game, and it was Kay and Waga helping to make such plays to close it out. Kay killed some clock and drew a non-shooting foul. Waga snatched an offensive rebound and was fouled. He sank two free throws, and a prayer by Cipollino to tie at the final horn went unanswered. Commack was the team left standing and is now 12-3 on the year.

“I shoot with confidence because I know the hard work I put in during the off-season,” Waga said, who shared an embrace with his parents at center court right after the final horn. “I live for these types of moments when the pressure is high, and I feel like it brings out the best in a person.”

If this game is any indication, and with the Suffolk County playoffs just around the corner, the best is likely yet to come.

By Steven Zaitz

With three and a half minutes remaining in their game against Smithtown High School East, the Huntington varsity girls basketball team was on the precipice of not only losing their grip on a game they had once led by 17, but gone with it, would have been a chance at a spot in the playoffs.

When Smithtown East junior guard Meredith Brennan hit a corner jumper midway through the fourth quarter, it cut the Huntington lead to six. The Lady Devils, whose once-insurmountable lead now seemed very surmountable, needed a tourniquet.

After a timeout, the Bulls, whose defensive intensity in the second half of the game fueled their comeback, now had that defense dialed up to 11. The Blue Devils passed the ball around the perimeter but could not find an open shot. As the shot clock ticked down to just three seconds, the ball wound up in the hands of freshman point guard Ava McDonald, who was closely guarded by Brennan at the top of the key. After a quick dribble to her right and with no remaining recourse, she hoisted a jumper from behind the three-point arc. It was good – and just like that, Huntington had a nine-point lead with under three minutes to go. The 5’5” McDonald had delivered not only a tourniquet, but a dagger to the hearts of Smithtown East.

“I heard my coaches and the fans counting down the shot clock, so I knew I had to shoot it,” said McDonald, who led the Lady Devils in scoring with 13 points. “Our coaches put us through a lot of shooting drills at practice, so we are prepared for anything like this in game situations.”

Along with her baker’s dozen in points, McDonald had 8 assists, 4 steals, and played all 32 minutes of the game. 

“Ava came through with a big shot just when we needed it,” Huntington head coach Michael Kaplan said. “I’m not surprised because she works hard every day in practice, and she is a great leader. She is calm and poised and has developed a great I.Q. of the game.”

It was with that high I.Q. that McDonald and her teammates were stifling the East offense in the early part of the game. Starters Kayleigh Bender, Reese Rinaldi, Lauren Donaghy and Jolie Weinschreider, along with McDonald, applied an unrelenting trap on the unnerved Bulls that led to numerous turnovers and easy layups for Huntington, as they built a 11-2 led after one quarter. The Lady Devs kept their sneakers firmly on the throat of the host Bulls throughout the first half, taking a 23-6 lead into the halftime locker-room.

With both teams coming with identical conference records of 4-6 and on the playoff bubble, Smithtown East must have finally received the memo at the break.

The Lady Bulls negotiated the Blue Devil press more deftly in the third quarter and Brennan, who had all of three points in the first two quarters, roared to life. She hit two driving layups early in the period, and a jumper at the buzzer to make the score 30-20. This would-be rout was now a competitive ball game with a full quarter still to go.

“We were moving the ball faster in the second half,” said the junior Brennan, who led all scorers with 17 points. “We stayed calmer and were able to break their trap more effectively. I really thought we were going to come back.”

But Brennan would miss another corner jumper, this time well-defended by Weinschreider, with about three minutes to go. It was half-way down, but rimmed out and would have again made it a six-point game. She would pour in 14 second half points, but none after McDonald’s heroics. The red-alert for the Blue Devils was over and they would escape with a 38-28 victory.

“We pride ourselves on our defense and we are normally in the top five in Suffolk County in that category every year,” said Kaplan. “After this win, we need to win three more to make the playoffs, but we’ll take them one game at a time.”

Both Huntington and Smithtown East have five league games left on their schedules. With matchups against the top two teams in the conference in West Babylon and Hills East, and two against the bottom two, Newfield and Deer Park, Huntington’s playoff berth might very well rest upon their game against West Islip. 

The Lady Lions of West Islip are 6-5 and one game ahead of Huntington in Suffolk League III at the time of this writing. That game will be played on February 1st at West Islip. Smithtown East’s road to the postseason will be more arduous. They will need to win four out of their remaining five, and with Hills East and West Babylon, who have a combined record of 16-3, this will be a tall order.

The game between Smithtown High School East and Huntington High School was played on Jan. 26.

By Steven Zaitz

The Northport Lady Tigers basketball team took a road trip to Orlando, Florida, over the Christmas break.

While there, they got to play against schools from other parts of the country, bond as teammates during long bus rides, and even enjoy a bit of what Disney World has to offer.

Freshman point guard Ava DeMarco, who may have had trouble with the height requirements of some of the rides at Disney, played a huge role coming off the bench in Northport’s 47-31 win over Lindenhurst last Saturday morning, Jan. 13.

DeMarco is barely five feet tall, depending upon how she is wearing her hair. But what she lacks in size, she more than makes up for in quickness, grit, tenacity, and determination. She scored seven points and added four assists against the Lady Bulldogs, but those numbers tell only a fraction of the story.

Lindenhurst sophomore sensation Emma Burmeister ranks fifth in Suffolk County, averaging over 20 points per game. Burmeister did not disappoint on Saturday against Northport as she exploded for 16 points in the first half. That was when longtime Northport head coach Richard Castellano came up with a new plan.

“We had a bunch of different girls trying to defend her [Burmeister] in the first half. At halftime, I told Ava to shadow her, go wherever she goes, and faceguard her,” said Castellano, who recorded his 743rd career win as Lady Tiger coach. “Ava played Emma really well and made her work for everything. She doesn’t back down from any challenge.”

“I take a lot of pride in my defense, and I feel really good that Coach Castellano has the confidence in me to guard the other team’s best player,” DeMarco said.

Burmeister was held to only nine points in the third and fourth quarters. The rest of her team had only six for the entire game.

But it wasn’t as if the Lady Tigers were lighting up the scoreboard like Magic Kingdom fireworks either. There was a prolonged stretch in the third quarter when the score seemed frozen at 32-27 in favor of the Tigers. Turnovers and held balls detained the basketball inside the middle third of the court, as both teams struggled to shake off the early morning start time.

“It got sloppy,” Castellano said. “Both teams were still sleeping a little bit but were able to wake up in the fourth quarter.

Tiger senior forward and captain Brooke Kershow, who led the team with 18 points, hit a running one-hander and DeMarco followed by driving the lane for two, giving the Tigers a 38-31 lead with under five minutes remaining in the game.

“Brooke carried us offensively in the fourth quarter,” Castellano said. “She hit a few shots that were able to turn the momentum in our favor.”

Senior captain Kennedy Radziul, who was not feeling her best, still found winning ways to contribute. In the third quarter, as Lindenhurst had cut the Northport lead to four and was looking to slice into even further, Radziul stepped into the passing lane and deflected a ball that went out of bounds off of Bulldog Nina Tantillo. Radziul capitalized moments later with a spinner in the lane. She scored 10 points in the game.

“Kennedy is a gamer. She will never tell me that she’s not feeling 100%, but I can see it in her face,” Castellano said. “I coached her mom, and I coached her aunt, so I can tell pretty easily. I told her to give me as much as you can for as long as you can, and that’s exactly what she did.”

Radziul’s mother is Northport basketball legend Kimberly Ruck Radziul, who, in the early 1990’s, was a member of six consecutive Suffolk County championship teams at Northport. Kimberly’s sister, Cami, Kennedy’s aunt, was a member of four of those teams.

Northport is 4-1 in conference play, and Lindenhurst is 2-3. Both teams, along with the rest of the league, are staring up in wonderment at Commack, who at the time of this writing, is 6-0 in conference play and 12-0 overall. The Lady Cougars beat the Tigers in Commack earlier this season, 39-32 and they will meet again in the beginning of February.

“We are coming together as a team now, and going down to Florida really gave us time to gel,” Castellano said. “We were already very tight as a team, but I think we still really grew during that trip.”

“I loved the experience of going down there, and I think it was really great for team chemistry,” DeMarco said. “And yes, I was able to go on the rides.”

By Steven Zaitz

The Smithtown-Hauppauge boys swim team remained undefeated after beating the combined forces  of Huntington, Harborfields, Walt Whitman and John Glenn high schools on Jan. 16 by a score of 94-86. The reigning Suffolk County champions are 5-0 as county and state meets are fast approaching.

Smithtown East sophomore Tyler Gallub set a personal-best in the 200-yard freestyle event with a blazing 1:46.39. This time qualifies him for the New York State Championships. Gallub also qualified for states with his winning time of 53.32 in the 100-yard butterfly. Gallub was also part of the first-place team in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Along with Alex Trzaskowski, Chris Sweeney and his brother Dylan Gallub, the foursome finished at 1:31.79, almost eight seconds ahead of the second-place team – also from Smithtown-Hauppauge.

East senior Dylan Gallub also scored a victories that qualified him for the state championship meet with a 21.63 in the 50-yard freestyle and 48.56 in the 100-yard freestyle.

The Huntington conglomerate also had success as Sophomore Evan Creter from John Glenn won the 200-yard individual medley. He was the only swimmer to dip under two minutes, as his 1:59.69 was fast enough to qualify for States. Huntington High School sophomore Maximilien Leroy won the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 5:04.60 and was part of the foursome that took first place in the 400-yard freestyle relay. Creter, Liam O’Hanlon and Lucas Spagnolleti were also on the winning team. 

Spagnolleti, a Huntington senior, was busy succeeding in other events. He won the 100-yard breaststroke with a county-qualifying time of 1:06.58. He also finished second to Tyler Gallub in the 100-yard butterfly. 

In all, there were 34 New York State or Suffolk County qualifying times during this meet. The Huntington team is 2-2 in League I competition, good for a fourth place rank behind Smithtown-Hauppague, Half Hollow Hills-Kings Park and Connetquot-Islip.

Jack Melore, who led the West team with 18 points, splits the Smithtown East triple team. Photo by Steven Zaitz

By Steven Zaitz

It was a wire-to-wire win but with a twist. On Jan. 6, in their annual battle for the key to the city, the Smithtown West Bulls boys basketball team defeated their red-clad Bull brothers to the East, 56-42. With the win, Smithtown West remains undefeated at 9-0 and 6-0 in Suffolk Division III as Smithtown East falls to 6-3 and 3-2 in league play.

Smithtown West’s multisport senior, Jack Melore, led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds. Lorenzo Rappa  had 15 points and six assists, and his brother Ben Rappa chipped in nine points. 

Lorenzo Rappa goes high against Gjon Lleshaj in Smithtown West’s 56-42 victory over Smithtown East on Jan. 6.

After junior Blue Bull forward, John Giotis, hit a backdoor layup just eleven seconds into the game, Smithtown West had a lead they would never surrender. The team continued to build on their lead, outscoring the red-Bulls, 11-4, at the close of the first quarter. West’s Jack Melore scored seven points in the first quarter and had 14 of his total 18 in the first half.

Despite this, Smithtown East refused to go quietly into the weekend. East senior forward, Will Tufo, hit a long two-pointer to open the second half. Teammate Ben Haug, who led all scorers with 22, bullied his way in the paint to cut a seven-point halftime deficit to only four. 

Nevertheless, West clamped down and arm-barred the red team from coming inside the paint. Blocked shots and quick hands by Melore and Ben Rappa stifled East’s offense for a long stretch of the third period. A steal by West senior guard, Max Nicholas, with two seconds left in the third led to a fast break and two free throws. Nicholas sank them both to put the home team up by eight, as the game entered the fourth quarter.

Junior forward John Giotis of Smithtown West goes strong to the rim against Smithtown East center Tom Fanning in West’s 56-42 win on Jan. 6. Photo by Steven Zaitz

The final quarter was dominated by the Rappa brothers of Smithtown West. Ben Rappa fired the opening salvo of the fourth by hitting a corner three, raising the lead to a baker’s dozen, one of the only three-point shots made in the game for either team. The blue-Bulls commanding lead seemed to have made each tick of the clock grow louder for the boys from the East, as only six minutes remain on the game clock.

Lorenzo Rappa slashed diagonally through the lane with two minutes remaining to make the score 50-37. Swingman Michael Cascione made an acrobatic layup to give the white and blue team its final points with under a minute to go. The crowd erupted at the sight of Cascione’s athleticism as the 12-piece pep band’s trumpet section blared ‘The Children of Sanchez’ to celebrate their school’s crosstown victory. 

It was West’s ninth straight win over East, dating back to February 2016.

“It always means a little more beating them,” said Melore, who is also one of the finest football players in Suffolk county. “Our team takes great pride and always believes in our defense. The Rappa twins did a great job anchoring it.”

Liam Sevey of Northport looks to score. Photo by Steven Zaitz

By Steven Zaitz

Junior pivot Owen Boylan led the Northport Tigers basketball team to a victory over Connetquot with 12 points and 10 rebounds last Wednesday night, Dec. 13. The final score was 47-34.

In a game that was close throughout, Northport never trailed, and Boylan hit a three-pointer with three minutes remaining to give the Tigers a 10-point lead. It sealed the game as the Thunderbirds never got closer.

Point guard Jojo Cipollino had 8 points and 9 assists and forward Brendan Fenlon had 7 points.

This win put Northport at 1-0 in League II play. They have split their subsequent two matches, a loss to Bay Shore on the road, 54-33, and a bounce-back win at home against Newfield, 60-40. They are 2-1 in league play, and after a nine-day holiday break, the Tigers will play Pierson on Dec. 27 at Northport.

By Steven Zaitz

Every coach on any level will tell you that there is no “I” in team.

But for the Walt Whitman Lady Wildcat basketball squad, there certainly is an Iris.

All Long Island point guard, captain and bona fide floor commander Iris Hoffman of the 2022 Suffolk County champions scorched the Lady Tigers on opening night at Northport for 23 points, including a long three-pointer to seal the game with 27 seconds remaining. The final score was 46-40 in a rematch of the county final — also won by the Lady Wildcats in comeback fashion — that took place at Stony Brook University nine months ago.

In a back-and-forth game that saw five different lead changes, the Lady Tigers — who have a star of their own in senior forward Kennedy Radziul — trimmed a six-point Wildcat lead to one in the final minute of the game. Radziul, who finished with 20 points and 13 in the 4th quarter, hit a left-handed layup, made a leaping steal at midcourt and converted a three-point play when she scored and was fouled.

All of this occurred in 15 seconds and not only brought Northport to within one point, but it also pitched the home crowd into a frenzy. Whitman called a timeout as Radziul’s teammates mobbed her for her momentum-shifting heroics. The score was 41-40 with 48 seconds to go in regulation time when the Wildcats would next inbound.

“Coming out of the timeout, I knew I was going to have the ball in my hands,” said Hoffman, who has played on the Whitman varsity team since the eighth grade. “I had an open shot early in the possession, but I didn’t take it because I wanted to run more clock. We worked the ball around, making their defense move. I got the ball again and was wide open. The second the ball left my hand, I knew it was going in.”

Hoffman was right — and it gave the reigning champs a two-possession essentially lead to seal the game.

“Iris is a special player, and she showed why tonight,” said Northport head coach Rich Castellano, who was denied his 737th career victory. “They are one of the toughest teams in the county, and we hung in against them. We just turned the ball over too much tonight.”

The Lady Tigers committed 18 turnovers as they are still trying to configure their situation at guard. Payson Hedges and Emma Kezys graduated last June and there were some definite signs of opening night jitters in Castellano’s backcourt that led to giveaways and easy baskets for the Lady Wildcats.

Despite the sloppy play, Northport took a 17-15 lead into halftime. Senior captain Kaylie Walsh hit two bombs in the first quarter and another in the second to lead all scorers in the first half with nine points. Hoffman had eight.

Whitman forward Kathleen O’Mara had two quick buckets to start the third quarter that would spark a 15-5 run and give Whitman a 30-22 lead with two minutes to go in the period. Northport would get points from only one player in the quarter, and it was sophomore forward Grace Gilmartin with 7, who showed good mobility and hustle coming off the bench.

“I told the girls at halftime that whoever won the third quarter was going to win the game,” said Castellano. “We play the same type of tight game with this team every time we face them, and two of their stars really played well in that quarter. It was too much for us to overcome.”

The senior O’Mara finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, and the lead for the team from South Huntington would balloon to 13 with seven minutes remaining in the game. It looked like things were getting away from the Lady Tigers.

But Radziul made Castellano’s prophecy come true, as this game would go down to the wire. She hit a spinner in the lane and a three pointer to make it a six-point game with three minutes on the clock. 

The Wildcat lead would stay at six until Radziul’s one-person, lightning ambush to cut it one with less than a minute to go. But Hoffman made sure that was as close as the Lady Tigers would get.

“I always want the ball in that situation,” Hoffman said. “I’ve been playing point guard since my sophomore year, and I think that I thrive under the pressure,” adding, “I’m used to it.”

If there is one thing the Lady Tigers — who were 21-2 last season and undefeated at home — are not used to, it is losing.

Smithtown East High School hosted the 11th annual Smithtown Craft & Gift Fair from Dec. 2-3.

Over 100 vendors assembled in the school gymnasium, displaying handcrafted work and related gift items. Those in attendance were greeted with a plethora of options from jewelry, decorative wreaths, candy, organic soaps and more.

— Photos by Steven Zaitz

We start with an adrenaline-packed adventure at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. Discover the excitement of a fearless group braving the frigid waters for a valuable cause.

Then, catch the heat as tensions rise between the Brookhaven Town Board and the municipality’s cable service provider. We’ve got the latest on the town’s television showdown.

Later, take a trip through history with our sportswriter, Bill Landon, as he reflects on the JFK assassination’s foggy memories, marking its 60th anniversary this week.

And as Thanksgiving approaches, join us in a call to action. We’re rallying our readers and listeners to support local mom and pops on National Small Business Saturday.

Tune in to The Pressroom Afterhour: Keeping it Local with TBR for a special Thanksgiving edition.

Visit tbrnewsmedia.com to read these stories and more. Follow us on:

By Steven Zaitz

In a game of punch-counterpunch, it was the Sachem North football team that got last licks against Ward Melville on Nov. 10 in Lake Ronkonkoma, knocking the Patriots out of the playoffs and ending their season.

Sachem North running back Lucas Singleton’s six-yard touchdown run with two minutes left in the fourth quarter propelled the Flaming Arrows to a 27-21 victory in the Suffolk Conference I semifinal game. They will face top-seeded William Floyd, who destroyed Longwood 49-13 on Saturday, at Stony Brook University to decide the Suffolk County championship for Conference I. This will be Sachem’s first trip to the finals since winning the Long Island Championship in 2013. Ward Melville was the 2022 county champion.

In a game filled with wild haymakers and explosive plays by both teams, Ward Melville managed to answer Sachem North touchdown for touchdown, erasing seven-point deficits on three separate occasions. But the Patriots were unable to stop the Flaming Arrows on 3rd down in the game-deciding drive that led to their postseason ouster.

Arrow QB Anthony Vino, who missed the final six games of the regular season due to injury, launched the first salvo in this one, hitting WR Brayden Tappin for a 40-yard score to start the game. Patriot QB Ethan Burgos hopped through a small crease and sprung himself 49 yards for a game-tying touchdown later in the first quarter.

WR Shane Reilly got behind the Ward Melville defense and Vino hit him for a 36-yard score midway through the second quarter. Burgos answered again, finishing off a 65-yard drive with a one-yard keeper. The drive was aided by two 4th and short conversions, one of which was a completion to WR Brody Morgan that deflected off the helmet of teammate Griffin Kramer, went straight up in the air and fell into the arms of a surprised and thankful Morgan, who was brought down at the Sachem 43-yard line.

Six plays later, Burgos took it in to tie the score at 14 with a minute to go in the half. It would become untied in short order at the start of the third quarter.

On the first play from scrimmage, Singleton took a handoff from Vino and immediately sensed that his path around left tackle was blocked off. He bounced it to the right, toward the Patriot sideline, and had only green astroturf in front of him. Eighty yards later, he was celebrating in the end zone with his teammates because he had given Sachem North yet another touchdown-sized lead.

After a Patriot three and out, Sachem was on the precipice of expanding their lead to two touchdowns as they drove the ball deep into Ward Melville territory. But do-it-all linebacker/running back/emergency kicker Daniel Brausch Jr. made a leaping interception in the end zone for the green and gold with five minutes left in the third quarter to keep it a one-score game.

“I saw the quarterback [Vino] step back, and when he threw the ball, I knew I had a chance to make a play for my team,” said Brausch, a senior.

He would make more plays for his team. After his interception, the Patriots would march 80 yards — all on the ground — in seven minutes, and it would be Brausch who would cap the drive with a one-yard plunge, tying the score at 21.

“Being a two-way player is an honor because it means the coaches believe in me enough to put me in those positions,” Brausch said. “I look at it as having twice the number of chances to make plays to help us win games.”

Brausch would help in even more ways than just those two. 

When Morgan, who is the Patriot kicker in addition to playing wide receiver, was injured in the first half of the game, Brausch took over on kickoffs and extra points. He made both of his kicks, and one of his kickoffs was nearly recovered by Ward Melville. He also returned kickoffs on special teams.

With 10 minutes remaining in the game, Ward Melville had forced the Flaming Arrows backward and Vino and company faced 3rd and 12 deep in their own end. A stop by the Patriots would likely result in getting the ball with good field position to get the go-ahead and potential winning score.

But in one of the most important and explosive plays of the game, Vino rolled right and hit WR Andrew Eaton for 24 yards and a 1st down. This was a Patriot backbreaker. Sachem would convert three more 3rd downs, consume eight minutes, and score on a six-yard run by Singleton with a smidgin over two minutes left in the game.

Brausch would block the extra point, which created the possibility of Ward Melville, with two minutes left and three timeouts, winning the game with a last-minute TD and an extra point conversion.

The Patriots moved the ball to midfield in short order. Burgos scrambled to the Sachem 35 with just over a minute remaining. But on 3rd and long, after a long delay caused by timeouts taken by both teams, the shotgun snap of center Bobby Ehlers flew over Burgos’ head. The quarterback did well to track it down and throw it away. But it was a waste of a valuable down, and it brought up 4th and 10 and the Patriots’ last chance.

Would they get off the mat and survive for yet a fourth time in this game?

Burgos dropped back but didn’t find anyone open. He tap-danced down the right sideline, cut back into the middle of the field and lunged forward. Would it be enough?

Despite his effort, the ball was spotted about three quarters of a yard short of the sticks. Sachem ball. The game was over.

“That last drive was tense,” said Burgos. “We had a limited amount of time and were trying to do everything as quickly as we could. It was a tough way for the season to end.”