December 5, 2013
Rich Reichert paced a subterranean hallway lined with football players at St. Anthony’s High School, his face radiating intensity as he spouted words full of fire.
The 61-year-old football coach is known for emotional pregame speeches, and this one was no different. He delivered it on homecoming night, Oct. 25, at the South Huntington parochial school moments before facing Chaminade High School, arch rivals from Mineola.
“Sacrifice for each other,” Reichert demanded as an MSG Varsity cameraman followed his every move. “I am old enough to be every one of your fathers. But tonight I’m asking you to be my brother.”
With one last team hurrah, about 80 shoulder-pad-clad teenagers sprang to their feet in one motion and charged toward a stadium overflowing with 6,000 screaming fans. When the game ended, the St. Anthony’s Friars — who finished the season with 11 wins and one loss, and was the No. 1 team in Newsday’s Long Island Large Schools football poll — handed defending Catholic league champion Chaminade a 38-10 defeat.
Reichert’s impassioned address had set the tone, but his words were significant for another reason. At a school run by Franciscan brothers, where academics come first, St. Anthony’s has also earned a reputation as a sports powerhouse. And leading the way is a collection of coaches old enough to be grandfathers.
Reichert teaches physical education and is the youngster of the group. Gene Buonaiuto, 77, owns 381 career wins and led the boys soccer team to the state Catholic High School Athletic Association title last month. And Dave Prutting, 76, has won 418 games with a nationally recognized girls soccer program.
“Being around the kids, it’s kind of infectious,” explained Prutting, of East Northport. “You practice, laugh with them and enjoy life. You start to feel better.”
Old enough to retire
These coaches are of a certain age, a diminishing demographic that spur young athletes from the sidelines of area high schools. Many coaches stop because careers take off or family obligations keep growing. Still others step down once they retire from teaching. And some are forced out of the job.
Not so at St. Anthony’s. It’s an environment where passion is rewarded and longevity prized. Not only do the Friars field a roster of veteran coaches, even junior varsity and freshman coaches are seasoned leaders. That includes Tony Petrilli, 80, from Commack, who is the freshman football coach at St. Anthony’s.
“I just question why I would want to discriminate against a man who has 40-50 years of collective experience,” said Brother Gary Cregan, the school’s principal. “Why would I tell this man he has to retire when he still has a fire within him? Fire is not contingent upon age.”
Varsity coaches Buonaiuto, Prutting and Reichert each set an enviable standard. “They’re still coaching, and frankly at the highest level,” athletic director Don Buckley said. “Traditionally all three varsity teams are among the best in the state.” He added, “I hope these guys are with me a long time.”
These coaches have ushered in a Golden Age of sports in South Huntington, and their longevity is uncommon, even to those very familiar with high school sports on Long Island.
“I’m surprised to hear they have coaches that age,” said Ed Cinelli, executive director of Section XI, the governing body of Suffolk high school sports. “Good for them. They still have that energy and enthusiasm to coach youngsters — that’s unique.”
The atmosphere is decidedly different around these coaches who have toiled for decades, building something meaningful so close to home. The word Buonaiuto, Prutting and Reichert invoke again and again is “family.”
That’s what drew Joe Minucci, a 1999 St. Anthony’s graduate, back to his alma mater. He returned to teach and coach football alongside his mentor. He serves as Reichert’s defensive coordinator and marvels at the work ethic of the head coach.
“A high-school coach is unique,” Minucci said. “There’s an obvious passion for kids and passion for the sport. It’s about being a mentor.”
Family is what pulled Buonaiuto, of Smithtown, into coaching. He caught the bug at Christ the King in Commack. Buonaiuto directed Catholic Youth Organization track, football and soccer teams there before moving on to the Long Island Junior Soccer League.
“My son Steven was in third grade,” Buonaiuto said. “He happened to have a great knack for scoring. That’s how I started coaching. I delved into it.” He began volunteering at St. Anthony’s in 1977, when his eldest son became a Friar. He was handed the varsity job in 1985 and has been at it ever since. It became such an obsession, Buonaiuto took vacation time during soccer season and switched shifts with co-workers — anything to spend more time on the field.
It also proved an important mental break. Buonaiuto spent 36 years as a New York City firefighter, mostly based in Queens. He was a pump driver in an era before GPS technology was available. Navigating cramped Jamaica streets, finding a quick route to the emergency call and getting a hydrant open and water flowing created their own stress.
Less stress than firefighting
“It really was life-and-death situations,” he recalled. “You had to know where you’re going. It was stressful. Someone yelling from the stands, that’s not stress. Coaching is not stress.”
Like all head coaches at the school, Buonaiuto has an excellent support system. Co-coach Don Corrao does much of the heavy lifting. And Reichert has an army of assistants, most of whom are experienced volunteers, capable of being head coaches elsewhere.
Prutting also coached to be close to family — his oldest daughter. He was a volunteer assistant for the L.I. Junior Soccer League’s Northport Seahawks, 10-and-under girls soccer team in the late 1970s when the coach died in a motorcycle accident.
That tragic event thrust Prutting into the role of head coach for the next decade. A medical lab technologist who worked the night shift at Stony Brook University, Prutting was 50 when he coached his first girl’s soccer game at St. Anthony’s.
Now he’s one of the biggest names in the game. Soccer defines him, but he’s decided that after winning 20 Catholic state titles in 26 years, the 2014 season will likely be his last. Prutting said it’s time to hand the reins over to someone else for the good of the program. As for Buonaiuto and Reichert, they have no timetable to leave the games they love.
“Dynasties are not as important as having the right people with the right kids,” Cregan, the school’s principal, said. “That’s my focus. And that’s why these men are so valuable and so important to me. Certainly it’s nice to have a dynasty, but that’s not what makes a good coach great. A good-coach-turned-great is one who can inspire kids with permanent and lifetime memories and permanent and lifetime lessons.”
Reichert, of Nesconset, was a Nassau County police officer for 25 years before he began teaching at the school. When he was honored during the 2012 season in October for winning more games than any football coach in Suffolk County history (currently, 230 wins and counting), former players returned en masse, and Reichert greeted them all with his 2-year-old grandson in tow.
A long reception line formed on the field afterward, with players who learned under Reichert through the decades eager to reconnect. It was a measure of one coach’s worth that moved beyond wins and losses. “With all the life lessons you learn with football,” said Alvin Alcera, a co-captain on Reichert’s first team in 1987, “you have to pay tribute to the man that actually gave you those lessons.”
Other lessons are more subtle. After superstorm Sandy blew through a year ago, the school’s scoreboard needed fixing. Petrilli, who is the senior statesman among coaches, proved utility-knife useful. An electrician by trade, he identified the issue, then climbed a ladder and made the necessary repair.
Petrilli, who led the freshman team to a 6-2 record this fall, was a Pop Warner youth football coach in New York City in his 20s before putting the sport on hold for more than 30 years. He raised two girls and enjoyed a successful career before picking up coaching again, joining, St. Anthony’s in 1989.
He has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “I’m going to go as long as I can — 90, I guess,” Petrilli said. “If you enjoy it, keep doing it.”
September 16, 2007
Title: INSIDE HIGH SCHOOLS / Finally, Moriches football
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Author: JASON MOLINET
Date: Sep 16, 2007
Start Page: B.26
Text Word Count: 709
The players took a knee and huddled in the East end zone yesterday, intently listening to what coach Steve Failla had to say. It caught the attention of everyone within earshot because Failla put the day into unique perspective.
Failla called the undersized and thoroughly humbled group before him immortal. That’s right, immortal, because championship teams and inaugural seasons are always remembered.
“I grew up in this community and I went to Mercy High School like a lot of people who wanted to play football,” Failla said. “I believe the playing field is an extension of the classroom. I’m for opportunities for all kids.”
Consider the playing field leveled. They played a football game at Center Moriches. Finally.
Two centuries have come and gone without football in this South Shore enclave bordering the Hamptons. Just five miles to the West, Floyd has grown into a gridiron power. Down the road a little further lies Bellport, a school synonymous with great football.
Center Moriches shied away from America’s fall pastime, glad to be known for superb soccer. No more.
They played football in Center Moriches. Say it a few more times and the concept might finally sink in. It would have been easy to miss.
A soccer match unfolded along an adjacent field. The crowd on hand to witness the first varsity football game wasn’t much bigger than the group watching soccer. And the outcome wasn’t anything to fire up the student body: Mercy 30, Center Moriches 0. But hard knocks are the norm for any budding program, especially so in the ultimate team sport.
“This is still a soccer school,” junior quarterback Joe Ratti said. “But we’re going to make it a football school.”
The Red Devils will be hard-pressed to win a game. They are the last seed of 14 teams in Suffolk Division IV. Mercy, who is No.13, showed just how wide the gap is – for now. Mercy and first-year coach Joe Read ran and passed at will. Center Moriches was held to 79 yards of total offense.
“We weren’t going to be their first victory,” Read said.
There will be more growing pains to be sure, yet there was nothing painful about the thumping. For several parents, boosters, players, administrators and coaches, the game marked the start of something special.
“I think you’ll see the next five or six years a strong football program here,” new Center Moriches athletic director Nick DeCillis said. “I think it’s very feasible.”
Generations of soccer players have cultivated Center Moriches’ reputation as a soccer school. The signs in front of the school attest to the boys and girls programs’ success in bold letters. In a district that appreciates history – the school was founded in 1813 – its soccer legacy is embraced.
Some of those soccer backers have made clear their opposition to football. But administrators ultimately embraced the sport as a way of reaching out to neighboring East Moriches, whose teenagers currently have the choice to attend either Westhampton, Eastport-South Manor or Center Moriches. Adding more options, such as football, makes Center Moriches more attractive and lures more local and state funds.
“Before we moved out here we checked out the school and looked at the community,” said Steve Ratti, whose son is the quarterback. “Then we asked about football. There was nothing.”
Ratti said he and a group of concerned parents made it a topic of every school board meeting until a junior high program was finally formed in 2005. The junior varsity debuted last fall. And despite objections from some that Center Moriches wasn’t ready, a varsity program is finally a reality.
“I challenge anyone to look into the eyes of the 90 kids in the football program and tell them they shouldn’t have the right to play football,” Failla said.
They finally played a football game at Center Moriches. The concept doesn’t sound as odd as it did a few minutes ago. Just give it time. It will grow on you, too.
This is Jason Molinet’s final column. He’s leaving Newsday after 11 years of covering high schools.
September 5, 2004
Title: Happy campers, In the wake of last year’s Mepham scandal, football’s boys of summer from Clarke learn the real values of sport in upstate camp
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Author: JASON MOLINET. STAFF WRITER
Date: Sep 5, 2004
Start Page: B.12
Text Word Count: 3198
Jimmy and John McKenna sat groggily in an SUV as their mom drove them to school. It was Saturday morning, much too early to do anything besides sleep. Never mind that the brothers were jostled out of bed only minutes earlier.
There would be plenty of time to nap. Right now, their young football careers depended on how fast Rachelle McKenna whipped through the back roads of Westbury. “I was scared I was going to miss the bus,” Jimmy said. “My mom woke me up late. She thought I was supposed to be at school by 8.”
The ride lasted all of two minutes, and the McKennas breathed easier as they pulled up to the circle in front of Clarke High School. The scene when they arrived was chaotic. It was 7:30 a.m. Teammates milled about, some chatting as others ate breakfast. Luggage and equipment blocked the sidewalk. The humming coach bus, its storage underbelly open, cast a shadow over it all.
Just hours later, 32 players, five coaches and one supervisor arrived at Camp Pontiac in upstate Copake for the start of football camp. The facility, 163 acres in the foothills of the Berkshires, is home to adolescent campers for much of the summer. By now, the rock- climbing walls are abandoned and the whitewashed wooden cabins that line Lake Rhoda are empty.
“It’s the Fantasy Island of sports,” gushed camp athletic director Walter Bachman, known more famously as a Nassau high school coach and administrator.
Camp Pontiac is dotted with basketball courts, soccer fields and hiking trails, but these teens will know only football. The intense training sessions lasted four days and stretched from dawn to well after sundown on lighted fields – 96 hours that could well define an entire season. Clarke was one of 14 football programs to train there over a three-week period.
“Precamp, you have a lot of individuals and they’re all wearing the Clarke jersey,” said Tim O’Malley, a 1987 Clarke graduate and the team’s offensive coordinator. “When they leave, they’re a team.”
In the year since four Mepham players preyed on teammates in a brutal hazing rite at a football camp in Pennsylvania, the incident has trained the spotlight on such trips. Parents and school administrators have questioned what goes on at these getaways and whether they’re really necessary. Longtime Clarke coach John Boyle never wavered.
The decision to go for the 13th year in a row was never an issue at Clarke. A problem-free history helped assuage fears. So did the sleeping conditions at camp, where the coach and player bunks were connected by a common bathroom and showers. Nothing would go unnoticed by the staff. The program also put money aside in a scholarship fund to help pay the difference for anyone who couldn’t afford the cost of camp, this time a $200 fee.
There was a twist. Boyle offered an open invitation to parents. None actually made the 130-mile trek, but a Newsday reporter did. What follows is a revealing look at how one team learned about the game and each other – and grew closer as a result.
Clarke is as suburban as Long Island gets. The school is stashed away in a Westbury neighborhood lined with manicured lawns and brick stoops.
The football program enjoyed a remarkable renaissance a year ago. The team opened the season in a new conference – and despite question marks and a five-year playoff drought – tagged with the top seed.
The Rams delivered with a 7-3 run that ended with a 39-20 loss to perennial power Roosevelt in the Nassau Conference IV title game.
Clarke couldn’t stop elusive runner Daryle McClenic or slippery quarterback Marquise Herron, who combined for 463 rushing yards.
“We feel we lost the championship because we didn’t tackle well,” Boyle admitted. “We had people in the right position.”
Tackling is one emphasis of this camp. Players and staff are a more confident and comfortable bunch as they get ready for a new season. As the No. 2 seed behind Roosevelt, the Rams are expected to be a force once again in 14-team Conference IV.
“Our ultimate goal is to get back to the championship game and win it,” senior fullback/linebacker Bill Palka said.
Camp will help them get there. Football camp means something different for each teenager headed there. Take the McKenna brothers. Each signed on for sweltering practices and cold swims, endless football and still more sweat. All in a setting far from the comforts of their own world.
There’s no air conditioning or cable TV and cell phone reception is spotty.
Jimmy had an idea of what lay ahead. The junior went to camp a year ago, and braced for the worst this time. He brought a pillow, sleeping bag, bug spray, CD player, a cooler filled with Gatorade, an entire suitcase of snacks and plenty of clothes. John, a freshman, experienced it for the first time. A good showing could mean a chance to make the quantum leap from middle school ball to the varsity.
“Playing middle school football and then coming up to the varsity – it’s a whole new game,” John said.
The journey began the moment he stepped from the familiar comfort of the family SUV. “[Jimmy] was exhausted when he came home from camp last year,” said Rachelle McKenna, one of the few parents who waited for the bus to pull away. “But he had a good time. If they didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t be going back.”
Clarke relocated to its upstate home after just four practices into the new season. The camp, a short ride off the Taconic State Parkway, seemed even more distant from Long Island sprawl than the reality. The winding country road that connects it to civilization is lined with old cemeteries, rows of corn, silent combines and grazing livestock. In other words, farm country.
It’s the very place where only weeks earlier, a youth league football team from Massapequa, the Mustangs, suffered a hazing episode that resulted in the longtime coach resigning. One player’s mouth was taped shut, his face smeared in peanut butter and he was given a profane nickname by teammates in a skit organized by coaches.
All of it smacks in the face of camp rules, which are read to schools the moment they arrive. It includes a strong anti-hazing stance. Camp workers didn’t learn of the Massapequa episode until reading it in a newspaper. The news broke the day Clarke arrived.
There’s nothing for Boyle, 47, to do but shrug it off. He’s been around the game a lifetime and can’t fathom something like that happening. His father, Jack Boyle, enjoyed a 50-year career in football. When John Boyle took over the winless Clarke program in 1987, Jack signed on as his assistant. That’s how it remained until he died after the 2000 season. The Nassau County Football Coaches Association named its assistant coach of the year award in his honor.
“I actually went to law school for one year and I was going to become a lawyer,” said the younger Boyle, now a dean at the school. “I guess coaching was in my blood. I was always around the game. That’s what happens when your father is a football coach.”
This is the sixth different camp for Clarke. Boyle swears by the experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an adventure. Health officials closed one camp soon after Clarke left. One trip was marked by a police raid in the dead of night to arrest a kitchen worker, according to Boyle.
Also, what camps promise they don’t always deliver. Clarke has been forced to share facilities with other teams, and the food can be tough to stomach.
Not at Camp Pontiac. It didn’t take a half-day for Boyle to assess the amenities. “This is the nicest camp I’ve been to in 13 years,” he said.
Players settled in quickly after orientation. They walked to the girls side of camp and the cabin they would call home for the next four nights. Bunk No. 10 belonged to the players while the coaches stayed next door. As players climbed the stairs to the cabin entrance, a mad dash ensued. They pushed through two doorways in a race to claim the choicest beds. The prime spots, single beds under windows, went quickly. The unlucky ones shared prison-camp style bunks.
Fate stuck Jim McKenna with a top bunk. “It’s hot up there,” he said. “You’re tired. You really don’t want to climb a bunk.”
A quick lunch assured the players that this camp is first-rate. Then Clarke took to the field, nicknamed Fenway Park, a baseball diamond with lights. The oversized green chain-link fence cast its shadow over leftfield. Otherwise it bears little resemblance to the Boston treasure.
Football lines have been painted on the parched grass and centerfield has been ground into dust from daily use.
Some teams back a U-Haul truck to their practice field and load it all, including blocking sleds. Clarke traveled comparatively lightly. Two ball bags and several tackling dummies accounted for the bulk of the gear. One luxury Boyle allowed himself was a Juggs machine that fired footballs.
It’s the first of 10 practice sessions in all, and the players, wearing the full complement of protective gear, immediately realized it wouldn’t be easy. Camp workers conceded the team arrived on one of the hottest days of the summer. Even the tall willows that shade the field seemed to bend and melt in the oppressive afternoon humidity. Heat was a factor until Monday evening when the rains came.
“It’s so much hotter than last year’s camp,” senior running back/ cornerback Larry Buffalino said. “The first day, you couldn’t even get to sleep. It was so hot.”
There are two pools on the girls side of camp. After the opening practice, players skipped the shower and headed straight for the pools. The water was refreshing at first. It grew cold fairly quickly. The ensuing evening practice wasn’t better. The end to one steamy day finally came at 9:45 p.m., when the players crossed the two bridges that led from the field to their bunks.
The first day away from home is always the toughest. Alan Ramirez, a beefy senior lineman, recalled going away for the first time as a freshman. “I was homesick,” he said. “That’s it right there. You get over it. You start having fun and making friends.”
If there was any solace, another school, Grady, only began practice as Clarke left. Grady, a first-year varsity program in Brooklyn, could be heard drilling from across the lake until 11. Clarke players tried to drown out the noise with music. They laid quietly in bed with headphones on, hoping sleep would take them.
“I went through this,” said Scott Martin, a 1998 Clarke graduate and the team’s defensive coordinator. “It’s physically and mentally tough. You get tired. We schedule our practice toward how they feel. You know when to ease up on them and when to push them. It’s football and it’s fun.”
The fun arrived Sunday, the first day full contact was allowed. Everyone was more aggressive, even the coaches barking instructions.
This was the first real day of football – highlighted by three practice sessions – and coaches asked for a little more.
It began immediately. The players awoke to the sound of bagpipes blasting from a portable CD player. Boyle is Irish, after all. Martin led the players on a 7 a.m. run around camp. There were few thunderous collisions, even though the sessions devoted much of the time to tackling. Football relies on precision more than anything else.
Three-a-days get Clarke players the repetitions they need to grasp all the complexities.
“If you think you are going to make a mistake, don’t worry,” Martin bellowed to the defense. “Just play hard.”
Camp is about getting everyone on the same page. Martin, who played linebacker at C.W. Post, pulled aside junior Abir Rahman for a little extra instruction at cornerback. The 5-7, 135- pound Rahman is one of the fastest on the field. But he began the camp buried on the depth chart because of his size and inexperience. It didn’t help that volunteer assistant Al Barraza, quarterbacking against the second defense, lit up the secondary with a pair of deep completions.
“I’m only 5-7,” said Rahman, who scored five touchdowns as a JV running back a year ago. “It’s hard getting up on some wide receivers. At running back, you don’t need that much height. But with my weight, I get bounced around a little bit. It’s a different ballgame.”
Most of the 14 underclassmen at camp were there for the first time. Like John McKenna and Rahman, they hoped to make an impression. Some struggled while others flourished. Yet there is no bigger surprise than 6-2, 275-pound senior Mike Rollo. He entered camp as a backup and emerged a two-way starter on the line.
“I tried to get better at my position, learn the plays and bond with my teammates,” Rollo said.
The four backs who will carry the load for the Rams in the wing- T offense all return, but there are question marks along both lines, at receiver, tight end, quarterback, linebacker and corner. After two intense days, not to mention an entire summer of conditioning programs and seven-on-seven passing tournaments, the picture became clearer for the staff.
The coaches pictured the lineup for the first time just as the players started to warm to one another.
“Being in the same bunk for four days really tightens up any doubts you might have had about anyone else,” Rahman said. “You start to respect people more for what they can do on the field or what they bring to the locker room.”
Laughter filled the cabin as the teens shared food, swapped CDs, talked and played cards. Bonds formed fast. So did quartets when a group in the shower began to belt out lyrics to *NSYNC. The edginess that hovered in the bunk like smelly socks finally dissipated.
“They are so used to being home and having all the amenities – their own room, TV and bathroom,” said assistant Paul Henning, a 1984 Clarke grad. “The biggest adjustment is having to live with someone else and having to share the facilities. You have to wait to use the bathroom and the shower. It’s a great life lesson, I’ll tell you that.”
Putting it together
As the practices piled up, there were casualties. One lineman sat out with an upset stomach while another took time off because of dehydration. Senior lineman Andrew Diaz got whacked to the head Sunday and spent the next day lounging on a tackling dummy and with an ice pack resting on his crown.
Blisters and bruises were common. At the end of day two, senior Doug Ingram had too many to count. Blisters and boils on both feet turned him into a spectator Monday. He blamed the shoes. “Everyone with these cleats has blisters,” he said matter-of-factly.
“This is the day where all the aches and pains come out,” Boyle said. “It’s the first day after we start hitting. We’ll go through a lot of ice today.”
Boyle named team captains after the morning practice. Players voted the night before and six received strong backing: Buffalino, Palka, Ramirez, Jimmy McKenna, Mike Grimes and Brendon Russo. Boyle had never gone with six captains before, but he supported the will of his players.
Evening rain forced the staff to modify the schedule. Instead of a scrimmage, Clarke worked on the running game in the Pontiac Palace, an indoor gym. O’Malley waded into the huddle and held up cards with the play diagrammed. But even time in the Palace was limited.
Three more teams arrived at the camp Monday: St. Francis Prep (Queens), Great Neck North and Port Washington. So Clarke had to share the Palace with Prep.
Everyone could sense the end of camp as they headed back to the bunks. “I know I’ve gotten better being at camp,” John McKenna said. “I’ve caught the gist of things. But I’m looking forward to going home too.”
Signs of cohesion showed through on the final day. The staff cobbled together a depth chart after much debate, scribbling the results on a white eraser board. They love the upside of John McKenna, the lone freshman they brought to Camp Pontiac. He will remain with the varsity. Having an older brother on the team to learn from will make the transition easier. He’s the backup defensive end for now.
A sophomore, Joe Martino, has also caught the eye of coaches. He’ll start at defensive end. After meeting with each underclassman to define his role, camp culminated with a 45-play scrimmage Tuesday night under the lights at Fenway. The session was taped and graded by position coaches the next day. It offered a chance for Clarke to see how far it has come.
“Camp makes an average team better and a good team very good,” Boyle said. “This is three weeks worth of practices. You have a definite edge the first two weeks of the season. This is a good team. This camp could put us at the next level.”
An electric vibe filled the cool night air. This was as close to playing in a real game as it gets. Halfbacks Buffalino and Mike Palmer burst through cracks in the defense for big gains. As expected, the Clarke ground attack dominated. What coaches looked for was the unexpected. Rahman, a project when camp began, provided hope with an interception at cornerback and surprisingly fluid moves as the backup running back.
As junior defensive tackle Joe Vicari headed toward the sideline, still pumped full of adrenaline, he had advice for the others watching the scrimmage. “Show the coaches you want to be out there,” Vicari said.
Everyone played the final night. As they walked off the field one final time, a team at last, a feeling of accomplishment washed over them. Clarke’s version of boot camp was finally history. They not only survived, the teens flourished. Even the daunting season opener Sept. 18 at No. 3 Manhasset doesn’t loom as large.
“When you come up to camp, you’re with guys that you’ll be playing football with for the next three months – and in my case, two years,” Rahman said. “The bonding is essential. If you asked me the meaning of team, it would be this.”
March 12, 2004
Title: Coach, confidant & pal; Agostino may not be top tactical guy around, but caring personality and his ability to relate to kids make him No. 1
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Author: JASON MOLINET. STAFF WRITER
Date: Mar 12, 2004
Start Page: A.78
Text Word Count: 1403
It is the day before a playoff game and Jack Agostino is pacing the gym with precision, pushing a wide brush along the grainy wooden floor as he goes. Watching over this ritual are championship banners that hang proudly from institutional white walls.
Sometimes Agostino, Amityville’s boys basketball coach, enlists a player to do the chore. More often than not, the coach sweeps the court in the quiet time before each practice. A clean gym is the foundation to a productive workout. And Agostino believes games are won – he’s lost infrequently – at these afternoon sweat sessions.
“Really, the work is done at practice,” Agostino said. “You don’t have to over-coach. If you prepare them, they’ll perform.”
Janitor is just one of the roles Agostino plays. He is a trainer, scout, teacher, disciplinarian, counselor and mentor to the teenagers who fill the Amityville gym.
After 17 seasons at the helm, Agostino is more than just the coach of Suffolk’s most successful basketball program. He is the caretaker of a dynasty that won its first Suffolk title in 1932 and was a perennial league champion long before he arrived.
Town of winners
The Warriors (19-4) continue their quest for an unprecedented fifth straight state championship at 7:30 tonight at SUNY-Old Westbury. After dominating the Class B ranks the previous four seasons, Amityville will play Nassau champion South Side in the Class A Southeast Regional final/Long Island championship. And while Amityville has climbed to great heights during this terrific run, winning basketball is nothing new for this South Shore town.
“We breed athletes,” said Detroit Pistons guard Mike James, a 1993 graduate. “Growing up in Amityville, we basically called it the suburban ghetto. You don’t have many options. You either play sports or you get in trouble.”
The kids who grew up on the courts at Bowden Mack Park in North Amityville know the game. What this basketball- rich town needed was something more than a brilliant tactician.
Enter Agostino. Before he began coaching, he taught special education students – and still does. It’s a job that demands patience and understanding. Those interpersonal skills serve him well at the end of the bench.
“Anything I can’t talk to my parents about, I can go to him,” Connecticut-bound guard A.J. Price said. “He’s like a second father.”
So much so that the phone calls come at all hours. Agostino, 41, and Debbie, his wife of 18 years, live in Centereach and have four children.
Joseph, 13, Jenna, 10, Julia, 7, and Jonathan, 4, each plays basketball. But the Agostinos have an extended family that dates to the 1987-88 season. That is when coach Fred Williams died unexpectedly on the eve of the season and the school turned to an unproven junior varsity football coach to fill the void after others turned the job down.
“The relationship he takes on with his players – I joke that I have eight kids,” Debbie Agostino said. “They’re always calling. Mike James still calls. I think most people come home and that’s where the job ends. I have Jason Fraser calling at 11:30 at night.
“He’s so good to these kids. He’s always there if they need help. Sometimes you wonder, do people really appreciate what he does? They really have no clue what he does with these kids. It’s about relationships.”
Perhaps that’s because the coach is a bit of a chameleon. The exterior Agostino presents is of a man who enjoys the trappings of success. His blazers have “Suffolk Coach of the Year” inscribed over the breast pocket. The program has a contract with Nike that nets free warmups and shoes. The clippings of big games fill the walls of his modest office, fighting for space among catchphrases such as “Tradition Never Graduates.” Rick Pitino and Mike Jarvis have been regulars on the other side of his desk in recent seasons.
But that exterior is all just show. The real Agostino, a former three-sport athlete at Centereach who moved on to play basketball at St. Joseph’s (L.I.), readily admits he is not Long Island’s best game coach. So he’s a regular at clinics. And he’s constantly adding tricks of the trade he’s gleaned at the Five Star or adidas camps to his repertoire.
“The good thing about Jack Agostino is, despite his success, he’s worked to become a better X’s-and-O’s coach,” Long Island basketball historian George Davila said. “He’s not the greatest tactician and he knows it. But he tries to improve himself. I see him working to get better.”
Not that there’s all that much room for improvement. Agostino owns a 315-77 record, good for a .803 winning percentage. His teams have won 14 league, nine Suffolk, six Long Island, four state public schools and two state Federation championships. The Warriors have been unstoppable in their own county, ticking off 76 wins in a row against Suffolk schools.
Creating a family
The side of Agostino players see is one who tries to make practice an enjoyable experience rather than some burdensome task. He is an inviting figure who connects with promising third-graders, grooming them to be part of the program in a very few years. Mostly, he brings a level of patience and understanding to inspire players, some of whom don’t have many adult influences.
“He brings unity,” said Al Lorenzano, a volunteer assistant coach who grew up in town. “When one kid goes through something, the whole team does. It’s a family. He bonds with the kids. The kids respect Jack. He brings out the best in the kids.”
Just look at two gems whom he molded into NCAA Division I players. Point guard Tristan Smith and the 6-10 Fraser grew up not far from each other in North Amityville. Their families didn’t have much. But when it came to basketball, there was nothing they didn’t have.
Agostino shepherded them athletically and academically and was a key figure in the recruiting process. Each won state titles and earned Suffolk player of the year awards. Smith moved on to St. John’s before transferring at the end of last season to St. Francis (N.Y.). Fraser became a McDonald’s All-American in 2002 and toyed with jumping straight to the NBA before deciding to attend Villanova.
Agostino had their futures mapped out at an early age.
“Coach Agostino does a good job of getting them young,” said former All-Long Island pick Oliver Hinckson, now a teacher in Orlando. “He lets kids from elementary school see the team. I remember Jason and Tristan coming to games. They saw that and they understood. That’s why Amityville is so good. The players understand what it takes.”
Maybe Amityville’s assembly line of Division I prospects will dry up someday. Maybe players will grow tired of putting in the extra hours needed to be a winner. But so long as Agostino remains coach, inspiration is only a quick sweep of the gym away.
“I always tell them, ‘It’s a privilege to play,’” Agostino said. ‘”That basketball is going to bounce with or without you.’”
October 26, 2001
Title: FRIDAY SPECIAL / He’s The Man / But when 6-10 star Jason Fraser is in school, he tries to be just another kid Series: The first in an occasional look into the life of Amityville senior Jason Fraser, one of the nation’s best high school basketball players. Part I follows Fraser through a typical school day.
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Author: Jason Molinet. STAFF WRITER
Date: Oct 26, 2001
Start Page: A.98
Text Word Count: 2284
The sun isn’t up, but Jason Fraser is – barely. His Monday begins in a cramped room cluttered with clothes, sneakers and trophies. The space is tight by anyone’s standards. It is especially confining for the 6-10, 210-pound Fraser.
A look at the bedroom walls tells you something else about Fraser: He is a teenager in demand. There are flattering notes and fawning letters from some of the biggest names in college basketball. With what some believe are the physical tools and mental acumen to jump straight to the NBA, the Amityville basketball star is widely considered one of the nation’s top 10 high school seniors.
“Jason’s defensive prowess is unparalleled in Long Island history,” says Long Island basketball historian George Davila. “What he does defensively is worth the price of admission.”
Long Island has produced an impressive roster of pro players, from Bellport’s Randy Smith to Roosevelt’s Julius Erving to Whitman’s Tom Gugliotta to Cold Spring Harbor’s Wally Szczerbiak. There’s little doubt Fraser will join the club. Will it happen as early as this summer?
“I’m not an NBA scout, but in my personal opinion, he’s not far off,” says Amityville basketball coach Jack Agostino, who has watched Fraser grow from a shot-blocking machine as a gangly freshman to an overall force in the low post.
This is the same kid who put the rest of New York basketball on notice last March with his 20-point, 22-rebound MVP effort in Amityville’s 87-70 win over Section VI champ Williamsville East in the state public schools Class B title game. A Fraser-led team also won in 2000.
On this day, Fraser quietly makes his bed and waits to use the bathroom. He has to move fast. Nine people live in the three-bedroom apartment he shares with his mom, Edmarie, six younger siblings and older cousin. Fraser’s mother emigrated from Jamaica when she was 15. She works as a nurse and raises her children alone.
Fraser understands this is the best she can do. And he loves her for it.
“She doesn’t buy herself anything,” he marvels. “She puts it all into us.”
His father, Raymond Williams, lives in Harlem and has a family of his own. Jason, the lone child produced by Raymond and Edmarie, rarely sees his father.
“It doesn’t bother me anymore,” Fraser says. “My uncle is my father figure.”
After a quick shower, Fraser turns on the TV in the room he splits with his cousin, Shawn Campbell. The Yankees are on “SportsCenter.” Fraser is a big New York sports fan, but he tunes in instead to “The Weather Channel.”
“Do I wear sweats?” he asks, his face covered in a pasty-white Noxema mask.
A quick look at the local forecasts tells him it’s going to be sunny and warm, with highs in the upper 60s. After washing off the facial goop and smearing lotion on his arms and legs, he slips on blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Fraser is finally ready to take on the world. He kisses his mother goodbye and bounces out the door.
Despite all the fame and attention – Agostino refers to him as “The Franchise” and classmates call him “Superstar” – Fraser usually takes the bus to school. Once he’s there, Fraser’s presence is acknowledged by virtually everyone walking the crowded hallway. He exchanges approving nods and elaborate handshakes as he navigates from class to class like a celebrity working the velvet rope at a Hollywood premiere.
“He’s actually pretty modest about it,” says senior Alexandria Gati, who shares a photography class with Fraser and, like Fraser, is a peer leader. “He knows he’s popular. But he doesn’t let it go to his head.”
There’s little doubt Fraser enjoys his position of power among his schoolmates. The 18-year-old with the easy smile has made-for-TV looks and the personality of a used-car salesman. In fact, Fraser has worked as a busboy at a bowling alley, a telemarketer and, yes – a used-car salesman.
The resolve he pours into basketball can be seen in the classroom, too. Fraser, who carries a 3.0 grade-point average and scored an 860 in his first attempt at the SAT, good enough to qualify for freshman eligibility (he will retake the test for good measure next month), is alert and involved in each class.
Fraser checks in at homeroom, grabs his backpack from a corner locker and then goes to his first-period class: chemistry. As Fraser opens his notebook and sets his calculator, he realizes he is missing something important. Teammate and friend Trevour McIntosh is sitting next to him and provides the assist. He hands Fraser a pen.
Fraser spends nearly all of his second-period photography class in the darkroom helping McIntosh develop prints. It seems the two are inseparable. Both have third period free, so they head to the cafeteria, where they crack jokes with teammate Max Rose.
“We’re like brothers,” McIntosh says. “They call us T.J. Max short for Trevour, Jason, Max. We’re tight.”
Once the laughter dies down, Fraser tries to read the 19th-century horror novel “Frankenstein.” Fraser continues to read well into fourth period, one of three breaks in his schedule. He needs to polish off three chapters in time for his Gothic literature course, which is next.
A chilling line in the classic work fits what Fraser has gone through in recent months. “You are my creator, but I am your master,” the Creature told Dr. Frankenstein.
That’s especially true of Fraser’s recruitment process, which has taken on a life of its own. The week-long early signing period begins Nov. 15. That’s when Fraser can finally put a rest to the relentless circus that revolves around him.
The phone calls to his home are now a trickle, but he still uses his caller ID to screen the coaches he wants to avoid. At its peak last spring, the school received 20 pieces of mail a day for Fraser. Even more correspondence went to his apartment. The University of Southern California sent 150 handwritten letters to Fraser in one day. Although Fraser has had a lot of help with the process – the braintrust includes his mom and uncle, Paul Fraser, Agostino and AAU coach Gary Charles – the decision falls squarely on his shoulders.
Family members have weighed in on the subject. Strangers have lobbied him. Students and teachers stop him in the hallway on a daily basis to poll his choices. College coaches have pulled at his heartstrings. And every move is reported via the Internet – true or not.
“Everywhere I look there’s news about me,” Fraser says. “I’ve committed to St. John’s five times. I’ve committed to Illinois twice. I just laugh at it.”
When Fraser showed up for a three-day visit Oct. 12-14 in Chapel Hill, N.C., he was the highlight of Midnight Madness, the kickoff to the basketball season for the University of North Carolina. A capacity crowd at the Dean Dome chanted: “We want Fraser! We want Fraser!”
“It was crazy,” Fraser says. “People had written on their backs: WE WANT FRASER. It just sweeps you off your feet.”
As overwhelming as it all was, Fraser hasn’t committed yet. He’s narrowed his choices to four schools – Louisville, North Carolina, St. John’s and Villanova – and still has three visits remaining. This weekend, Fraser will go to Villanova, where he already has a strong relationship with new coach Jay Wright, who laid the groundwork with Fraser while he was coaching Hofstra.
St. John’s has been in the Jason Fraser sweepstakes from the outset. Many factors favor the Red Storm. Fraser not only grew up a fan of the program but has always wanted to play at Madison Square Garden. He’d have company there, too. Former teammate Tristan Smith is a freshman guard at St. John’s this fall, and McIntosh, a 6-6 senior, said he is being recruited by the Red Storm. Fraser makes his official visit to the Queens campus Nov. 10.
“My heart at one time was beating St. John’s,” Fraser says. “What was that feeling? Was it fate? Now I’m beginning to feel some of the pressure from the tugging and the pulling.”
Louisville became a serious contender only after new coach Rick Pitino watched Fraser dominate at the 325-team adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas this summer while playing for his travel team, the Long Island Panthers. Pitino’s impressive pro and college resume, along with his no-nonsense sales pitch to Fraser, left a lasting impression. Fraser heads to the Bluegrass State Nov. 17.
“I’ve never seen a recruiting process like this,” Agostino says. “This is the kind of stuff you only hear about. But Jason has handled it unbelievably well. He knows it’s just basketball. It’s not life or death. He’ll make the best decision based on all the factors.”
Once Fraser leaves the cafeteria, his book in hand, it’s back to reality. He takes a seat near the front of his English class and actively discusses the torment of the beast and its creator.
“Can you imagine?” Fraser asks. “It’s like he’s living in two different worlds.”
On to sixth period and finite math, where classmate Alexandria Woodward jokingly prods Fraser. “When are your Air Frasers shoes coming out?” Woodward asks. “Can you autograph mine?” The joke subsides and Fraser focuses on the task at hand.
“Some athletes struggle to get by, and you hold your breath,” math teacher Charles Zuar says. “Jason is on the ball. All the kids look up to him, too.”
Zuar also knows there will be a job waiting for him if he ever gives up on teaching. Fraser jokingly promised Zuar could be his chauffeur someday.
After tackling inverse and contrapositive equations, Fraser heads back to the cafeteria. It’s lunchtime. One double cheeseburger and side of chicken nuggets later, Fraser is refueled. Economics is his eighth-period class. The topic centers on labor unions. Pretty soon the discussion turns to something these teenagers can relate to: the labor issues that have gripped – and sometimes interrupted – pro sports leagues in recent years, from the NBA lockout in 1998-99 to the 1994 baseball strike. It’s something Fraser likely will learn firsthand soon enough.
Like any teenager, Fraser says he dreams of playing in the NBA. Three of the top four picks in June’s NBA draft were high school players, signaling a dramatic shift in how the league mines for talent. All of which means Fraser could bypass college altogether.
“My mom wants me to go to school,” Fraser says. “But I can’t give you an honest answer now. If all those zeroes are put in front of you, not many people could turn that down.”
The bell rings, a signal that Fraser’s brain-draining, note- taking day is finally through. Ninth period is when Fraser lifts weights. Fraser’s streamlined frame is the picture of masculinity. On this day he decides to max out on the bench press. Fraser, McIntosh and Agostino are alone in the school’s spartan workout room loaded with free weights and little else.
Fraser bangs the wall with his enormous wingspan in a visceral display of emotion, and yells as he lifts more and more weight. Agostino encourages his players as McIntosh and Fraser take turns, moving steadily past 245 pounds to 255 and 260. When the duo is finally through, each tops out at 270 pounds, a record lift for an Amityville basketball player, Agostino declares.
“Fraser’s all about history,” Agostino says. “He wants to be the first in everything he does. He just wants to keep rewriting the record books.”
Amid all the craziness swirling around Fraser, from the recruiting odyssey to the NBA rumors, he is still living in the moment. His senior season has yet to play out. But if his junior year is any indicator – he averaged 21 points, 15 rebounds, 8 blocks and 6 assists and led Amityville to its first state Class B Federation title – then all the hype is well founded.
All the numbers and accomplishments are impressive, but it’s Fraser’s outlook that reveals the winner within. That is his greatest asset of all.
“You may be better than me,” Fraser says. “But once we step onto the court, I will outplay you.”
October 1, 2000
Title: INSIDE HIGH SCHOOLS / These Guys Are Real Winners
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Author: Jason Molinet
Date: Oct 1, 2000
Start Page: C.30
Text Word Count: 940
IT WAS an encounter for the ages. Sixty-two seasons of Suffolk football history gathered Friday morning in a second-floor room at Bellhaven Nursing Center in Brookhaven.
Tom Cassese, 55, has coached football at Comsewogue for 28 seasons.
Henry Read, 88, was the only football coach Seton Hall High School in Patchogue ever had. He started the program in 1940 and retired when the school closed its doors in June, 1974.
Cassese and Read are from different worlds, yet they will be forever linked. They are part of an exclusive club. When Comsewogue beat Hauppauge on Sept. 15, Cassese tied Read as the winningest football coach in county history with 176 career victories.
Comsewogue failed in its last two outings to move its coach past Read in the record books, so Suffolk football’s illustrious past met its bright burning present quite literally on equal terms Friday. Cassese, who owns a 176-66-3 mark, went to Bellhaven, where Read and his wife of 66 years, Margaret, now live. And they talked about, what else? Football.
Read, who has wispy white hair and an engaging smile, sat in a wheelchair while Cassese hovered over him.
“You know, I haven’t been defeated since 1973,” Read said, his smile lighting the room. “I don’t have that worry anymore.”
Poor Cassese. His team fell to Kings Park, 21-6, the previous afternoon.
Read kept up the offensive. “You lose again,” he said, “they’ll send you over here [to the retirement home].”
“When can I move in?” Cassese asked.
But Cassese, among a trio of coaches closing in on Read-Sachem’s Fred Fusaro and East Islip’s Sal Ciampi are the others – was energized by the meeting.
“It was just a pleasure to have met someone who’s led such a great life,” Cassese said. “And his wife said he still follows all the high school sports. You could sense it was something that was important to him. He still cares.”
Read has been away from the game 27 years, nearly as long as Cassese has been coaching. But you don’t have to tell Read how the game has evolved. His Seton Hall teams went from the single-wing offense to the wing-T. Read coached in an era when the quarterback drop-kicked extra points. Along the way, Read turned a tiny Catholic school into a Long Island sports powerhouse because he was an innovator himself.
“Mr. Read had some crazy formations,” said Ken Hughes, a 1946 Seton Hall graduate who played quarterback for three seasons. “He used to lay awake at night thinking about them. They all worked, but they were unusual, I’ll tell you that. All of his players had a lot of respect for him. To this day, I call him Mr. Read.”
The Seton Hall Eagles won 11 league titles, had four unbeaten seasons, posted a 24-game unbeaten streak from 1969-71 and produced one NFL player, John Schmitt, who played center for the Jets from 1964-73. But talk to Read and you realize it wasn’t about the wins.
“I built that sports program from nothing to the point where kids wanted to go there,” said Read, who also coached boys basketball and baseball and served as athletic director and boys dean. “I enjoyed the kids, but I was very strict. I wouldn’t last an hour with today’s kids.”
In the early years, Read, from Providence, worked as a tobacco salesman in the early part of the day and coached sports at Seton Hall in the afternoon. He was a volunteer coach from 1940 until he was hired full-time in 1948.
His athletic success helped the fledgling coed Catholic school- its campus is home to St. Joseph’s College today – grow in size and esteem.
“He just loved coaching,” said Margaret, 89, who met her husband while the two were studying to be teachers at SUNY-Farmingdale.
Former players gush at his genius as a coach. The record stood as a monument to Read’s coaching success long after he left the sideline. To him, it’s a footnote to a fine career, one he doesn’t mind surrendering to Cassese or the next ambitious coach to come along. But the record is not what he will be remembered for.
Read and his wife raised 11 children. Today, they have 49 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. In their heyday, the couple ran a day camp in Patchogue. Read gave one-time Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden his first varsity coaching job.
“I’ve gone to visit him over the years to get that touch of inspiration,” said Pete Cheviot, who led the state in scoring and was an All-Long Island running back for Seton Hall in 1970. He played at Brown University.
Read also was the one who encouraged Hughes, like many of his players, to go to college. In Hughes’ case, the coach broached the subject of playing football at Boston College at halftime of a game.
“I never heard of Boston College and probably never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for Mr. Read,” said Hughes, a BC graduate who retired in 1990 after teaching 30 years in the Patchogue- Medford School District. “I owe a great deal of debt to him. He did everything he could for the kids at Seton Hall. He was Mr. Seton Hall to us.”