Howie Vogts And His Football Legacy

August 10, 2010

Anyone who knew Howie Vogts understands this wasn’t the way the iconic football coach was supposed to pass on. Not in a hospital bed with an IV tube, heart monitor and respirator hooked up to him, as he did on Saturday at the age of 80 at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre.

No, after 56 years and a New York state-record 364 wins – all at Bethpage High School – it would have only been fitting if the giant of Long Island high school football expired during a game on the sideline. That’s how he would have wanted it, anyway.

I spent enough time with him over the years to know that much. He was a man who could have long ago taken his pension and retired to Florida with his longtime partner, Marilyn Murphy. And he did.

But each August Murph and Howie would drive up I-95 in the comfort of their Lincoln Town Car and return to their Bethpage house in time for the start of football practice. Because Howie Vogts’ real home was the sideline next to his boys.

“It’s the most fruitful thing working and helping young people,” Vogts once told me. “And each year you have a new group to work with.”

Vogts never had children. Yet after 56 years of coaching football in this working-class Nassau town, an entire community looked at the coach with fatherly respect.

A former Golden Eagles player, Erwin Dill, has served as the associate head coach to take the load off Vogts. Dill has manned the sideline for more than a decade while Vogts, in declining health, sat on the bench. It might have made for an awkward relationship if not for the selflessness of the staff.

It was an arrangement an entire town embraced. People get pushed aside in life. You probably know someone who was shown the door before they were ready to leave, at work or elsewhere. People get old. They become expendable.

Not Vogts. He was treasured – and rightly so.

“It’s Coach’s team,” Rich Solliday, a Bethpage resident whose son was an All-Long Island player in the 1990s, once told me. “Howie started the program and he should stay here to the day he dies.”

Thank goodness, he did.

Vogts, a Sewanhaka and Adelphi graduate, started with a freshman team in 1952 and then christened the varsity one year later. He spent one season as an assistant coach at Michigan State in 1966, but returned to the Bethpage sideline next fall. That’s where he’s been ever since.

This was a Grumman town. The Lunar lander was built in Bethpage. Aerospace was the life blood of the community. But the jobs left long ago. The other source of town pride? Football, of course.

Bethpage won 35 regular-season league or conference crowns, 16 playoff titles and five Long Island championships. Vogts was the mastermind behind them all. Even in his later years, he would spend much of his weekdays sequestered in the film room breaking down the opposition. He had a keen football mind to the end.

The death certificate will note Vogts died of congestive heart failure. But anyone who knows him will tell you no one had a bigger heart. How else do you explain a lifetime of devotion to one town and his boys?

Note: Visiting Tuesday and Wednesday 2-5 and 7-9:30 p.m. at the Arthur F. White Funeral Home, 234 Broadway, Bethpage, NY 11714. A Memorial gathering will take place Thursday 11 a.m. at the Howard C. Vogts Football Field at Bethpage High School. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bethpage Football Dad’s Club. Bethpage High School, Stewart Avene, Bethpage, NY, 11714, in Care of the Bethpage Dad’s Club.

Blog originally posted at LI

Lacrosse: Gamblin’s The Man

July 26, 2010

BUFFALO—The stands at Canisius College had already cleared out. Hell, his entire team was long gone too. Hicksville High School rising senior Brandon Gamblin didn’t notice. He was locked in a duel with his own demons and an empty cage.

It was nearly 10 p.m. on Friday night, a half hour after one of the more physically and emotionally draining games of lacrosse Gamblin had ever played. A midfielder on the scholastic boys lacrosse team representing Long Island at the Empire State Games in Buffalo, favorite Long Island had just suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Central region.

The 8-7 defeat in sudden death overtime fell squarely on an offense which hardly possessed the ball in the first quarter and failed to score in the first 22:53 of the game. Sure, Gamblin did his part. He broke the ice with a powerful blast of a goal early in the third quarter to make it 5-1 and restore some much needed confidence.

But his shot was stopped by Central goalie Tyler White time and again in the second half. That’s why Gamblin stayed behind on a shadowy turf field bathed in the soft glow of the light towers, taking shot after shot at an empty cage.

“I was angry,” Gamblin said. “I felt we shouldn’t have lost that game.”

There’s no arguing with the result. Gamblin, a UMass commitment, played with a vengeance the rest of the way. After pouring in six goals to down New York City on Saturday, Gamblin proved just as unstoppable in the gold medal game on Sunday. He scored four times as Long Island (5-1) erased a 4-2 halftime deficit to beat previously unbeaten Central, 7-6. With the win, Long Island became the first region to earn gold in five straight Empire State Games since boys lacrosse became a sport in 1984.

The Kyle Keenan-to-Gamblin connection was so fluid, you’d think they had been teammates for longer than one month. In the end, the relationships the Long Island scholastic boys lacrosse team built—starting with tryouts in June and continuing with 12 exhibition games in Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – ended with a gold medal performance at the Empire State Games on Sunday in Buffalo.

“That was just unreal,” West Islip rising senior midfielder Michael Sagl said. “They were just finding each other. Keenan is a great feeder. Gamblin is a great shooter. They were finally able to hook up and it was just fun to watch.”

Keenan, an X attack, directed the offense with precision throughout the four-day tournament. That he had an uncanny ability to find fellow Smithtown West teammate James Pannell for open shots was no surprise. That he hooked up with Gamblin again and again spoke volumes of how well this team of all-stars meshed.

Keenan fed Gamblin for three of his four goals on Sunday.

“It’s not like I was looking for him. He was just open,” said Keenan, a Duke recruit. “He’s got a nose for the goal. He wants to score whenever he’s on the field. That’s his personality.”

It wouldn’t have been possible without the stellar play of Connetquot goalie Zach Oliveri (10 saves), who was in every respect the defensive stopper of the tournament. FOGO Jake Froccaro, a Port Washington junior, also played an important role after missing a game with a mild concussion suffered against Central.

Even Oliveri couldn’t stop Central the entire time. Long Island was victimized for goals twice in the final 1:14 of the first half when Ithaca’s Riley Lasda spun off his defender and broke free in the box. His score was followed by Tom Grimm’s quick strike to make it 4-2 Central with 43 seconds left. Grimm, a Syracuse commitment from Carthage, had the game-winner against Long Island on Friday.

The third quarter belonged to Long Island the entire tournament. This game was no exception. Pannell scored 1:39 into the third, and after pelting the Central goal with a barrage of shots, Garden City’s Tom Gordon scored the equalizer on a feed from Keenan with 4:01 left in the third. Gamblin juked past his defender and fired home the go-ahead goal to make it 5-3 with 1:37 left.

Long Island kept up the pressure from there. Keenan found Gamblin charging toward the net and the Hicksville scorer did the rest to extend the lead to 6-4 with 10:52 to go.

Fayetteville-Manlius attack Ari Waffle scooped in the rebound past Oliveri to make it 6-5 with 7:40 left.

But the Keenan-to-Gamblin connection struck once more to keep Central at arm’s length. Gamblin scored his 18th goal in six-game tournament – and fourth of the day – with 6:52 left.

“It was all a mindset game,” Gamblin said. “We needed to start playing smart, take smart opportunities.”

Jamesville-Dewitt’s Alex Hatem scored his second goal of the day on a diving play at the net close the gap to 7-6 with 4:20 left.

Long Island’s defense kept Central off balance from there. And after Central’s Austin Curtis received a one-minute penalty for slashing, Keenan and Sachem North’s Michael Andreassi held the ball and ran out the clock. All there was left to do was celebrate.

Blog originally posted at LI

Kyle Keenan’s Empire State Games Destiny

July 12, 2010

As the son of two coaches, Kyle Keenan emerged from the womb with the DNA of an athlete and the mentoring to make it happen. The rising senior at Smithtown West High School is considered one of the nation’s top boys lacrosse players.

It comes as little wonder considering his father, Sean Keenan, is the Smithtown West boys lacrosse coach. He played for Long Island legend Joe Cuozzo at Ward Melville and was an All-American at Adelphi University.

“He put a stick in my hand when I was 2 years old,” Kyle Keenan said. “We were always having a catch before dinner. He taught me to love lacrosse.”

The 5-11, 160-pound attack capped this third varsity season with a Long Island-best 53 assists in the regular season and a run to the Suffolk Class A semifinals. He committed last fall to reigning national champion Duke.

And yet Keenan has another sports destiny just as deeply embedded.

Bridget Keenan played for the Long Island open women’s soccer team at the 1992 Empire State Games in Albany. Twelve years after her first Empire experience, the ‘92 Games marked her final trip as a player. Unknown to her at the time, Keenan – an Adelphi grad who met her husband in college – was pregnant with her first child.

The Long Island women’s soccer team earned a silver medal that summer. Kyle Keenan was born eight months later. Bridget Keenen coached the open women for three more summers then gave it up to focus on her growing family.

“She was a big soccer player at the Empire State Games and she won a lot of medals,’’ Kyle Keenan said, proud of the family legacy.

All these years later, Kyle Keenan battled through a tryout process unlike anything in high school sports – he was among 712 teenagers to try out for the Long Island scholastic boys lacrosse team – for the right to play at the 2010 Empire State Games.

It was clearly important to him. He had heard the story of his mother playing pregnant at Empires too many times for it not to have an impact. So Keenan arrived early and was third in line to register for tryouts at Bay Shore High School. Yet the first day left him frazzled.

“A lot more kids. The games were short. I wasn’t getting the ball. I didn’t think I was on a good team,’’ Keenan ticked off the issues. “So I didn’t have a great first tryout.”

Even still, Keenan’s ability shone through and he made an impression. He sailed through four rounds of tryouts to earn a spot on the final 20-man roster and fulfill his destiny. Keenan was so anxious, he stayed up past 2 a.m. awaiting the congratulatory email, checking his iPod Touch every few minutes.

He’d chugged up and down the soccer field in his mother’s belly, competing at the Empire State Games. The five-day, Olympic-style festival has been going strong since 1978. Now he’s an Empire player himself, transforming the Games into a multigenerational celebration.

“I’ve heard about Empires since I was a little kid,” Keenan said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be an Empire player. This is awesome. This is what I’ve wanted since I was a little kid.”

The Long Island scholastic boys lacrosse team has already played nine games to prepare for the Empire State Games, which are in Buffalo from July 21-25. At the Tri-State Tournament in Princeton, N.J. on Saturday, Keenan scored twice against the Dukes – a travel team consisting of the best athletes from the Delaware Valley (Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) – to help Long Island finish the day 4-0.

The Dukes featured several future Division I players, including fellow Blue Devils commitment Tanner Scott (Conestoga High School, Berwyn, Penn.). Two duo, along with Whitman midfielder Myles Jones, another Duke recruit, shared an embrace and some conversation afterward.

At this elite level, Keenan proved he belonged.

“I go to the cage hard, see the slide and there’s always someone open,’’ said Keenan, who looks to pass first. “That’s my game. It’s instinct.”

No doubt. It’s in the DNA.

Blog originally posted at LI

LI Pulse: Empire Of Riches

July 1, 2010

Long Island Pulse magazine July 2010 issue featuring Empire of Riches: Long Island lacrosse at the Empire State Games.

Long Island Pulse magazine July 2010 issue featuring Empire of Riches: Long Island lacrosse at the Empire State Games.

Title: Empire of Riches: Long Island lacrosse’s Empire State Games opens doors and as a tradition, is second to none
Publication: Long Island Pulse magazine
Author: Jason Molinet
Date: July 2010
Start Page: 42
Word Count: 1,059

Max Seibald is one of the most recognizable names in lacrosse.

Just in the last year the 22-year-old midfielder was chosen second overall in the 2009 Major League Lacrosse draft, led Cornell to the NCAA title game and won the Tewaaraton Trophy as the college player of the year.

Yet his rise from unknown high schooler to elite prospect seemingly happened overnight at the Empire State Games, New York’s annual Olympic-style festival. Earning a roster spot on the Long Island scholastic boys’ lacrosse team is a sure ticket to stardom.

Look no further than Seibald, who tried out after a strong junior season at Hewlett High School. But he was among 500 other Long Island hopefuls vying for 20 spots in June 2004. Seibald auditioned the previous summer and was cut the first day. What were the odds a kid with only moderate Division III interest could turn heads and land a job?

“Coming back the next year, it was intimidating,” Seibald said. “You see college coaches on the sidelines. It motivated you but also made you grip the stick a little bit tighter. This was my first experience at this level and I wanted to make things happen.”

Seibald not only made the team, he starred. His roommate on the road that summer? Notre Dame goalie Scott Rodgers, a Wantagh native and MVP of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Empires put Seibald on a new trajectory. On the first day college coaches could make contact, the Hewlett teen received an early-morning phone call that woke him up. Then-Princeton coach Bill Tierney was on the other end. The offers came pouring in from there.

That’s the Empire effect.

“It’s been a springboard for kids to get into college,” longtime ESG lacrosse coordinator George Fox said. “There were some kids who have made this team that were surprises. And there were some kids expected to make this team who didn’t.”

Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala agreed. Before he grew into one of the great defensemen in lacrosse history and won two national titles as a coach, Pietramala was an unassuming junior at St. Mary’s High School. Then he earned a spot on the inaugural 1984 Empire State Games squad.

“I wouldn’t be sitting where I am right now if I hadn’t played in the Empires,” said Pietramala, who was recruited to Johns Hopkins as a player only after his ESG performance. “That’s the God’s honest truth. I would have never gone to Johns Hopkins.”

The Empire State Games resumes in Buffalo from July 21-25 after a one-year hiatus forced by recession fears and a state-wide budget crunch. The event draws 7,000 teenaged and adult athletes in 33 sports and has been a summer staple since Gov. Hugh Carey opened the first Games in 1978.

These Games are more cash conscious than ever before. Buffalo area businesses pledged $1.1 million in cash and in-kind support. And for the first time, ESG decided to charge athletes a $10 registration fee.

While some grumble whether the Empire State Games should even move forward at a time when the state threatened to close parks, others are glad to see the Games back. They are a rite of passage, especially in the lacrosse community.

For lacrosse players, the void was filled by the Long Island Showcase Games, an event sponsored by the Nassau and Suffolk coaches associations. As much attention as it garnered for the sport, the Showcase couldn’t replicate the Empire experience.

“I was disappointed. But I was disappointed for Long Island,” Sachem North coach Jay Mauro said. He was a former player and now he’s the Long Island coach. “This is prestigious. It’s great for the kids. We’ve medaled every year. I’m just glad they brought it back this summer.”

That’s why a record 630 players showed up at ESG boys lacrosse tryouts in 2008, and why another 558 registered to compete for a Long Island roster spot by the end of May. And the alumni? A who’s who of lacrosse greats.

Scholastic girls lacrosse, introduced to the Empire State Games in 2001, has medaled each year and won the last three golds. The girls boast the same talent, if not the tradition.

“It’s really the flagship sport,” Fox said. “It means a lot to the kids to make this team. They realize they are representing Long Island. This is the highest level, a select all-star team in an event that’s been important over the years.”

With Fox at the helm, Long Island’s scholastic boys lacrosse team has developed into an elite program with a demanding schedule that’s served to sharpen any rough edges on the assembled talent. Five days of tryouts in each county were followed by a Top 50 game. The final team was announced with fanfare at Hofstra on June 25th.

Then comes the hard part: A month of practice to go with three out-of-state tournaments. All of it serves as a warm-up to the Games themselves—five games in three grueling days in the heat of summer followed by a medal round at Canisius College in Buffalo.

“That is a high-profile sport on Long Island,” Long Island region director Bob Kenney said. “We are the team to beat. And who knows what it would be like if we had an open team?”

True enough. The 2008 Long Island squad drilled Western, 14-3, in the gold medal game. Rocky Point’s Matt Palasek scored five times and West Islip’s Nicky Galasso, the top prospect in the class of 2010, added a goal and three assists.

To the chagrin of the state’s other five regions, the victory locked up Long Island’s fourth straight gold medal and 15th overall. The scholastic boys have medaled every year since the sport’s inception in 1984, a feat on par with the Harlem Globetrotters.

As if playing for a college scholarship or Long Island pride weren’t enough, the 2010 team has a unique opportunity at history.

“We’ve never won five golds in a row,” Fox said.

One way or another, this collection of talent from every corner of Long Island will turn heads. Whether they bring home gold medallion keepsakes, or a scholarship offer or an unforgettable memory, the Empire State Games experience is rich and lasting.

Long Island’s Blogging Sailor

June 28, 2010

As all great modern adventures certainly begin, John Almberg bought a sailboat on eBay.

It was a 23-foot wooden sloop located along the Florida Panhandle. Just one problem. How would Almberg, a father of four who lives in Huntington, get his prize back to Long Island? Shipping it would prove prohibitively expensive. So Almberg decided he would sail it home.

His 2,000 nautical mile odyssey began when he took possession of the “Blue Moon” in January. The rest is tirelessly chronicled on his blog: He’s also on Twitter:

Almberg, 57, grew up sailing with his father and uncle. But he abandoned ship life in pursuit of rowing for a decade. Crew – those pencil-thin missiles cutting through the water under oar power – became his passion.

Then he decided to slow down and cruise once more. Almberg and wife, Helena, began looking at sailboats. When a wooden sloop caught their eye in Mount Sinai Harbor, it gave him the blueprint for the perfect yacht.

In the mean time, he decided to build an 8-foot skiff in his garage, one plank at a time. Nicknamed “Cabin Boy,” the small boat came together rib by rib and gave rise to his blog.

“I really didn’t know anything about wooden boats,” Almberg said by phone. “I just knew what fiberglass boat people tell each other, ‘[A wooden boat] is too much work.’ I decided to build a small wooden boat to prove that I could take care of a larger wooden boat. I don’t know what the logic behind that was, but I came to that conclusion.”

After an exhaustive search, he finally found his yacht – for the right price – on eBay. His plan was coming together nicely.

“We were looking, but weren’t really planning on buying then,” Almberg said. “It’s not that easy to find a good wooden boat.”

The Tom Gilmer-designed Blue Moon yawl, anchored in the Steinhatchee River, needed superficial but extensive work. Its barnacled bottom was stripped, wormy wood replaced, imperfections sanded and sealed and finally the keel painted a two-tone blue. Almberg oversaw the restoration in Florida himself.

The Blue Moon, with Cabin Boy in tow, set sail for New York in April. And so Almberg’s blog, which he originally started as a way to document his scratch build of a dinghy, turned into a true nautical adventure tale.

“I was surprised when people started reading it,” said Almberg, who works in technology and web development and is currently home planning the next leg of his trip. “I guess that happens a lot with blogs. You don’t realize how many people follow it. A lot of people fantasize about going to sea and being independent for a while.”

The depth and detail of the blog draws readers in. His 500-mile shakedown cruise down the Gulf coast through the heart of Florida at Lake Okeechobee and out at Indiantown on the east coast makes for mesmerizing reading and the photos are magical.

“It was a very deserted stretch,” Almberg said of the Okeechobee passage. “I maybe passed five boats the entire time. It’s actually really scenic.”

The next leg took him up the Intracoastal Waterway past St. Augustine to Jacksonville, where the Blue Moon and Cabin Boy are currently docked awaiting their captain’s return.

Almberg, whose wife is Brazilian, is understandably a soccer fan. He’ll resume his journey some time after the World Cup. The next stop on his voyage to Long Island? Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“I’ve always wanted to take a long sail like this and just never had the chance,” Almberg said. “I have an amazing wife who said, ‘Why don’t you sail it home? Get it out of your system and go have some fun.’”

Fun indeed. Almberg hopes to reach Long Island by November, and his blog brings us all along for the ride.

Blog originally posted at LI

Lacrosse: West Islip State of Mind

June 22, 2010

An SUV parked at Bay Shore High School last week was as obvious as a billboard. Scrawled on the rear window in blue and yellow paint: # 1 WI Lax NY State Champs. That’s right, West Islip was in the house.

But these rock stars of boys lacrosse needed no introduction. West Islip won its second straight state Class A championship – and fourth in five seasons – with a 13-5 victory over western New York power Fairport on June 12, and claimed an even bigger prize in the process. The Lions were also crowned mythical national champs, according to

So the large contingent of West Islip players – freshmen, sophomores and juniors – cut an intimidating profile among the hundreds of fellow Suffolk lacrosse hopefuls who showed up at Bay Shore to try out for both the Long Island Showcase and the Olympic-style festival known as the Empire State Games.

“It’s been exciting after winning a state championship,’’ West Islip sophomore goaltender Jack Kelly said. “And then trying out for the Empire team? Real exciting.”

When state budget concerns killed the Empire State Games a year ago, the Nassau and Suffolk coaches association scrambled to create the Long Island Showcase, all-star teams divided by grade and county. It was an instant hit.

One year later the two events are sharing resources. The coaches associations have always played a key role in selecting the Empire squad. Now the athletes who don’t make the Empire team can still earn a spot on the Showcase roster. A record 712 teenagers showed up at tryouts last week at Syosset and Bay Shore high schools for the chance.

“I’m not too nervous,’’ West Islip junior midfielder Mike Diggle said at a tryout on June 16th. “I don’t know if I’ll make it or not. But I don’t think about the odds. You just focus on how well you can play.”

Diggle didn’t make the cut. But in Suffolk, 113 athletes were invited back for a second round of tryouts on Monday, June 21. Eight West Islip players were among them, including star goalie Kyle Turri and his backup, Kelly.

“We’re close,’’ Kelly said. “We respect each other and support each other. He’s one. I’m two. I support him.”

That’s all well and good on the West Islip lacrosse field. But at Bay Shore on Monday, the two were rivals. The backup and the star were still very much alive in the quest for an Empire jersey.

No big deal. If West Islip is synonymous with anything over the last decade, it’s competition. After dropping the season opener, the Lions won 21 in a row and dominated in the playoffs. That confidence was evident at tryouts.

“The first day was mass chaos. It’s a lot of people,” West Islip junior midfielder Mike Sagl said. “The second tryout – it’s fun to play with guys who have top skills and see what you can do against them.”

Despite a turf field which seemed to soak up the heat and wear down the players, the West Islip contingent made its presence felt. The blue and yellow helmets each donned were impossible to miss. They always seemed to be around the goal.

“I feel we have the edge,” said Sagl, a two-year starter. “We just finished playing last week. All these other guys are a little rusty. It’s a little tiring in one respect but pretty cool in another.”

The field will be pared to the top 36 players in each county on Thursday, June 24 at 8:30 p.m. at Veterans Park in East Northport. The Empire State Games team, a 20-man roster with 10 alternates, will be announced the next day.

The Long Island squad goes for its fifth straight gold medal at the Empire State Games in Buffalo from July 21-25. Don’t be surprised if one or more West Islip players are in the middle of it all. It’s what they do.

Blog originally posted at LI

Long Island’s Mosaic Of Champions

June 14, 2010

It was a gold rush weekend for Long Island high school sports, the most eventful and manic three days of the entire school year. That’s because state champions were crowned in baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, Federation boys golf, girls golf, softball and track and field.

There were fantastical individual efforts. West Islip senior Nicky Galasso, the nation’s No. 1 lacrosse player, finished his career with yet another state Class A championship as the Lions beat Fairport, 13-5. The game, played before the home crowd at Stony Brook’s LaValle Stadium, saw Galasso score once and add six assists. The point total gave Galasso 500 in his high school career, breaking a 33-year-old Long Island record.

There were memorable group efforts. Look no further than the runners from Garden City. Senior Emily Menges ran the anchor leg for two winning relay teams at the state Federation track and field championships in Vestal. The foursome of Taylor Hennig, Katie O’Neill, Emma Gallagher and Menges won the 4 x 800-meter relay in 8 minutes, 49.88 seconds, a new state record. Just 40 minutes later, the Trojans 4 x 400 relay of Jenna DeAngelo, Michelle Rotondo, Catherine Cafaro and Menges also won.

And in some cases the venue itself was the star, such as Bethpage Black hosting the state Federation golf championship on Sunday. Sorry, Long Island. Upstate Brewster’s Mike Miller won his third Federation title.

Then you had the Long Island sweep in girls lacrosse, with Farmingdale (Class A), Garden City (B) and Shoreham-Wading River (C) each crowned champs. It also marked Garden City’s fifth title in a row – remarkable by any measure.

There were once-in-a-generation teams putting it all together to win. Lindenhurst baseball, riding a 21-game winning streak and its first county title since 1963, battered Guilderland, 15-2, to win the program’s first state Class AA title in Binghamton. Senior first baseman Jon McGibbon, who signed with Clemson and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 29th round, went 3-for-4 with two RBI.

Let’s not forget the coaches. Great community feeder programs certainly help high school teams achieve. But nothing compares to having a passionate and knowledgeable coach in place. There is no greater marker for success.

Jim McGowan (profiled in Long Island Pulse magazine’s May issue: is exhibit A. The Bay Shore softball coach capped his 27th season at the helm by winning his seventh state championship on Saturday. The Marauders captured the state Class AA title by scratching out a run in the bottom of the seventh to beat Clarence in the semis, 3-2. Then Liz Weber shut out rival Cicero-North Syracuse, 4-0, in the final.

Weave it all together and what you have is a mosaic of champions from across the Island. They each found a way to come out on top in one unforgettable sports weekend.

Blog originally posted at LI

Empire State Games Return

June 7, 2010

The Empire State Games are a rite of passage for New York athletes. The annual summertime Olympic-style festival has churned out fond memories and fine athletes since 1978. Famous alums include Mike Tyson and Kenny Anderson.

But when New York State Parks commissioner Carol Ash suspended the Games in April 2009, she pointed toward a problem which is sure to dog the event for the foreseeable future – money.

“Moving forward, it is difficult to foresee that the state, alone, will be in the position to continue to fund 90 percent of the cost of the overall program, which totals more than $3 million annually,” Ash said last year of a program which includes Summer and Winter Games as well as Games For The Physically Challenged.

While the state is still grappling with a budget crunch, one year later the Empire State Games are back. The event draws 7,000 teenaged and adult athletes in 33 sports and resumes in Buffalo from July 21-25. The Long Island contingent is far from finalized.

Competition takes place in three age divisions: scholastic (ages 13-17), open (amateurs 18-or-older) and masters (18-and-up, depending on the sport). Tryouts are still being held this month. For a complete list, go to the Empire State Games web site.

“Last year was a real problem for us because it was on again off again,’’ longtime Long Island region director Bob Kenney said. “Had it been terminated at a given time, it would have been OK. But I had to keep a staff ready. And breaking the chain of all those years was a shame. It was very upsetting to me.”

Rebooting the process of building a contingent of athletes and coaches who will represent Long Island well at the Empire State Games has been challenging. But another issue has made these Games a tough sell.

An ESG in Buffalo has always been a problem for Kenney. It is as far from Long Island as you as you can get and still be in New York. Participants don’t like the travel involved, and it’s challenging for friends and family to follow. So the Long Island region has traditionally struggled to lure the best athletes to a Buffalo-based Games.

Then again, it beats another summer without the Empire State Games. And some sports are thriving. Scholastic boys lacrosse has 558 players signed up for 20 roster spots.

“Am I happy to get them back?” Kenney said. “Absolutely, I’m happy to get them back. And back in the same form they were in. But it’s been tough.”

One team sport was without a coach until May, according to Kenney. Another traditionally strong team has lacked enough registered participants, he said.

An added wrinkle was the decision to move from free registration to charging a $10 fee.

These Games will be under a microscope because everyone is scrambling for dollars during this recession. Buffalo-area businesses have pledged $1.1 million in cash and in-kind support. And more of the same will be needed to keep the Games as a summer tradition.

After all, some have argued that money spent on the Empire State Games might be better served keeping state parks open. When Gov. David Paterson last month closed 60 parks, the state legislature voted days later to keep all state parks, historic sites and campgrounds open with $11 million in emergency funding.

“I would agree,’’ Kenney said. “If one was thinking rationally — why have some kids running around for five days when you could have a whole lot of other people running around in your parks? But the comparison financially — $1.2 million isn’t going to open up a lot of parks.”

The bottom line is Empire State Games are back — for now. So sign up to compete or plan a trip to Buffalo to take in this impressive sports fest. Who knows what the future holds?

Blog originally posted at LI

Another championship for Huntington lacrosse

June 1, 2010

That was Zach Howell holding one corner of the national championship trophy on the field in Baltimore on Monday, mugging for the cameras. The Duke University junior attack was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team after a brilliant postseason capped off with his school crowned champs in men’s lacrosse.

It was a familiar scene. Howell did the same years earlier at Huntington High School. He helped lead another Blue Devils squad to a 63-1 mark and state Class B championships in 2005 and ’06 before losing as a senior in the 2007 state semifinals.

So he’d done this all before. But after scoring two goals and adding an assist as Duke beat Notre Dame in overtime, 6-5, Howell acknowledged this title was even more special.

“I’ll cherish this because I understand now how much hard work it took to get here,” Howell said by phone on Tuesday. “It’s been three years of hard work for me. It was probably the best moment of my life.”

Led by former Hofstra coach John Danowski, Duke knocked off ACC rival and top-ranked Virginia, 14-12, in a wild semifinal. Then the Blue Devils broke through to win their first national title in 14 NCAA Tournament appearances with the thriller over Notre Dame.

Howell was a key figure in each win. He laid the foundation growing up in Huntington. And he never forgot where he came from because he never could shake it. That Huntington squad also featured Rhamel and Shamel Bratton, who are each standouts at the University of Virginia. Stony Brook University senior goalie Charlie Paar helped guide the Seawolves to the NCAA quarterfinals.

In other words, the path to the 2010 NCAA title ran directly through Huntington. First the Brattons took down Stony Brook. Then Howell upset the Brattons in the semifinals.

The Bratton brothers led Huntington to a Suffolk title in basketball in 2006. And with Howell at quarterback, the threesome won a Long Island championship in football in 2005.

“It’s great to see all my buddies from Huntington doing well in college and I’m really proud of those guys,’’ said Howell, who has faced the Brattons seven times now. “We had great careers as high school players and were able to carry that forward.”

Against Notre Dame, no sooner had C.J. Costabile scored off the opening faceoff of OT than Howell dropped his stick and jumped on his Duke teammate. They were quickly bowled over by the entire bench, which rushed onto the field in a wave that crashed into the Notre Dame goal.

“It was really disbelief,” Howell said.

Now Howell, a history major, moves into a long off-season of celebration close to home. He will intern at HSBC Bank in New York City over the summer.

No doubt he’ll also get together with a few of his former high school teammates. With each passing season, that Huntington lacrosse dynasty looks more and more special. They can reminisce about the glory days of years gone by. And they can take heart in the fact that the glory lives on.

Blog originally posted at LI

Division II Lacrosse’s Postseason Problem

May 24, 2010

C.W. Post and Le Moyne will face off to decide the national championship in Division II men’s lacrosse, but how these schools got there has generated as much buzz as the games themselves. That’s because lacrosse coaches from the Division II ranks are pushing for an expanded NCAA Tournament field after a one-loss team was shut out of the postseason.

It began on selection Sunday, May 9. Teams across the East Coast gathered to see the bracket announced live by CBS Sports. For Division II, it meant a late night and disappointment for most of the schools watching. The NCAA Division II Tournament in men’s lacrosse extends bids to just four schools. Six get in to the D-II women’s bracket.

This season saw more parity than any previous. There were 13 teams at the D-II level with a .643 winning percentage or better, including five one-loss programs. So someone deserving was going to be shut out.

The bracket flashed across the screen some time after 10:30 p.m. To the elation of the players, coaches and fans at C.W. Post (14-1) and Dowling (12-1), their respective seasons were still very much alive. Limestone (12-1) and Le Moyne (14-1) also earned bids.

That left the players huddled together at Mercyhurst College – a small, Catholic liberal arts school in Erie, Pa. – stunned. After all, Mercyhurst went 13-1, a .929 winning percentage, and led D-II with 374 points. The Lakers beat Dowling and suffered their lone loss, 11-9, to defending national champion C.W. Post. Mercyhurst also is the No. 1 D-II team in the latest poll, a computer rating which includes RPI, strength of schedule and quality wins.

Yet their resume was deemed not good enough by the NCAA selection committee.

“I definitely feel like the bride that’s been left at the altar,” Mercyhurst coach Chris Ryan said. “It’s unfortunately the nature of the beast at this time in Division II lacrosse. The question isn’t why are we left out? It’s more why aren’t we all in?”

Mercyhurst wasn’t alone in asking that question. Long Island schools NYIT (9-4) and Adelphi (10-5) played competitive schedules and won the bulk of their games. They too were denied a chance to compete in the postseason, although they realized weeks earlier an NCAA bid wouldn’t be coming.

“We definitely need expansion,’’ said NYIT coach Bill Dunn, whose program won the national title in 2008 and failed to qualify last season despite a 10-2 record. “The last few years it’s come down to the criteria of a committee. I just think the parity right now in Division II is such that it’s better off playing the games on the field instead of letting a committee decide who is going to get into the NCAA playoffs. It’s absurd to me.”

“We were a couple of goals away from a Final Four bid,” said Adelphi coach Gordon Purdie, whose team lost three games by four goals. “That’s tough to swallow.”

Coaches universally would like to see the NCAA Tournament expand to six (in line with women’s lacrosse) or eight teams. Jeff Jarnecke, assistant director for championships at the NCAA, said the Division II bracket would be reexamined at meetings in July.

One of the proposals for expansion is to realign into two regions – north and south. Three schools from each region would qualify. That wouldn’t really alleviate the problem, according to Dunn. The bulk of the quality lacrosse programs populate the Northeast. So the pool would still be limited. Dunn said a fairer outcome would be two bids from each region followed by two at-large bids.

“There really isn’t a magic number of schools needed at the Division II level for them to look at expansion,” said East Coast Conference commissioner Bob Dranoff, who also is a member of the NCAA Division II Championship Committee. “There are a lot of factors at play when deciding when to expand brackets. I have a feeling it’s going to happen. I just don’t have a timeline on it.”

The snub has forced Ryan to study the case for expansion by comparing it to other sports at the D-II level. He said of 242 baseball teams, 48 get NCAA bids. That’s a 5-1 ratio. The curve in basketball is even less with 64 bids split between 289 teams (a 4.5 ratio). Men’s lacrosse, which has 37 schools and five more on the way in 2011, currently has a ratio of 9.5. And women’s lacrosse suffers from a similar problem.

“Why the inequities?” Ryan said. “It’s unfair. So this isn’t a Mercyhurst problem. This is a Division II men’s and women’s lacrosse problem.”

Jarnecke said one problem unique to men’s and women’s lacrosse is that the sport at the grass roots level is growing at a faster rate than any other. With more colleges starting lacrosse programs, there will be an opportunity to expand the bracket in time. But the time is now, according to people involved with the sport.

“It is time to look at expansion,” Dowling coach Tim Boyle said. “We’re hoping this scenario sparks some conversation with the NCAA. And Division II has come a long ways. I remember the days when there were just two teams. I know they are interested in doing what’s best.”

The controversy this season arose from the competitive nature of the East Coast Conference. Mercyhurst beat Dowling early on. Dowling bounced back to edge C.W. Post. And then C.W. Post beat Mercyhurst. Each loss to a conference rival turned out to be the lone misstep in a great run for C.W. Post, Dowling and Mercyhurst.

But because the East Coast Conference has no postseason tournament, there was no clear way to separate the three teams.

“As much as you can look at Mercyhurst and say, ‘What a shame,’ that conference had an opportunity to create a postseason tournament,’’ Adelphi’s Purdie said. “It gives purpose and meaning for the student athletes to play out the season instead of losing a game or two and wondering what are you playing for at that point.”

Adelphi plays in the Northeast-10 Conference, which has a conference tournament. Interestingly, Merrimack upset Le Moyne, 12-11, in overtime of the Northeast-10 title game but failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. There are no automatic qualifiers. Merrimack finished the season 13-3 and as conference champs. But it’s Le Moyne who is still alive and capable of winning a national championship.

In the case of the ECC, the tournament would have at least provided some level of separation among the three one-loss schools. Budget and travel issues have been the main stumbling blocks for a conference tournament in the past, according Dranoff. Yet after this latest controversy, he admits the ECC will look once again at establishing a postseason tournament.

“There are schools which see it as valuable,” said Dranoff, who is headquartered in Central Islip and is all for an ECC Tournament for men’s and women’s lacrosse. “And from a promotional aspect alone I believe it would be an amazing event here on Long Island. The positives outweigh the negatives, but that’s something the athletic directors have to look at.”

Limited postseason opportunities could have a chilling effect on Division II lacrosse in more profound ways, from scheduling and recruiting to the very viability of programs.

It begins with scheduling. Why fill your non conference schedule with teams capable of beating you if you have to be near perfect to be considered for the postseason?

Adelphi’s Purdie said it’s already happening. The decades-old rivalry between Adelphi and C.W. Post was not renewed. These are two teams who have met in the NCAA title game four times. But when Adelphi moved to the Northeast -10 after last season, the two programs were no longer conference rivals. And the two opted not to schedule one another.

“If you schedule a loss, that’s a season-ender,” Purdie said. “So what you find is that various schools won’t play other schools. For instance, Le Moyne can’t find a game down here on the Island. No team will play them because if they lose to Le Moyne, they are out of the Final Four.”

Recruiting only becomes tougher for a program that’s not already on top. What student athlete wants to go to a school with a limited postseason history and only the slimmest of chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament? And when programs can’t compete, they get cut. School budgets are tighter than ever in this shaky economic climate. Administrators are looking for line item expenses to delete. Look no further than Hofstra football, which was axed in December 2009.

“I got a call from a coach this week,” said Ryan, who has become the unlikely standard bearer for expansion after his team was shut out of the NCAA Tournament. “He said an administrator wanted to know if they had just started a sport that they couldn’t compete in. Now they support the sport fully and they are going forward with it. But that’s not the outlook you want a school to have on a program.”

That’s a troubling sentiment.

While the fight is just beginning to save – and grow – Division II lacrosse, a new national champion will be crowned on the field this week. The NCAA Division II Tournament kicked off Saturday as C.W. Post beat rival Dowling, 9-8, while Le Moyne downed Limestone, 11-7. The title game is May 30 at 3 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

“For these four teams to get into the tournament really speaks highly of these four teams,’’ Ryan said. “This is a tough road. We just proved that we had to be perfect this year to get into the tournament.”

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