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

D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s Signing Day Decision

February 2, 2010

As D’Brickashaw Ferguson blew open holes at the Pro Bowl on Sunday night in Miami, my thoughts drifted back to National Signing Day in 2002. I sat with him that day at the Freeport High School library as he signed a national letter of intent.

It was a modest affair. Freeport teammate Jerry Mackey Jr., their parents, school administrators and coach Russ Cellan looked on as the dynamic duo made a fateful college decision. Mackey, a gifted linebacker, headed to Syracuse University.

Months earlier Ferguson became the first lineman in 22 years to win the Thorp Award as Nassau County’s best high school football player. He was also considered one of the nation’s elite offensive line prospects. So he could have gone anywhere. Ferguson chose the University of Virginia, an ACC school, as much because of its academic reputation as its football status.

And he never looked back. Ferguson started four seasons at Virginia and the New York Jets made him the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.

For one reason or another, many of Long Island’s most talented high school stars never quite pan out in college. Jason Gwaltney (North Babylon) and Nicole Kaczmarski (Sachem) are the poster children of failed expectations.

Mostly, these prep stars are emotionally or academically unprepared for the next level. I knew Ferguson would be different. I had a chance to see and talk to Ferguson up close for three years in high school. And as dominant as he proved to be on the football field, I was even more impressed with his mind.

He was bright and had a wide range of interests beyond sports. So as I watched the oversized tackle start for the AFC squad in the Pro Bowl, I couldn’t help but smile. D’Brickashaw Ferguson finally realized his potential and reached the pinnacle of the game.

Ferguson generated a lot of attention in the months leading up to signing day. If he wanted to go to Miami or Michigan or Florida State – powerhouses of the time – he could have. But instead of reaching for the stars, he made a decision based on more than prestige.

His signing day decision is worth mentioning because Wednesday, Feb. 3, marks yet another National Signing Day. Long Island is not a football hotbed. More than 120 high schools collectively produce no more than four to 10 Division I prospects in a given year.

I write this in hopes that the hot prospect of the moment thinks about the path Ferguson blazed. The Cavaliers just completed a 5-6 season when he signed, so playing in the national title game wasn’t on the horizon. No, he chose Virginia for academic reasons. He carried a 3.8 GPA and a scored 1000-plus on the SAT in high school.

His college choice was calculated. It was sensible. And look at where it got him? D’Brickashaw Ferguson has developed into an elite NFL player, and he did it on his terms.

Blog originally posted at LI