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Manhasset Boys Varsity Laxers Capture Third State Crown

Part I

In June 2004, the Manhasset boys varsity lacrosse team walked off the field at Hofstra having won a New York State championship by defeating an opponent which had snatched another state crown from its grasp just three years earlier. It was a great moment for the Indians and their supporters, but many wondered whether it could happen again. Now—just five seasons later—history has repeated itself in upstate Rochester as Manhasset outlasted previously undefeated LaFayette 16-11 to capture the school’s third state title and, in the process, avenge another finals loss to these very same Lancers in 2005.

Further irony existed as LaFayette is a school located adjacent to the Onandaga Nation near Syracuse and whose roster features a number of Native Americans; they were the true Indians in this confrontation. This stirring triumph in the Class “C” tourney marked yet one more superb achievement in the long and illustrious history of lacrosse in this town. How it came to pass demonstrates the evolution of the sport during the first decade of the 21st century.

The long journey to success established its roots about 10 years ago when Manhasset’s third grade boys were divided into a pair of P.A.L. travel teams, each of which played an eight game schedule against the finest clubs from all over Long Island. A crucial decision was made at that point when all efforts were expended to divide the talent equally between the two squads. Thus, there were no “A” or “B” teams for Manhasset as one outfit (they were never given nicknames) was coached by Cornell All-American and U.S.A. national team attackman Kevin Cook, ably assisted by Rob English and the other helmed by Jeff Molinari with All-ACC goalie J.B. Meyer (Manhasset ’80 and UVA ’84) at his side. Almost immediately, it became readily apparent that there were an unusually large number of exceptionally gifted athletes on each team. In fourth grade, having built a tremendous foundation emphasizing solid, fundamental lacrosse, Kevin Cook dropped down a grade in order to head up his son’s club so a relatively inexperienced and uncredentialled Rob English assumed the reins of Cook’s squad. He immediately poured heart and soul into a major effort designed to make his kids the best they could be.

Over the first two years, the Molinari-Meyer aggregation enjoyed the better of results by a narrow margin—including an 8-4 victory in the only official league game during elementary school between the Molinaris and Englishes. However, by fifth-grade, English’s efforts began to bear fruit and his kids had edged ahead and, then in sixth-grade, the always-ambitious coach came up with something special. His team would embark on a non-league schedule designed to demonstrate to his players and to lacrosse observers up and down the east coast that his 11- and 12-year-olds were the finest team in the country for their age bracket. By the time the season was completed in June 2003, the Manhasset boys had finished an undefeated league campaign (8-0) featuring triumphs over both of their rivals from Cold Spring Harbor (each loaded with players they would frequently encounter over the following six years) and Suffolk kingpin West Islip (whose players would populate the roster of the 2009 Class “A” state champions and ranked #2 in the national polls). In addition, English arranged for a variety of face-offs with many of the best clubs in neighboring states. His charges also ran roughshod over these opponents—winning all seven of those contests (therefore producing a 15-0 final record) including victories against powerful teams from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Particularly prophetic were the successes recorded in the Greenwich (featuring two terrific players who went on to achieve All-American status in high school: George Sherman at Hotchkiss, now headed to Brown and Jared Horowitz from Greenwich High who will matriculate at Penn) and Conestoga encounters. The latter was an especially memorable, down 3-0 at the half, come-from-behind 4-3 effort over a team, many of whose members would go on to comprise the backbone of the runner-up for this year’s Pennsylvania state championship (and rated in the top 5 nationally virtually the entire year). To make such accomplishments possible, Rob had bolstered his coaching staff by adding three first rate assistants, former Johns Hopkins stars, Greg Mattews (a face-off expert) and John Gagliardi (the Lizards’ star defender) and ex-Boston College top scorer Mike Hannan.

Especially interesting were some of the numbers. From third- through sixth-grade, the English-men racked up 39 victories against 5 defeats and 2 ties. In league play only, they went 28-3-1 and combined with Molinari’s 27-4-1, the two Manhasset juggernauts achieved a dominating 55-7-2 record. One of the major reasons for such overwhelming success was that both teams practiced with—and scrimmaged against—each other twice a week during all four seasons. Essentially, that meant constantly facing opposition with equally superior skills and thus receiving unique fine tuning on a regular basis.

Future stars were to be found all over both rosters. Top gun ever since the very first game was Rob English’s son Connor who sparkled at middie and attack. He was aided by aggressive two-way midfielder Eric Kaminsky who excelled at gobbling up ground balls, big-time defensemen Brad Cappellini and John Duvnjak while middie Jeff Izzo achieved stardom seemingly out of nowhere in the sixth-grade. Attackman Glen Tompkins enjoyed some big games while Steven Levy was converted to goaltender in 2003 and demonstrated great promise. Interestingly, two additional fellows were significant contributors to the English-men’s success but each went on to make his mark at other local institutions. Dan Morrissey was Saint Mary’s leading scorer the past two seasons and John Hannan ran first midfield for Chaminade.

The Molinari squad displayed equal candlepower and also was led by the coach’s son, Jeff, whose play at midfield was sensational. He received significant support from Zac Koufakis and Kevin Heenan at attack while middies A.J. Diaz and Mike Sinclair demonstrated potential. Backliner Matt Rubertone was a big physical force while J.B. Meyer’s boy Jack was considered by many as the most talented young goalie ever seen in these parts.

Middle school went about as expected—lots of on-field success, which was slightly hindered by accelerated placement for the most precocious athletes. In eighth grade, Molinari, English and Heenan made jayvee while the first two became the only two frosh on the 2006 varsity. That year, Connor was mostly a regular, tallying 16 goals, which included a hint of things to come with 4 against Connecticut state champion Darien. Meanwhile, the bulk of the English/Molinari alumni were on jayvee in ninth and 10th grade, compiling a glittering 29-1 record. Consequently, when all the kids were re-united on varsity, expectations were extremely high.

However—to be blunt—11th grade was a major disappointment. Surely, there was some team success—a regular season Conference B-II title, big victories over Westchester power John Jay and old rival Cold Spring Harbor—and a pair of All-Americans in senior defender Paul Pate and Connor Englsh. But, the 14-4 won-lost mark contained a number of large disappointments: a listless 9-5 defeat at the hands of ancient Woodstick opponent Garden City, an embarrassing 11-5 loss to Chaminade in front of 7000 fans (and a national television audience over ESPN) and then, worst of all, dropping the county championship for the third consecutive year 12-8 to Cold Spring Harbor—only weeks after beating the Seahawks 10-5. Of course, there were legitimate reasons for the defeats. The two top middies, the two Jeffs (Molinari and Izzo) missed most of the season with injuries. First-string goaler Jack Meyer exited due to mono, #2 scorer Zac Koufakis was lost halfway through the schedule with a torn ACL and 3rd line middie Eric Kaminsky was out for much of the year with shin splints and a twisted ankle. Nonetheless, the frustration of these bitter events produced a unanimous resolve among this years’s players and coaches that 2009 must be their year. As for the seniors—after a decade of waiting to fulfill their enormous collective promise—they knew, knew absolutely, that this would be their very last chance.

So, when the season opened on March 25 against Suffolk power Sayville (who went on to win the Long Island “B” championship over Garden City), there was cause for much optimism. Impressive scrimmage performances versus Suffolk heavyweight Ward Melville and defending State champion, Rocky Point, had shown Manhasset to be a team of considerable talent. Pretty much everyone was now healthy with only Kaminsky (who had dislocated his shoulder in the final soccer game after leading that varsity to its first playoff berth since 2001) and huge middie Kyle Smith (also recuperating from surgery after all-star grid and hoops seasons) not ready for the opening bell. Jeff Molinari was available for full-time duty but a string of concussions would keep him out of the face-off circle all season—despite his status as the squad’s best practitioner of that critical skill.

Analysis of the club—position-by-position—did yield a number of questions that really needed answering: 1) Could goaltender Jack Meyer regain the effectiveness he had previously displayed—or would the after-effects of his mononucleosis force the coaches to turn again to Steven Levy, who had filled in so well last season. 2) While Brad Cappellini and Matt Rubertone would bring two years of reliable varsity experience, which untried underclassman would grab the third spot on the close defense? 3) John Duvnjak also had two seasons on the varsity—sophomore season at defense while he appeared to find a home at long stick middie as a junior. Could he remain at the pole or would coaches Bill Cherry and Bob Rule be forced to return him to the backline? 4) Since Molinari would not be taking draws—no matter how dire the circumstances—who would? After pre-season, no clear answer had yet emerged from the pack which included junior Ricky Buhr, freshman Ryan Matthews (Greg’s son), Duvnjak, Kaminsky, Diaz and Izzo 5) While Molinari and Izzo appeared healthy and prepared to go, who would join them on the 1st midfield? The leading contender was Drew Belinsky, star of the jayvee as a freshman in 2007, then a victim of “up-and-down-itis” last year. 6) No effective or settled 2nd midfield ever emerged in the prior season and the overall midfield defense never achieved any consistency. Would this thorny problem be solved in 2009? 7) Finally—and most critically—would the overwhelming and blanket-like ride, which had been so instrumental to the tremendous level of success achieved in 2004 and 2005 (37-3, appearances in two state finals, one state and national championship), be revived and again play a similar role in 2009?

Well, after three challenging opponents at the top of the schedule, the answers to the above queries appeared to be uniformly positive. Sayville, led by powerful Dylan Boos and giant-size goalie Mike Kaminski, fell 12-4. Then, South Side (who took the Indians into OT last year and wound up as the second seed in the Nassau B’s this year) was obliterated 13-3. Improving Friends, again to be a playoff semi-finalist in the C’s, hung in for a while before fading 15-7. At 3 and 0, confidence was building and the answers were coming quickly. Meyer looked like the old Meyer and junior Kevin Coleman was increasingly confident and comfortable as the third defender. Freshman Bob Duvnjak (yes, Johnny’s younger bro) regularly entered the game for man-down situations. Therefore, Johnny D could stay at the pole with junior Nick Zanetis, who had missed much of the pre-season, increasingly received time as the other long stick. Regarding face-offs, the coaches began with a rotation of Buhr, Matthews and Duvnjak but by game four, Ricky had minimally established himself as premier inter pares. As for Belinsky, newly committed to Penn in 2010, he regularly demonstrated all-around steadiness and was fitting in well on the top midfield—especially on defense. Although a bunch of guys were still competing for 2nd and 3rd midfield spots, Diaz and junior Pat Moroney were carving out significant roles for themselves. Best of all, the much-maligned midfield defense had ceased to be maligned and was quickly achieving much-admired stature. Lastly, the ride had revived and propelled by energetic efforts from English and Koufakis, it was again having an enormous effect in every game.

Consequently, it was a confident club that boarded the bus for an hour and a half trek to Exit 64 on the L.I.E. and a mid-week 7 p.m. encounter at Comsewogue High School. If ever there was a potential “trap” game, this was it. Above all, the home team Warriors probably had their most talented team since the second of their pair of state titlists in 2002—and they could play with anyone. Eventually, they would receive the first seed among Suffolk “B” clubs and wound up with a 15-4 record. Manhasset had never faced them previously and the unfamiliarity seemed to make the Indians extremely tentative all night. Add in a lighting system which duplicated dusk-like (as opposed to day light) conditions, un-even officiating and perhaps most critically, the absence of both Duvnjaks (who were attending their grandmother’s funeral), you then had all the elements needed to produce a major upset.

Nevertheless, with the score deadlocked at 10 and about a minute remaining, the Indians still had a number of opportunities to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Three times, the kids from Nassau stole the ball from a Comsewogue unit preparing to set up a final shot only to hand the critical spheroid right back to the Warriors. Then, in the closing seconds, Connor English drove toward Warrior goalie Cory Benwaree (spectacular all game), prepared to unleash the winner for Manhasset. In rapid succession, Connor was pushed, slashed and eventually tackled. Astonishingly, there was no call as the referees’ flags remained un-tossed.

Finally, at 1:30 into overtime, Comsewogue’s Tom Cleary completed a hat trick by dodging from behind the net past a totally exhausted Indian defense (which sorely missed the efforts of the Duvnjak brothers—40 percent of the team’s defensive personnel) and fired home the game winner. The dream of matching 2004’s perfect season was now gone. And if anyone ever wondered how critical was the on-field inspiration provided by John Duvnjak, it was apparent that night in absentia who was the real leader of the Indians.

More to Come