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Manhasset Boys Varsity Laxers Capture Third State Crown

Part II

Although it would have been difficult to admit it, the Comsewogue defeat probably did provide a much-needed wake-up call. Talent was important but old-fashioned grit, determination and hard work would be much needed if Manhasset was to enjoy the kind of season the team envisioned. And those requirements were demonstrated immediately as the squad again went on the road (in the middle of a virtual monsoon) for the annual inter-state confrontation with perennially nationally ranked Darien. For some reason (probably because both schools develop many great lacrosse players), these teams annually produce sensational barn-burners (e.g. 14-13 for MHS in 2007, Darien on top 16-15 in a 2006 overtime thriller, an 11-9 Manhasset victory in 2001 and, in their 1997 initial meeting, the kids from across the sound by 12-11 in OT).

So, before about 2,500 soaked fans, the two eventual state champions unleashed a torrent of goals as the score see-sawed back and forth all afternoon. Finally, with a minute and a half remaining, Connor English fired home his fifth tally of the game on a breakaway to clinch the decision. This was an all-out, total team effort best demonstrated by Coach Cherry when, deep into fourth quarter action, he inserted just-returned to the line-up Eric Kaminsky for critical defensive efforts. After the game had ended–and with the rain still falling heavily—the boys were rewarded with a visit and short pep talk from Coach Rule’s old Cornell friend and fraternity brother, Hall-of-Fame hockey goaltender (and now Canadian M.P) Ken Dryden who had watched the entire water-logged contest.

Motivated both by the Comsewogue loss and the Darien escape, the Indians went on a powerful run. Improved North Shore was pounded 14-4 with Heenan and hard shooting Moroney each registering a troika of goals. A young Northport club didn’t provide much opposition as Jeff Molinari’s four tallies and an assist led the way to a 13-4 victory. The only sour note was Kaminsky’s being kicked in the head which resulted in a concussion that sidelined him until the playoffs. Next, Connor scored four times and triggered the Indians’ most impressive offensive explosion as they jumped out to an 11-0 first quarter lead on their way to crushing Locust Valley 15-4.

This led to the much-anticipated 118th confrontation with ancient foe Garden City who had not lost to Manhasset since 2004. But even the nationally ranked Trojans could do little to slow down their neighbors when the Indians grabbed an 8-0 advantage and threatened to record the first shutout in this venerable series since Manhasset’s triumph at the inaugural meeting in 1935 (9-0). A pair of garbage-time goals prevented the whitewash but the 8-2 final score marked another impressive outing for Manhasset. Posting a four goal outburst, English shared the spotlight with Glen Tompkins – nominally the fourth attackman – and his five points (3g/2a) when Mineola tumbled 14-5 later in the week.

The boys in orange now welcomed the #2 rated club in Nassau County, Cold Spring Harbor. On another rain-soaked evening, the expected classic confrontation never materialized as the hometown crowd cheered their favorites on to a rousing 12-3 pounding of their buddies from the Suffolk border. Even so, everyone realized this was only round one – with the inevitable rematch to come in the Nassau County championship a month later.

The next hurdle looming was another much-desired rematch–versus CHSAA power Chaminade. But again, a pair of league games had to be played first. In a penalty free-contest, Clarke went down easily 14-3 while Seaford, the conference’s #3 outfit, wasn’t much more resistant, falling 15-4. It was here that Drew Belinsky began to assert himself with a dynamic 4 goal, 2 assist performance. The only discordant note occurred with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game. Viking junior defenseman Andrew Alba appeared to take out the frustrations of a double-digit defeat by charging full force into senior Jake Olivieri who was completely blind-sided. As a result, the smaller Indian lay prone and motionless on the turf–where he remained until an ambulance arrived. All agreed that it was best to call the game right there; fortunately, Jake’s injury was “only” a severe concussion – but his season ended there. The year’s most frightening moment–for sure.

On May 12, the “revenge” cycle was completed as the last of the three schools to defeat Manhasset the previous season was beaten soundly by this 2009 squad. First came Darien, then Garden City in the Woodstick and now–finally–Chaminade. Connor was again unstoppable and his five goals helped the team establish an 8-2 halftime lead. Then, with much of the squad suffering from the flu–especially fogo Rick Buhr who also had sprained a finger versus Cold Spring Harbor–it was up to goalie Meyer to preserve his club’s advantage. Jack’s 19 saves were critical in limiting the Flyers’ 2nd half comeback which fell short 9-7. Old friend John Hannan did register two of Chaminade’s goals. Three days later, the regular season ended at 15-1 with the first Manhasset shutout since 1995 (13-0 over Smithtown) as Island Trees was cut down 15-0. At last, the playoffs had arrived.

For the Indians, the semi-finals went as expected. At first. Friends kept it close and only trailed 4-3 after one quarter. However, at that point, the Indians took the game away when English made a most emphatic statement with six goals and an assist. This told everyone he was primed for a huge post-season. Buhr also demonstrated he was ready by taking 16 of 20 draws. However, for Cold Spring Harbor, the semis proved to be anything but ho-hum as Seaford came oh-so-close to a major upset before falling in double overtime by 9-8.

Consequently, what occurred in the county finals was somewhat surprising, but only confirmed how resourceful and effective Seahawk mentor Dennis Bonn truly is. Given that his club had been thoroughly trounced a month ago by the Indians, all analysts anticipated CSH would slow the game down and employ ball-control to try and spring an upset in a low scoring contest. Indeed, this was how it first went as the top seed staked out a 4-0 advantage at the half.

But then Bonn switched gears in the third stanza as his boys turned to a Battle-of-the-Bulge type maneuver by executing a surprise, all-out counter-attack which put Manhasset back on its collective heels. Initiated by inspirational leader and long-time rival Jack Switala when he darted from behind the cage to score as the 3rd quarter opened, CSH continued to control the second half with additional goals by Matt Moynihan, Chris Moriarty, Moynihan again and then Christian Kennedy. The underdog #2 seeds trailed by 6-5 late in the 4th period but momentum seemed to be with Cold Spring. Then, Drew Belinsky delivered not one – but two consecutive season saving plays. With about three minutes remaining in the game, the junior midfielder swirled toward the Seahawk net from his left wing. He appeared to be heading for x but suddenly cut to the cage and, just as goaltender Greg Hanley along with Moynihan converged on him, he jumped in the air and dunked the ball over Hanley so it would drop in for the critical seventh goal. Two minutes later, as the defending champions desperately moved the ball upfield hoping to score the two goals needed to deadlock the contest, Drew suddenly checked the Seahawks’ Kennedy and flicked away the precious sphere to seal the victory.

Despite superb coaching and a sensational effort by the entire team, for the first time since 2005, CSH yielded the Class “C” title to their arch-rivals and now the scene would shift to Stony Brook for the Long Island Championships in which Manhasset had not lost to the Suffolk title-holder since 1976 (prior to division into classifications) and had never been beaten for a Class “C” crown by a team from out east.

The opponent was defending Long Island and New York State champ Mount Sinai, coached by the uber-legend Joe Cuozzo, whose 740 victories rank first among all high school lacrosse coaches in the U.S. – ever. The old wizard also had captured eight state titles, seven at his former stomping ground, Ward Melville, and last year, the most recent with fresh troops at Mount Sinai.

As Cuozzo is essentially a senior version of Dennis Bonn, this game turned out to be quite similar to the previous week’s struggle with Cold Spring Harbor. Once more, the Indians grabbed a big first quarter lead (by 4-1) and expanded it to 6-2 midway thru the second period. Then, the Mustangs discovered the advantages of the man-up and led by junior Joe Bongiorno–who wound up with 4 goals – they began firing ball after ball past surprisingly shaky Jack Meyer. As the first half ended, two numbers were pretty shocking: Mount Sinai only trailed 6-5 and the Manhasset netminder had recorded zero saves–while his counterpart for the Suffolk title-holders, Matt Poillon, was spectacular with 10 tough stops.

But this was a team that was on a 10-year journey as coach Cherry reminded them during the break. Bob Rule also took his young pupil aside and minced no words when he told Meyer “You were terrible; get your head in the game and make some saves. Otherwise, you’re coming out of there”.

And as great teams do, the Indians responded. Meyer bounced back with three great saves early in the 3rd quarter. English upped the lead to 7-5 and 8-5 with classic fake right and go left from behind the goalie moves before firing home his patented sidearm rockets. Essentially, these tallies were the product of an “investment” Connor had made in the first half when he did go completely right from the x for unsuccessful shot attempts. By doing so, he had defender Connor Stroh believing in his ability to dodge either way—which had become increasingly critical to success via his preferred path of going left in order to employ his natural southpaw shot. Then, as the end of the period approached, English demonstrated a few more of his unique and marvelous all-around skills. On an Indian fast break, Connor’s shot was blocked and it dribbled off to the right of the Mount Sinai cage, apparently headed out-of-bounds. But English–always hustling–grabbed the ball just before it crossed the sideline. He scooted toward the goal as the clock approached 0:00 and everyone was certain the senior sharpshooter would fire one of his missiles in a bid for a last-second score. Instead, Connor spotted A.J. Diaz, alone on the other side of the crease. He placed a perfect pass on his teammate’s stick and the lanky midfielder banged home the biggest goal of his varsity career to break the Mustangs’ back. The clock read 0:00.9 when the ball crossed the goal line. 9-5 Manhasset.

At the end, the final score was 10-6 and English had recorded a 3 goal, 2 assist afternoon. Manhasset would now head to Middletown High School in upstate Orange County and its spectacular pro-level venue for the Indians’ 8th trip to the downstate championship. The Indians have done well at this level and their success continued as they upped their record in these games to 6-2 with a thoroughly dominant 16-3 thrashing of Westchester champion Putnam Valley. Appropriately, the scoring was led by English (4g, 1a) and Molinari (3g, 1a). Finally, it was on to Rochester.

All season, it had been anticipated that the final hurdle would be provided by twice state titlist LaFayette, 23-0 and ranked number 5 in the nation. Everyone was aware how tough the 10-9 defeat at the hands of these very same Lancers in the state finals up at Cornell had been four years earlier. That season, two of LaFayette’s stars were the Thompson twins, Jeremy and Jerome. Now, in 2009, this Syracuse-area powerhouse was once again led by another pair of Thompson brothers, junior behemoth Miles at attack and flashy Lyle in the midfield.

Of course, LaFayette did not disappoint, stomping on 2001 Class “C” winner Penn Yan 10-6 in the upstate championship which set the stage for a rare state final involving two clubs both ranked in the country’s top five. This did indeed turn out to be the kind of confrontation which lived up to expectations–but in a very unusual manner.

The Indians’ strategy—as formulated by coaches Cherry, Rule and Keith Cromwell—was pretty simple. Win lots of face-offs, take lots of shots, score lots of goals to establish an early lead and then rely on Meyer’s goaltending and superior depth to outlast the Lancers. That’s how it went – well, sort of.

Connor English served notice right off the bat that he was primed for a special performance when he scored twice to give the boys from Section 8 a 3-0 first quarter lead over the Section 3 winners.

The Indians expanded the margin to 5-0 and then came critical point #1 in the contest. Converting a brilliant feed from Jeff Molinari, Zac Koufakis tossed what appeared to be Manhasset’s sixth goal past LaFayette netminder Chris Klaiber. Inexplicably, the score was waved off as Koufakis was ruled to be in the crease–which he wasn’t (and this was confirmed by video reply). Immediately, the upstaters counter-attacked and Miles Thompson muscled his way around Cappellini to slam home an underhand scorcher from 10 feet for his 100th goal of the season. That was quickly followed by a Miles to Lyle bing-bang play and, instead of a back-breaking, spirit-smashing 6-0 advantage, suddenly the score was 5-2 and it was very much a ballgame.

By halftime, Manhasset remained on top 8-4 but it was apparent the “true Indians” could also play lacrosse. Not only were the Thompsons legitimate, so was Johns Hopkins-bound (although hampered by a bad back) John Greeley. Still, the Lancers had a pair of eighth-graders running regularly in the midfield and their roster was considerably shorter than the Long Islanders. This explained coach Mike Reese’s decision to cease relying solely on Lyle Thompson who had been doing well against Buhr in first quarter face-offs. It was a hot, humid day and apparently he concluded that he could not afford to exhaust the best sophomore in the land taking dozens of draws as Lyle hardly ever left the field all game.

Critical point #2 came halfway through the 3rd stanza when Manhasset had expanded the lead to 12-4. No goal had been more dazzling than Molinari’s spinning, 270 degree, no look, 15 footer for his team’s 10th tally. To the Indians – who had so far put on an exhibition of virtually perfect lacrosse – and to most in attendance, the game was essentially finished. But, instead of smartly slowing down the action and holding on to the ball for the final 5 minutes of the quarter, the Indians got sloppy, began taking needless shots and suddenly it dawned on the Thompsons that they could still wrest the title from their now-freewheeling adversaries.

In a flash, momentum completely switched – and the scoreboard reflected it: 12-5, 12-6, 12-7, 12-8, 12-9 and then 12-10. 6 unanswered goals in a row. The magic that exists between the Thompson brothers was spectacularly evident as they recorded four goals and an equal number of assists (out of their game totals of 8g/6a) in a mere six minutes. Miles, easily 6’3” and 225 lbs, was a block of granite, possessing incredibly quick hands down low and Lyle lightening fast with shooting skills to match. Perhaps the most telling tribute to Miles’ presence was the Manhasset coaches’ decision to make a switch and use the more defensive minded Matt Rubertone to guard him. Eleven heart-pounding minutes remained on the clock.

However, the best player on the field still was Connor English. With his club reeling, he once more asserted himself and made certain the title would be returning to the Island. Following enormous face-off victories by Buhr, English again displayed unerring accuracy with his lethal left-handed shot. The two-time All-American recorded his seventh and eighth goals to expand the lead. Finally–and despite a thumb throbbing with increasing pain since he had broken it in the first period–Connor tied the championship game scoring record set by Lynbrook’s Jason Donegar in 2000 (ironically also against LaFayette). He burst from behind the net, absorbed two monster hits and then a flag-drawing slash to the neck before firing a laser beam into the narrowest of openings in the Lancer cage. Game, set and match by 16-11 to Manhasset. Thus, it was done–20-1, Conference IV, Nassau County, Long Island, Downstate and New York State champions. Ranked #3 in the country, the Indians could sit back as individual honors cascaded into the hands of these most deserving players.

To no one’s surprise, Connor English, John Duvnjak and Brad Cappellini earned All-American selections. Brad was chosen as Nassau County Defenseman of the Year and Connor the Player of the Year. Both made Newsday’s All-Long Island first team while Johnny D was picked for the second squad. English finished the campaign with 101 points on 81 goals and 20 assists. The 81 tallies tied the school record for goals which had been set by the great Jack Heim way back in 1963. Over his four-year varsity career, the brilliant attackman wound up with 189 goals which proved good enough to tie for 10th on Nassau County’s all-time list. The 81 in 2009 also put him in 9th place among single season goal scoring leaders. It is surely fair to place him in that small circle of Manhasset immortals populated by Heim, John Driscoll, Bob Henrickson and, of course, Jim Brown.

After Connor, the stats evidenced terrific team balance with four players scoring 20-29 goals: Molinari (29g, 17a), Koufakis (26g, 29a), Tompkins (24g, 15a), and Heenan (22g, 9a) while three more finished with 13-19: Belinsky(17g, 11a), Moroney (15g, 3a) and Izzo (13g, 22a).

In addition to the three All-Americans, All-County honors went to Molinari, Matt Rubertone (so reliably steady all year), Koufakis, Meyer and Belinsky while Izzo (who enjoyed an exceptional two-way season) and Heenan received Honorable Mention All-County. A pair of those pre-season question marks, Kevin Coleman and Ricky Buhr, were given All-Conference placements. Buhr and Glen Tompkins were recognized as Unsung Heroes by the Nassau County officials. As for the mentors, the entire coaching staff was picked as the County’s best in that category and Bill Cherry took home Nassau Coach-of-the-Year–and with it, a trophy named after longtime Indian chief Alan Lowe.

However, probably the most meaningful accomplishments achieved will be the next destinations for the Manhasset players who intend to continue playing lacrosse. It’s a pretty impressive list:

Player Next Institution

Drew Belinsky Penn (2010)

Brad Cappellini Harvard

John Duvnjak Middlebury

A.J. Diaz Muhlenberg

Connor English Virginia

Mike Ficano Muhlenberg

Kevin Heenan Penn

Jeff Izzo Amherst

Eric Kaminsky Endicott

Zac Koufakis P.G.@ Deerfield;

Dartmouth(2010)

Steve Levy Amherst

Buddy McGrath P.G. @ Salisbury

(Connecticut)

Jack Meyer P.G. @ Loomis-

Chaffee; Yale (2010)

Jeff Molinari Harvard

Jake Olivieri Scranton

Matt Rubertone Fairfield

Mike Sinclair Nassau Community

College

Glen Tompkins Washington College

Additionally, three other seniors will be moving on to other challenges. Following an excellent grid season, Kyle Smith will be playing football at C.W. Post and rugged Brendan Denihan will be doing the same at Hartwick. And always-popular Donald Denihan will matriculate at Marist and could play lacrosse. With all these great kids in mind, the most relevant thoughts came from two sources of considerable authority.

As veteran coaches with decades of experience, both Bill Cherry and Bob Rule agreed that this team and, in particular the senior class, was the most exceptional group of young men with whom they had ever been associated. And in an e-mail to all team members and their families, Maria and Glen Tompkins went out of their way to acknowledge “the young men who may not have received the playing time, fame and spotlight they deserve…in many other towns, these young men would be first line starters. They are truly the unsung heroes”. Very well put and therefore without further ado, this article will make certain to salute the following juniors – big contributors this season and sure to return in 2010 for even more priceless experiences: Tyler Adams, Chris Boukas, Zac Gunzberg, Chris Katzman, Brian Kenny, C.J. Olivieri, Evan Pupelis and Danny Thomas.

In the end, it probably does come down to a whole lot of numbers–very satisfying numbers. The third state championship, a sixth downstate playoff victory, a 13th Long Island crown and the 16th Nassau County title. By the time the Class of 2009 has completed secondary school, at least eight players will have matriculated at Division I lacrosse schools. Above all, there are 3037 high schools in the United States playing boys varsity lacrosse and Manhasset High School in 2009 was judged the third best. At last, all those enormous expectations initially hatched way back in third-grade had gloriously and grandly been completely fulfilled.