As a longtime assistant coach at Dowling College, Mike Taylor experienced firsthand how tough competition can prepare a team for the postseason. Year in and year out, Dowling faced some of the top Division II programs over the course of the regular season — from Adelphi to C.W. Post to Molloy.
Now, as the first-year coach of Shoreham-Wading River’s boys lacrosse team, Taylor drew comparisons to the kind of competition the Wildcats will face from game to game in a restructured league system.
“Our league especially is so tight,” Taylor said. “There’s such talent in our League III. Everyone’s so close and on any day it could be anyone’s game. You’re going to have to really play some clean lacrosse.”
At Shoreham, Taylor takes over one of the most successful lacrosse programs in Suffolk County. With that come high expectations.
When the players gathered for the first official practice last week, several things stood out to Taylor. He saw a group that was hungry, had an edge to it and came in ready to play.
“I think they have very high expectations for themselves,” Taylor said. “They challenge each other each day and I’m very happy to see that. It doesn’t take very much to get them up and going. It’s been a lot of fun so far.”
The poor weather kept the Wildcats indoors for the first week of practice. They finally got to stretch their legs Monday.
“You see the different athletes and different things that kids can and can’t do,” Taylor said. “It was a little eye-opening for me.”
The Wildcats are coming off a down year, by their standards. After a slow start to the year, the Wildcats won five straight games late in the year, including an impressive 7-1 win over Miller Place. In the first round of the playoffs, the Wildcats lost 9-6 to Sayville, bringing a quick end to their Long Island title defense.
The Wildcats return several key players from a year ago, highlighted by senior Ryan Bray. A Cornell-bound midfielder, Bray brings a wealth of experience and skill to the field.
“He’s been a pleasure to watch,” Taylor said.
Danny Hughes, who’s coming off outstanding seasons in football and basketball, will help anchor the midfield. Hughes’ size and athleticism will make for a tough matchup for any team.
“He’s just a man-child out there,” Taylor said.
The Wildcats have not one, but two Puckey boys who can play goalie. Bobby, a senior, and Jimmy, a junior, will bring a sibling rivalry between the pipes this season.
While their play is similar, Jimmy is left-handed and Bobby is right-handed.
“It’s fun to watch two brothers compete against each other,” Taylor said.
The most depth on the team might on the defensive side. Seniors Nick Gray and Vinny Bruno are the among the returnees. Taylor said some of the younger players are “chomping at the bit” as well.
Jon Constant returns on attack and sophomore Chris Gray is another player who could have a big year on offense. Gray has already committed to Boston University, Taylor said. Sophomore Danny Cassidy is another younger player for whom Taylor has big expectations.
The Wildcats will play in a league system for the first time this year after Section XI did away with the power rankings. That means a .500 record will get the team into the playoffs.
Taylor said it will take time for the team to fully develop its own identity. One key focus to start the season has been limiting turnovers.
“That’s going to really be the big difference when you get into those big games,” he said.
The top offensive players on each team Riverhead faces this year can expect a heavy dose of Blake Carrara. A lockdown defender, Carrara will anchor a young Blue Waves defense as one of the team’s top returning players.
“It’s almost like having a man on defense playing against children,” said Riverhead coach Vic Guadagnino.
Carrara verbally committed to the University of Maryland as a sophomore. Now a junior, Carrara’s speed and strength should make him one of the top defensive players in the division.
“It’s very difficult to get around him in any way, shape or form and beat him one on one,” Guadagnino said. “It’s next to impossible.”
The Blue Waves will field a mostly inexperienced group on defense around Carrara. Because of that, the Blue Waves could rely on more zone defense early in the season.
As the players get more acclimated to playing together, they’ll likely slide back into coverage where Carrara takes away the opposing team’s top player in man-to-man.
On offense, the Blue Waves will need to replace nearly two-thirds of their scoring from a year ago. They’ll rely on some young players to fill the void left after the graduation of Ryan Hubbard and Dan Czelatka.
“We’re really looking to possess a bit more and just spread it out and try to create a double team and move the ball and have anyone fill the net for us,” Guadagnino said. “When you watch us offensively, we’re very, very different from the Hubbard, Czelatka years.”
The Blue Waves will start a freshman on attack, Dalton Lucas. Junior Chris Flood and sophomore Kerry Thomas will both see time on attack. Senior Andres Juarez is a returnee with varsity experience.
The Blue Waves have experience in the midfield with key players like senior Mark Andrejack and junior Austin Fitzpatrick. Andrejack is headed to Adelphi next year and Fitzpatrick is entering his third year on varsity.
The Blue Waves have two returning goalies in John Roca and Jacob Coleman. Roca is headed to Dowling College and Coleman is committed to Hofstra, Guadagnino said.
After missing out on the playoffs a year ago, the Blue Waves are looking forward to the switch to a more conventional league system as opposed to the power rankings.
The team will still play a challenging schedule, but now every game counts the same.
“It might have mentally made life a little easier,” Guadagnino said. “In the power point system, we had five one-goal losses last year so it was kind of devastating. Every game is so huge.”
Riverhead opens the non-league schedule Monday at Sachem East. The league schedule begins March 25 against perennial powerhouse West Islip.
After an 0-14 season a year ago, the McGann-Mercy Monarchs will feature a new coach this season in Walter Flaherty. The Monarchs open the season March 26 at home against Hampton Bays. Flaherty could not be reached before deadline.