Few high school football teams have endured the incredible highs and lows that Shoreham-Wading River went through last season.
One of its players died after collapsing during a game. The Wildcats dedicated the season in his memory. They kept playing and they kept winning, going undefeated and capturing their first Long Island championship and their first Rutgers Trophy, which is awarded to the team recognized as the best in Suffolk County.
It really was a remarkable achievement in a season that mixed tragedy with triumph.
“It was really crazy,” Ethan Wiederkehr, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior tight end and defensive end, remarked. “I can’t put it into words. It was just a season I’ll never forget, and nobody will.”
The season was all about TC54, as in Tom Cutinella, who wore uniform No. 54 for the Wildcats. Cutinella died on Oct. 1, a brutal blow to his family, friends, teammates and community. How did the Wildcats respond?
“We handled the biggest punch that anybody could throw,” Danny Hughes, who was the team’s senior quarterback, told reporters after his final game with the Wildcats.
The Wildcats won all 12 games they played, including a win over Roosevelt in the Long Island Class IV final, outscoring opponents by 459-59.
After Tuesday’s morning’s practice, Chris Rosati, a senior strong safety and running back, said, “Really, looking back from now, kind of like all we had to go through, how tough it really was just for everyone, all the coaches, players, Tom’s brother Kevin, their family, it was kind of just amazing how we all came through.”
Matt Millheiser, who was named the Suffolk County coach of the year in 2014, said, “It was a tremendous feat, you know, the way that they were able to fight through it, and like I said, work through that adversity, to remember their friend, and to continue to play football and to continue to win, it’s something that I obviously hope I never have to go through again, but I couldn’t be prouder and I’ll never forget that group.”
The Suffolk County Football Coaches Association presented its 12th Man Award, which typically goes to a player who overcame injury, disability or adversity, to the entire Shoreham community.
Tom Cutinella’s No. 54 has been retired. The Wildcats will have a new turf field, Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field, named in his honor. Because work on the field is expected to continue into December, the Wildcats will have to be road warriors. All eight of their regular-season games will be played away from home.
Millheiser said the athletic director, Mark Passamonte, was working on scheduling in an effort to find neutral sites for the Wildcats’ officially designated “home” games.
“It’s a new challenge, but compared to what things we faced in the past, obviously nothing that this team can’t handle,” said Millheiser.
He continued: “It’s nice to have those home games. It’s nice for the seniors to play a homecoming and a senior day on their home field and get that experience, but again, I think we have a good team and a strong group with good character. I don’t think it’s going to affect us all that much, but it would be nice to be here for the seniors.”
The Wildcats are seeded No. 1 in Suffolk Division IV. Two of their six all-county players from last year, Rosati and Wiederkehr, are back. Jason Curran, a left-handed senior, looks ready to succeed Hughes at quarterback. Perhaps just as encouraging as anything for the Wildcats is an offensive line that remains intact, with the exception of Bobby Puckey, who graduated. He will be replaced by offensive tackle Dean Stalzer. The rest of the line consists of center Tyler Hughes, guards Dalton Stalzer (Dean’s brother) and Ryan Letscher and offensive tackle Jimmy Puckey (Bobby’s brother).
“I think the kids did an amazing job of carrying on last year and persevering through immense adversity,” Millheiser said. “But, you know, this year I think the weight’s off a little bit and I feel like they can have a little fun and then play and get back to doing what they love while still remembering that we are always Tommy tough.”
Photo credit: Shoreham-Wading River coach Matt Millheiser addressing his players following a water break. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)