For seven Shoreham-Wading River seniors, they came up to varsity as freshmen at a time when county championship games were an annual rite of passage. The Wildcats came into the 2008 season having won seven straight county titles and they were primed to make it eight.
They entered the postseason as the No. 2 seed, held a first-round bye, and needed a win against a Comsewogue team they had beaten in the regular season to return to the county finals. Only the Warriors upset the Wildcats on their home turf, ending a dynasty and beginning a three-year stretch where Shoreham failed to make it back to the county finals, their longest drought since the ’90s.
“You don’t understand how lucky you are until you miss it,” said Shoreham coach Tom Rotanz. “Man I miss it.”
After three long years, the second-seeded Wildcats will be making their return to the Class B county championship game after a 12-10 win at home Wednesday afternoon against No. 3 Eastport-South Manor. The Wildcats held the Sharks (13-4) scoreless over the final 9:12 and sophomore Tim Rotanz delivered the eventual game-winner on a tough shot to the top-right corner with 7:08 left.
For the Shoreham seniors, especially the seven who joined the varsity as freshmen, they could finally begin to feel what so many players before them had felt.
“It’s definitely emotional,” said senior captain C.J. Higgins. “I can’t put it into words. Everyone stepped up today.”
“It’s been difficult to deal with all these losses in the semifinals, getting so close,” said Tom Rotanz Jr., who scored one goal with two assists. “It’s finally a relief that we got there, got to this county championship.”
After losing to Comsewogue in 2008, the Wildcats lost at home to Sayville in the 2009 playoffs and fell on the road at Hauppauge last year.
Now they’ll travel to Stony Brook University June 1 to face No. 5 Huntington, the surprise winner over previously unbeaten Comsewogue. The Blue Devils won 12-11 in overtime to stun the defending county champions.
The Wildcats (15-2) got every bit of a challenge from the Sharks, who put an early scare into Shoreham by racing out to a 3-0 lead. But Shoreham quickly regained its composure and rattled off five straight goals before the first quarter ended.
Eastport scored the first two goals of the fourth quarter to take a 10-9 lead. It was the Sharks’ first lead since the score was 3-2 in the opening quarter. Ryan Curley scored his third goal on a bit of fluke play to give Eastport its 10th goal. He threw a pass toward the cage directed at a cutting Tyler Aki. But the ball appeared to deflect off a player and right into the cage.
But the Wildcats answered right back. Senior Paul Curran scored in transition off an assist from Tim Rotanz (2 goals, 3 assists) and the Wildcats had the game tied. After the Wildcats went up by one, senior Mike Malave provided some insurance with a bounce shot with 6:58 left to make it a two-goal game.
Rotanz Jr. said his younger brother is what makes the offense clicks.
“Timmy’s probably one of the best off-ball players, I feel,” he said. “But then you got Connor [Drost] and Mike [Malave] and the same with Peter [Gersbeck] and Kris [Miller]. They make so much of our offense work together. It’s a lot of team offense.”
The Wildcats featured another balanced attack on the offense, which has been their story all season. Malave, Drost, Miller and Gersbeck each scored twice.
Defensively the Wildcats stepped up after a slow start. They limited the Sharks to seven goals after giving up the quick three in just 3 1/2 minutes.
Higgins said limiting the Sharks’ transition game was a big focus for the Wildcats.
“We thought if we could get them six on six, we’d be able to hang with them,” he said. “They definitely had a lot of fastbreak goals today and that’s a credit to them.”
Alan Henderson scored two goals with a pair of assists for Eastport.
During a time-out with under 4 minutes to play, Rotanz Sr. stressed the importance of possession.
“Our only enemy is the clock right now,” he said.
East Hampton got whistled for a hold with 3:02 left, giving Shoreham the ball. With the Sharks applying heavy pressure to try to force a turnover, the Wildcats effectively maintained possession. They lost the ball briefly with about 2:10 left but defenseman Chris Mahoney got a ground ball for the Wildcats. Eastport got flagged for a slashing penalty with 1:33 left, making their comeback all the more difficult. Eastport finally got the ball back with 25 seconds left, not enough time to make anything happen.
“ESM has some great guys,” Higgins said. “It could have gone either way today.”
After three years, it finally went Shoreham’s way.