WILDCATS 54, WARRIORS 0
Tom Cutinella wasn’t present, but his presence was felt, and his uniform number, 54, was everywhere.
“SWR 54” was painted onto a hillside by the Shoreham-Wading River High School football field in yellow characters outlined in blue. A replica of Cutinella’s No. 54 jersey hung from the front of the press box. Near the top of the press box dangled a banner that read, “#54 FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS.” The players and coach Matt Millheiser wore towels with “54” imprinted on them.
And had the scoreboard been functioning, it would have read 54-0 — poetic enough — by the time the Suffolk County Division IV game ended.
Playing with heavy hearts in their first game since the death of Cutinella, whose uniform number was retired, the Wildcats rolled over Wyandanch, 54-0, on Saturday. The symbolism of the score was inescapable.
“It’s a nice thing that happened,” Millheiser told reporters afterward. “It’s not something that we were shooting for or it was a goal or anything like that. It came about kind of on its own.”
After Shoreham’s last two touchdowns, quarterback Danny Hughes took a knee rather than attempt extra points to leave the Wildcats with 54 points.
Cutinella, a junior guard/middle linebacker, died following a collision in a game against Elwood/John Glenn on Oct. 1. His death stunned and saddened the Shoreham-Wading River community.
Asked how his players have handled the difficult situation, Millheiser replied: “They’ve been great. You worry about the boys and how they’re going to get through this, what are they going to do? Really, at times, they carried us. They really showed us more strength than we have as adults, and I found I was leaning more on them than I thought they were going to have to lean on me.”
The result between the first- and last-place teams in Division IV was predictable, if the final score wasn’t. The Wildcats (5-0), who led by 35-0 at halftime, scored touchdowns on their first six possessions.
The game-opening drive ended with Ethan Wiederkehr catching a touchdown pass. Later, the Wildcats added touchdown runs by Hughes, Chris Rosati, Aaron Harley-Rey, Justin Squires and Nick Gray. Isreal Squires and Jason Curran returned interceptions for touchdowns.
Millheiser acknowledged that it was difficult for him to go back to coaching in a game after what his team has been through. As for his players, he said: “If it was difficult, then they did a heck of a job of, you know, hiding that. As I said earlier, I know there was some, you know, uneasy feelings, and I know there must have been a lot of things going through their minds but over this past week these young men are now men. They went through a lot and they stayed focused and they came out obviously ready to play.”
The game had originally been scheduled to be played in Wyandanch, but the Warriors (0-5) consented to moving it to Shoreham so the Wildcats could play in front of their home fans in their first game since the tragedy.
Before the game, the Wildcats, wearing their navy blue and gold home uniforms, marched purposefully, two by two and holding hands, between rows of cheerleaders as they crossed the track and headed toward the field. “Yeah, Shoreham!” one fan yelled loud enough to be heard from a distance. Once the Wildcats hit the field, they started trotting.
Shortly after, the public-address announcer made the announcement that Cutinella’s No. 54 has been retired. “His number 54 jersey will never be worn by another Wildcats player ever again,” he said.
A moment of silence was observed before the national anthem, during which the Wildcats raised their helmets over their bowed heads.
When Shoreham’s team captains headed for the middle of the field for the pregame coin toss, they were greeted by Wyandanch’s players, who handed them flowers in a show of solidarity. “It was very classy,” said Millheiser.
Cutinella’s younger brother, Kevin, is a sophomore halfback and middle linebacker for the Wildcats. He didn’t play in the game, but stood on the sideline, dressed like a coach.
“We gave him some coaching attire and said if he’s going to be a coach, he had to look like a coach,” Millheiser said. “He was with us, though.”
Security appeared to be heightened for the game, with several police officers on hand seemingly especially concerned with keeping media personnel a distance from the field. Players were not made available to the press for interviews, although Millheiser spoke with reporters afterward.
The Oct. 1 game against Glenn, which was stopped with the Wildcats leading by 17-12 with 3 minutes 51 seconds remaining in the third quarter, has been ruled a win for the Wildcats and a loss for the Knights.
Now the Wildcats move on. Millheiser indicated that Saturday’s game had therapeutic value for his players.
“We’re still moving forward step by step and we got to stick together as a family,” he said. “I think they’re excited for the win. I think they’re excited to be back on the field, playing football, which they love, but I’m sure tonight and tomorrow they’ll be some tough moments.”