The players came charging out of the locker room fired up to kick off the football season. It was a moment that seemed unlikely to ever happen for most of the players.
They strapped on their helmets, ready to show the county there was a new team in town.
And then, a delay.
It was September 1997. Shoreham-Wading River, a school with a strong history of successful baseball, soccer and track teams, was diving into a new sport: football.
One of the players representing the Wildcats in their inaugural season that year was a sophomore quarterback named Matt Millheiser, who went on to lead the program this year to its most successful — and most traumatic — season, his fifth as varsity head coach.
“Something was missing,” Millheiser said of the program’s first game. “And we got all fired up and we were ready to play and we had to wait like 20 minutes before we could start.”
Given how long the community had waited for a football team, what was another 20 minutes?
It was no great surprise, but the Wildcats got whipped that afternoon at Wyandanch High School. The more experienced Warriors dominated the new kids, as many other teams would in that first season.
A player returning to his alma mater as a coach is a familiar story across high school athletics. But how many get to experience first-hand the birth of a program as a player, and then years later lead it to the pinnacle as coach?
In five seasons as head coach, Millheiser has seen it all. His first season represented one of the lowest points in the program’s brief history. Bumped up into Division III, with a limited chance of success, the team entered the year with barely enough players to field a team. Several kids good enough to play bolted to focus on their spring sports. The Wildcats went 0-8, suffering blowouts in each game.
“We were just outmanned across the board,” Millheiser said. “It wasn’t too frustrating that year just because I kind of knew going in what we had.”
He adopted the mindset of get through the first year and then start working on the offseason and building the program.
That groundwork paid off Sunday, when the Wildcats stormed to a 47-13 win over Roosevelt in the Class IV Long Island Championship game, capping their first 12-0 season. The next night, the Wildcats received the Rutgers Trophy as the top team in Suffolk County.
For Millheiser, the chance to play football at Shoreham almost never happened. He grew up playing football in Riverhead PAL, while also wrestling and playing soccer and baseball. By the time he reached middle school, Millheiser and any other Wading River students in the Shoreham district had shifted to other sports. Riverhead students interested in football could do so on the middle school team, so there were no more PAL opportunities.
During his middle school years, Millheiser never played football.
“Then the rumors started to swell and then the fundraising started and you could see on the horizon that it was a possibility,” he said of the program’s launch.
By Millheiser’s freshman season in 1996-97, football had officially arrived in Shoreham in the form of a junior varsity team. Millheiser played sporadically but mostly watched as the juniors led the team.
Before the team ever played a game, Shoreham lost its first coach. Pete Pizzarelli, a longtime coach with stops at Mercy and Greenport, was slated to become the program’s first coach. He died, though, in July 1996 at the age of 66.
Millheiser said the players never got the chance to meet Pizzarelli. The 12th Man Award given each year by the Suffolk Football Coaches Association bears Pizzarelli’s name. Monday night, that award was presented to the Shoreham district and community for its perseverance in the aftermath of Tom Cutinella’s death.
In 1999, the Wildcats played their first game on what’s now the main field on the school campus. The Wildcats won, 27-6, and Millheiser scored a touchdown in the victory.
A picture of Millheiser shaking off a Mercy tackler ran atop the story in the News-Review that week. The team’s coach, Ray McCann, said of the win: “Nice to start this way, but we have a long way to go.”
Fifteen years later, they’ve reached the mountain top.
Correction: This article corrects from the print edition the year in which Shoreham played its first game on the main field. It was 1999, not 1998.