The contrasting mix of tragedy and triumph made it a season unlike any other, with peaks and valleys few high school football teams have ever had to navigate. It was unforgettable, yet at times Matt Millheiser may feel tempted to ask himself if it all really happened.
Millheiser’s Shoreham-Wading River team somehow found the strength to recover from the death of one of its players, Tom Cutinella, go undefeated, claim its first Suffolk County and Long Island championships, and receive the Rutgers Trophy, which goes to the team that is recognized as the best in Suffolk, regardless of division. An awful lot happened to the Wildcats in that 12-0 season.
“It’s nice that we won, but it’s something that I’d never want to do again,” said Millheiser, whose leadership during those trying times led to him being named the Suffolk County coach of the year. “For all the great things that happened, we still don’t have Tom.”
Cutinella died after collapsing during a game at Elwood/John Glenn on Oct. 1. The Wildcats dedicated their season to him and responded like champions in what was, at once, the best and worst season in their history.
The Wildcats’ former coach, Ray McCann, commented on Facebook: “The courage they showed during the tragedy of last year, and their dedication resulting in a championship was remarkable. It went way beyond just a football season.”
Now the tag is on their backs as the defending Long Island Class IV champions and the No. 1 seed in Suffolk Division IV.
The Wildcats lost some of their top players like Danny Hughes, Isreal Squires, Bobby Puckey and Aaron Harley-Rey. They still have good athletes, but a bunch of new players in skill positions.
Among them is senior Jason Curran, the left-handed quarterback who will play free safety on defense. Curran played free safety last year and served as Hughes’ backup at quarterback. He takes over an offense that outscored opponents, 459-59, last year.
Two all-county players, Chris Rosati and Ethan Wiederkehr, will help keep that offense moving. Rosati plays running back and strong safety; Wiederkehr (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) is a tight end and defensive end.
Kevin Cutinella, Tom’s brother, is a junior. He is the backup quarterback and will likely start at one of the skill positions.
Meanwhile, the offensive line looks stable. With the exception of the graduated Puckey, the entire starting line is back, with center Tyler Hughes, guards Dalton Stalzer and Ryan Letscher and offensive tackle Jimmy Puckey, Bobby’s brother. Dean Stalzer, Dalton’s brother, will fill in the offensive tackle spot that Bobby Puckey held. Dalton Stalzer is an all-division player. Letscher and Jimmy Puckey both made the all-division second team.
Teams don’t win with offense alone. The Wildcats have what Millheiser believes is one of the best defensive lines in the county in Wiederkehr, Dalton Stalzer, Letscher and Clarence Bias. Among the linebacking corps will be Will Loper and Ethan Baumack. Kyle Fehmel and Jon Constant will play cornerback.
Tom Cutinella’s No. 54 has been retired and a new turf field named after him will be built in Shoreham. Because of that field construction, the Wildcats will not be able to play any of their home games at their school this year. Instead, they will play one of their official home games against Hampton Bays at Hampton Bays High School. Their three other home games will be played at Rocky Point High School.
What affect will all those road games have?
“I don’t know,” said Millheiser, who enters his sixth season as the Wildcats’ head coach with a 32-17 record. “I know we’re a good team. Our kids went through some things last year that a couple of away games shouldn’t rattle them.”
And how do last year’s events affect this year’s team?
“To be determined, I think,” Millheiser answered. “We never forget what happened. We never forget Tom. We’re never going to forget him.”
How far will Riverhead (7-3) go this season? How well will the Blue Waves pass the ball?
The answer to the first question will likely depend on the answer to the second.
With the graduation of quarterback Kenny Simco, Riverhead’s passing game is up in the air. Will Sharron Trent, a senior, be the starting quarterback or will it be Tristan Falisi, a junior? Who will be on the receiving end of passes other than senior Curtis Flippen?
“Flippen has been doing a good job,” coach Leif Shay said. “Aside from that, it’s a bunch of kids who have never played before.”
The passing game, Shay noted, is vital. Most teams cannot afford to be one-dimensional (read: too predictable).
“If you put nine guys in the box, it stops the running game,” Shay said. “We don’t want to go into the season saying we can only run the ball.”
Trent finds himself in a quarterback competition for the second straight year. He was Simco’s backup last year, but sat out most of the season with a knee injury he suffered in the opening game.
How is he looking in training camp?
“He has very good days and very bad days,” said Shay, who noted a similar pattern with Falisi. The coach said, “One of them is going to be more consistent, and he’s going to be our guy.”
The Blue Waves don’t have as much depth as they did last year when the team carried 20 more players. Last year the Blue Waves saw their streak of successive Suffolk County Division II titles halted at three. They lost to Half Hollow Hills West in the county semifinals.
This year the Blue Waves are seeded second in the division behind No. 1 Hills West.
The Blue Waves will be more run-oriented, Shay said, operating out of the pistol, which puts the quarterback in a position to run.
Whoever will be behind center will be able to hand off to seniors Tyrese Kerr, Marcus Reid and Ryun Moore.
Moore had a team-leading 949 rushing yards last year, averaging 5.39 yards per carry. He also caught six passes for 92 yards and returned five kickoffs for 175 yards.
Kerr, who also plays defensive end, was an all-county player last year. He made 67 tackles and had eight sacks, both team-leading figures.
Lewis Eastwood, a senior guard/defensive tackle, is a returning starter. Other seniors expected to make an impact are outside linebacker/tight end Blake Carrara, tight end/middle linebacker Kyle Pipczynski and middle linebacker/guard Irving Reyes. Shay said seniors Jaden Blom, Kevin Okula and Duncan Byrne will probably start on the offensive line.
Shay said defensive end John Lavelle, a first-year player, has had a good training camp, and he likes what he has seen from middle linebacker Robbie Block and outside linebacker Brian Moultan.
The Blue Waves have already had to endure a difficult situation. At the conclusion of their first preseason practice, one of their players, Nikolas Visco, collapsed from an apparent heatstroke. The junior lineman suffered “severe kidney damage,” according to his family, and remains at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Shay recently said that Visco had been taken off a ventilator.
“He’s improved,” the coach said, noting that Visco has been smiling, talking and cracking jokes. “It’s still a long way to recovery.”
How has the incident affected the other players?
“I think they’re rallying around Nick,” Shay said. “They hug him and let him know that he’s a part of our family.”
Shay is in his 18th year as Riverhead’s head coach. During that time the Blue Waves have gone 102-54.
Unity was an issue for the Blue Waves last year, but apparently that is not the case this year.
“They get along great together,” Shay said of his players. “They probably have the best work ethic of any team I’ve coached. If they put it together, they can be special. It’s going to come down to developing a passing game.”
If the preseason seedings by the coaches are accurate, Bishop McGann-Mercy (4-5) will be right on the playoff bubble. The Monarchs are seeded eighth, and eight of Division IV’s 13 teams will make it to the postseason.
Jeff Doroski believes the Monarchs will be among them. Why? The answer, in a word: seniors.
The Monarchs have 15 of them, and seniors make a difference in high school football. And many of these seniors don’t have to think hard to recall what it is like being in the playoffs. The Monarchs reached the playoffs last season.
“The seniors in this group have been there,” said Doroski, who returns to McGann-Mercy after one year of coaching Hampton Bays to a 4-5 record and a place in the postseason last year. Doroski had assembled an 11-15 record coaching the Monarchs in the three preceding years before going to Hampton Bays.
One of the keys to the Monarchs’ success last year was their passing game. They still have many of those pieces in place with quarterback K. J. Santacroce and wide receivers Marco Sciarra, Jack Pavelchak and Nick Kneski. Santacroce, a senior heading into his third year as the team’s starting quarterback, was an all-division player last year. Sciarra was all-county and Pavelchak made the all-division second team. Doroski said the Monarchs will play in three- and four-receiver sets.
Sam Schrage, a senior who backed up Reggie Archer (Stony Brook University) at running back last year, will run the ball and play linebacker. Matt Raynor plays tight end and linebacker.
The offensive line will feature guard Brian Boden, offensive tackles Sheldon Williams and Andrew Hanna (6-3, 270) and center Joe Luisi. Two seniors, Eddie Knight and Nick LoPiccolo, are competing for the guard position.
Boden, Williams, Knight or LoPiccolo and Liam Martin will man the defensive line, with Schrage, Raynor, Pavelchak and Sciarra at linebacker. In the secondary, the Monarchs have a returning starter in Kneski, who Doroski hailed as one of the best defensive backs in Division IV. Santacroce will possibly be back there as well with Joe Jeskie and Billy Giglio.
The team’s kicker is a senior soccer player, Alex Frabizio.
All those seniors will be tested right away. The Monarchs’ first two games will be against the division’s top two seeded teams, Shoreham-Wading River and Elwood/John Glenn.
“You’re going to find out real quick where you stand,” Doroski said. “You get to find out what you’re made of in these first two weeks.”