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Column: Finally, a college sports team to call our own

Stony Brook guard Carson Puriefoy drives to the net during the second half of Stony Brook's American East Championship victory over Vermont at Stony Brook University's Island FCU Arena Sunday. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)

Watching the Stony Brook men’s basketball team fall behind by double digits early in the second half of the America East championship game Saturday, I felt something I haven’t experienced during a college basketball game in quite some time: a gut punch. 

Anyone who, like me, grew up on Long Island in the 1980s and ’90s rooting for the Mets and Knicks is familiar with that feeling of getting belted in the stomach by your team as it implodes.

My entire family sat stunned on our couches for at least an hour after Reggie Miller dropped eight points in nine seconds on the Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

And the Mets. Well, do I even need to explain all the ways they’ve disappointed me in the 30 years since they last won the World Series?

One thing saving me from more misery was the fact that I never really had a college basketball team I felt that strongly about. In my early years, my family rooted a bit for my mother’s undergrad alma mater, St. John’s, but I never had a real strong personal connection to the team.

Each of the past few years, I’ve tuned in to the America East title game in hopes of seeing Stony Brook, where my father graduated and my mother received her master’s, reach the NCAA tournament. Each year, I tuned out disappointed by a loss.

Not this time around.

Soon after I started to get that queasy feeling as the Seawolves fell behind by 15 points, the team ripped off a 29-13 run to seize the lead. Behind impressive senior Jameel Warney’s 43 points and 10 rebounds, Stony Brook is finally headed to March Madness.

Forward Jameel Warney goes up for a shot during the second half of Stony Brook's  win Sunday. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)
Forward Jameel Warney goes up for a shot during the second half of Stony Brook’s win Sunday. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)

And for once I find myself feeling a real local connection to a college basketball team. As Newsday put it Sunday in a headline our own sports editor Bob Liepa says he wishes he’d written, I feel like I’m “Dancing with Wolves.”

If you think about it, it’s really remarkable that Suffolk, a county of nearly 1.5 million people, has never had a local college sports team it could embrace in a world where Green Bay, a city of about 100,000, is allowed to have the Packers.

When I began my career in Los Angeles more than a decade ago, I was fortunate to cover a pair of Rose Bowls. At the first one, in 2005, more than 93,000 rabid college football fans from Texas and Michigan traveled to Pasadena to see their teams play. There was no hometown team on the field, yet you couldn’t find a parking spot for miles around the stadium. The regular season USC football games I covered were just as chaotic.

There’s never been anything to compare it to here in Suffolk.

The college sports fans among my friends root for their out-of-town alma maters or, in the case of Notre Dame, root for the tradition and their Irish heritage.

I don’t dispute that it’s every bit as fantastic as a local team winning when, say for our Greenport community columnist Joan Dinizio, her beloved Duke basketball team wins the national championship as it did last year. I’ve just never been able to feel that connection to a college team myself.

The Stony Brook basketball team has a long way to go before rising to the level where casual fans like myself are converted to diehards. But its presence in the field of 68 at the NCAA Tournament is something every Suffolk County sports fan should take great pride in.

It’s the latest in a series of signs that the university’s emphasis on building up its athletic program is paying off.

In 2012, the baseball team reached the College World Series. And, of course, Riverhead graduate Miguel Maysonet helped put its football program on the map when he became an NFL prospect and later signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Stony Brook alum Will Tye continued that legacy this past season, scoring the school’s first NFL touchdown as a tight end for the New York Giants.

On Thursday night at 9:40 p.m. Stony Brook athletics will take the next step in growing its sports profile when the Seawolves tip off as a No. 13 seed against perennial NCAA powerhouse Kentucky in the tournament’s round of 64.

It’s been three years since a No. 13 team has won a tournament game, but it happened every year between 2008 and 2013. In a down year for the Wildcats, who reached the Final Four with a very different squad a season ago, maybe, just maybe, the Wolves will keep on dancing for another day.

No matter the outcome, they’ve already done enough to get this local sports fan excited. When the final buzzer sounds Thursday night, I’ll be the proud son of two Seawolves.

And in Suffolk County, where I’m sure many hoops fans will watch Stony Brook play for the first time this week, I won’t be alone.

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

Top photo: Stony Brook guard Carson Puriefoy drives to the net during the second half of Stony Brook’s American East Championship victory over Vermont at Stony Brook University’s Island FCU Arena Sunday. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)