At the start of practice Monday afternoon, coach Aden Smith gathered his Shoreham-Wading River High School football players before him. Then, referring to the upcoming season, he made an analogy to a live traffic app. Plug in a destination and the app will tell you the best way to go. If a problem pops up along the way, the app will redirect you.
Same thing with the Wildcats. Should they run into any problems or detours, they just recalculate, with their eyes fixed on the final destination.
That destination wasn’t specified, not that Smith had to. Everyone there undoubtedly knows for sure what the desired destination is: the Long Island Class IV championship game.
“It’s unspoken,” Smith said in an interview before practice. “Guys know that we need to make it there and finish. Like, that’s the expectation. We don’t want to go that far and put that much work in and go that long and go that hard and then don’t get it done.”
The Wildcats want to return to the Long Island final this year. Only this time, they want a different result.
Last year Cold Spring Harbor beat SWR at its own game, trampling the Wildcats with their running game in a 42-20 pasting. It was a new experience for SWR, which had been victorious in its only other Long Island finals from 2014-16.
Still the Wildcats walked away with a 10-2 record and their fourth Suffolk County Division IV championship, surely nothing to sneeze at. At the same time, though, something was missing.
“Obviously, you want to win your last game,” Smith said. “You know, just losing our last game left a little disappointing feeling. I was pleased that we won the county championship, but ultimately I thought that once you go that far, you got to finish.”
This year’s Long Island final will be played Nov. 30 at Hofstra University. SWR intends to be there.
That season-ending loss left the Wildcats with a hunger that could help them reach their goal.
“I think it was definitely a great season, but I just think we came up short,” Matt Zahn, a senior who plays offensive tackle and defensive end, said. “I mean, I was upset with the loss, but I also think it’s going to be a positive for this year because everybody is not satisfied.”
No, that’s not a word that seems to be in the SWR vocabulary.
“I feel like we did something that not a lot of people do,” senior quarterback/cornerback Xavier Arline said. “It’s super tough to get to where we were, but you know, we’re never satisfied.”
Sure, SWR lost linemen Joe Puckey, Liam Mahoney and Jack Logan and running back/safety Dominic Visintin to graduation, but the Wildcats still have talent and the respect of other teams in the county. That respect translated into the No. 1 seed in Suffolk Division IV. Not that the Wildcats are resting on their laurels.
“With that number one seed, obviously I like that ranking, but we got to prove that we’re the number one seed,” said senior fullback/middle linebacker Mike Casazza.
So, what has changed for the Wildcats since last season?
“To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s too much,” said Arline, who claimed he was so pumped up for the team’s first practice Monday that he couldn’t sleep the night before. “I think [we have] a little more hunger because we got so far and didn’t complete it. I know a lot of guys, including myself as a senior now, only have one more shot to do it. And, you know, eventually, you’re going to have to hang up the cleats and never play again, so you have to play every play like it’s your last.”
The question was posed to Smith: Does this team have what it takes to return to the Long Island final?
“I hope so,” he answered. “We got a lot of good players returning, so the expectation is that we can get back. It’s a long road. It’s a long, unpredictable road. Nobody is a soothsayer. Nobody can foretell the future. Right now, we got to take Day 1 and play it like it is the Long Island championship. We got to prepare like it is the Long Island championship. We got to prepare like that every single day, and as long as we embrace the process of the preparation, I think we can be good.”
Arline, for one, sounded eager to find the answer to that question.
“Let’s just go,” he said. “Let’s get it started.”
Photo caption: Shoreham-Wading River quarterback Xavier Arline said even though the Wildcats went 10-2 and won a fourth Suffolk County Division IV championship last year, “we’re never satisfied.” (Credit: Bob Liepa)