August 23, 2006

Paying Their Dues Football Practice Opens

Rich Smidt

While most of the varsity high school fall sports athletes are still soaking up those last few weeks of summer, relaxing, vacationing and spending quality time getting those much-needed late sleep days in, the young men that don the helmet and pads each week have already begun their prep work for what they hope will be a successful season on the gridiron. Pre-season practices began last Thursday for all four South Fork teams as coaches begin to see what they've got to work with in what boils down to eight short weeks (excluding playoffs).

And no team will be under the microscope more than the Southampton Mariners which finished first in Suffolk County's Division IV during the regular season; compiling an impressive 7-1 record and adding another playoff win before falling to Babylon in overtime in the Suffolk County Division IV championship game by a close 17-14 score at Stony Brook's Ken LaValle Stadium.

During the 2005 season, the Mariners were able to draw inspiration from fallen teammate Chris Bunce who, at the time, was Southampton's leading rusher and one of its top defensive players until suffering a broken bone in his leg in a game against Hampton Bays in late October. Bunce's high school football career might have been over, but his passion and love for the program lived on as he continued to contribute in a positive way to the team's morale by attending both practices and games, standing on the sidelines with crutches as he watched the Mariners steamroll their opponents en route to recording one of the best seasons in school history.

But this season, there will be no Bunce, no Noah Hatfield-Biondo (the team's leading rusher and tackler from 2005), no Zach Epley (Southampton's All-County quarterback), no Tyrone James (leading receiver last season) as well as the absence of six more players that all contributed greatly in 2005.

As the Mariners sweat out each practice, more questions will be answered as to who starts where and with returning players such as Steven Andrews, running back Timmy Gallo, tight end/linebacker Kevin Mockler, receiver/safety Jason Halsey and quarterback Zach Antilety, Southampton will have experience to draw from.

In East Hampton's final game last season, two returning players stood out with superb performances as quarterback/linebacker Matt Brierley and running back Matt Behan; now seniors, helped give Bonackers' fans reason to believe that 2006 will see the team improve upon its 2-6 season.

East Hampton began the 2005 season on a downward spiral, losing its first five games before gaining some much needed momentum in the final three weeks, winning two of its last three games by significant margins. Behan looked especially impressive carrying the ball against Smithtown East, burning his opponents for 74 yards on only six carries.

Westhampton Beach received a brutal slap in the face when the team was edged in the controversial Section XI power points rating system despite going 6-2 during the regular season. Perhaps the Hurricanes will use that as a motivational tool during the heat of practice because losing no less than 17 players from the varsity roster means that there will be many new faces on this season's team. Fortunately for Westhampton Beach, Kyle Hubbard and Kevin Benitez both gained valuable playing time last season and they'll be part of what will hopefully once again be a punishing Hurricanes ground attack.

Hampton Bays took to the field last week with top returning players such as Mike Kovar, Nick Lynch and Andrew Raimo. Unfortunately for the Baymen, who went 3-5 in Division IV last season, they graduated not only their top offensive player in running back Anthony Andrews, but also their best defender in linebacker Christian Londono. Hampton Bays plays its first game on September 16 when it hosts Shoreham Wading River.

Thankfully, the dreadful heat that plagued Long Island earlier in the month has departed, bringing somewhat cooler, less humid days for the four hardest working teams of the fall sports season on the South Fork.

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