Herzog covers high school sports as a writer and columnist. His primary area of coverage is football,
In the world of high school lacrosse, the Lions of West Islip were kings of the jungle.
This was no ordinary elimination game.
The loss ended a run that rivals Broadway's "The Lion King,'' which opened in 1997 and is still running. Beginning in 2002, West Islip roared into the Suffolk Class A championship game 11 consecutive times, winning the last nine county titles and five of the last seven state crowns. In the process, the South Shore community enthusiastically embraced the sport.
"We've had unbelievable athletes that were very receptive to coaching and playing within a system,'' said Craig, who began coaching at West Islip in 1988 when it had been essentially a .500 team for two decades. "I never envisioned this. When I took over, the first 19 times we played Ward Melville, we lost. Over the next 21 times we played them, we beat them 17 times. We always said we just wanted to beat Melville one time.''
That finally happened in 2002 in a Suffolk semifinal when the Lions beat the Patriots, 16-4. Though they lost to eventual state champion Northport in the county final and lost to Smithtown (one school in those days), 5-4, in the 2003 county championship game, Craig believed his team had arrived.
"We got a running clock on Ward Melville ,'' Craig recalled. "That was a turning point. That's when we crossed over the bridge.''
That bridge led to Dynasty Land, but West Islip wasn't the first LI team to take up residence there, only the latest. "Patriot Games'' was an even longer-running hit than "The Lion King.'' Hall of Fame coach Joe Cuozzo guided the Patriots to 11 straight Suffolk Class A titles (1982-92) and seven state titles.
West Islip has made a big contribution to the college lacrosse ranks. This year's NCAA Final Four features Kyle Turri (2011), Duke's starting goalie. Nicky Galasso (2010 attack), Long Island's all-time leading scorer with 500 points, was injured and missed Syracuse's run to the Final Four. Mike McCormack (2009, defense) is a three-year starter for Yale, which lost to Syracuse in the quarterfinals on a goal with 13 seconds left. Justin Turri (2007, midfield) starred on Duke's 2010 national title team. Ed Plompen (2008, attack) starred on two Division II championship teams at LIU Post. Under Craig, West Islip has produced 28 All-Americans.
He has not only watched a dynasty bloom but a community boom with excitement for a niche sport. The West Islip Lacrosse Club helped establish an elite youth program that provides a feeder system to the varsity. Hundreds of kids fill the stands at West Islip home games wearing jerseys bearing the names and numbers of varsity players. Many attend a West Islip summer lacrosse camp. There is an annual alumni game, dinner dance, flower sale and golf outing.
Craig is part of a large group that attends the NCAA Final Four each year and goes on summer cruises together.
It's been a long time since another Suffolk school's ship has come in. "Everything we do, we try to model after West Islip,'' Smithtown East coach Jason Lambert said after Tuesday's game. "They're the model program for everyone.''
The king is dead.
Long live the king.