At 8:05 a.m. Saturday, Comsewogue junior James Thristino was busy assembling soccer nets at a field near a playground on Terryville Road in Port Jefferson.
By about 9 a.m., 15-20 younger kids with special needs, who suffer from a range of disorders including autism and Down syndrome, arrived. As a coach of a division at the Terryville Soccer Club aimed to help disadvantaged children, Thristino, with the help of a few others, supported and guided the kids through an obstacle course, soccer drills and a scrimmage. This, he said, has been his routine nearly every Saturday during the fall season since he was 10.
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"Seeing these kids, it always puts a smile on my face," Thristino said shortly after 10 a.m., once his volunteer work was complete. "I started helping out because of community service obligations for my church, but I loved doing it and just decided to keep going. It reminds me of how lucky I am and just helping others is my favorite thing to do."
The purpose of the scrimmage between kids and coaches is to have each youngster score, which Thristino said is not always easy, yet is, however, repeatedly rewarding.
"James totally understands what we're trying to accomplish," said Mike Heaney, who supervises the program. "I'm always amazed at him and a couple of other kids, but him even more so because he's one of our leaders, because of how much he gets it. The kid is really something special, and not just on the soccer field, as a person who's more than willing to teach these kids."
And who better to learn from than Thristino.
Entering the weekend, the forward was tied with Newfield's Jake Barros for the most soccer goals (15) in Long Island high school boys soccer. Though Thristino's main objective is to help Comsewogue (5-1) to a deep playoff run, he also eyes Keith Vigorito's 2009 school record of 26 goals.
"My team is very strong so I get a lot of good passes," Thristino said. "Some of the goals I score aren't that easy and I try to do my best to score, but it's a lot about my team, though."
Thristino scored four goals against Westhampton Sept. 17, and has two other hat tricks with six games left. "He's been key for us and definitely has the ability to play at the Division I level," Comsewogue coach Dan Costello said.
An avid fan of Stony Brook University -- Thristino attended the Seawolves' overtime win against Albany on Friday night -- he said a priority is to attend that university and study to become a physician assistant.
Another is to oversee the Terryville program one day.
"He's always there. He always comes early and he always helps with setting up the field and nets," Heaney said. "These [volunteers] are 15 and 16 and I'm sure they'd rather be sleeping at times, but it's not like James comes at the last minute and then runs to get home when it's over."
Said Thristino: "It's just a wonderful way to give back and makes me feel a whole lot better about myself knowing I'm helping others."