Eye of the Storm: Long Island teams return to play following Sandy

Babylon's Eric Schweitzer runs for a touchdown against

Babylon's Eric Schweitzer runs for a touchdown against East Hampton during their Suffolk High School Division IV football quarterfinal playoff game at Babylon High School Saturday. (November 10, 2012) (Credit: Barry Sloan)

BABYLON PANTHERS

A common yell when Babylon football players break the pregame huddle is "Family!''

Coach Rick Punzone said he is seeing living proof that it's more than a motto.

"This is one time when you really do have to help each other, when you really do have to be a family," he said.

"I don't want to say it's been positive, but it has been unifying," Punzone said, relating how coaches and players teamed to help those in need with tree removal, sheetrock and other repairs.

Though the homes of several players were destroyed or damaged by Sandy, the entire team showed up for the first practice on Thursday. "It shows the dedication of our kids and their parents," Punzone said. "Even though we called for practice, obviously we didn't make it mandatory. But the parents felt it was important to get the kids there somehow, because football was a way back to some sense of normalcy."

The show of family extended beyond Babylon.

Players and fans from East Hampton, the Panthers' opponent yesterday, brought care packages of home supplies and school supplies to Babylon's football field for the first-round playoff game. "Bill Barber called me personally to say he was thinking about us and he wanted to bring stuff to the game," Punzone said. "He didn't have to do that. It was phenomenal. That's pure class."

WEST ISLIP LIONS

"Lions for life" is their credo, and never has that been more evident.

"No one is sleeping in cold houses," football coach Steve Mileti said. "Friends are sticking together. These are lessons that these kids are learning that will last forever. Driving by the damaged homes, seeing the long lines for gas, then seeing pizza parties at 11 o'clock with people who have lost everything smiling and waving and saying, 'Thank you for being there for us.' This is history."

For Mileti, his players' response to the catastrophic storm outshines the 8-0 record the team compiled in Suffolk II play. "There's a lot of life learning that goes on in football, but this is life adversity,'' he said. "To hear the stories of what they're doing for their friends who don't have houses or can't move back in makes you proud to be a coach and teacher here."

Athletic director Tim Horan said there was a lot of scrambling. ''First it was just about allowing the kids to process what just took place,'' he said. "The area south of Montauk Highway in West Islip was devastated. Homes were ruined and are uninhabitable. In some low-lying areas where the water came up to Montauk Highway, everything in its path has been destroyed. Some homes were gutted. We have some kids on the varsity who have been displaced or have been significantly affected."

Like Mileti, Horan was awe-struck by the way the players reacted. "They've been unbelievably generous to their teammates. It's been inspiring to watch the kids respond to this catastrophe,'' Horan said. "They've helped in any way they can help -- they've had kids move in, they've offered supplies, they've helped with home and yard repairs."

Returning to the practice field helped immeasurably. "You sit around and watch News 12 all day and you think the world is coming to an end," Horan said. "Running around with your friends in practice is a good release. Athletics was a vehicle to bring the kids together and identify their needs. It was a type of recovery."

OCEANSIDE SAILORS

A day after gutting his coach's house, Oceanside quarterback Tom Capone navigated the sand-strewn streets of Long Beach to bring pizza to one of the hardest-hit teams on Long Island.

Oceanside had gotten tossed around by superstorm Sandy, and most of Capone's teammates were without heat and power and had suffered significant damage to their homes, but the handful of players congregated at Lindell Elementary School had lost almost everything.

"We know people would do it for us," Capone said. "Oceanside got hit hard and we know that guys on our team lost . . . we're trying to help Long Beach."

His coach, Rob Blount, was spearheading this effort, just days after about seven feet of water swept into his Freeport home. The team spent Monday vacating the house of water-logged possessions, but Blount, who went to college with Marines head coach Scott Martin, said helping here "was second nature."

After delivering pizza, Blount, Capone and another teammate were going to another Long Beach resident in the area. Up until then, the team had been limited to captain's practices, but were now clamoring to get back on the field.

"They're looking for something to do," Blount said. "We need something to rally around, and I told them that we're playing for hope."

FLOYD COLONIALS

In a school district where some streets turned into rivers and several players were displaced from their homes and living in a shelter, football practice was, according to coach Paul Longo, "a positive distraction. I'm not saying it solves everyone's problems, but it's good for the community and it was good for kids to do something different to get away from it all."

The Colonials practiced four times during the week of superstorm Sandy, with remarkable attendance. "Fifty-five out of 57 kids showed up," Longo said. "Somehow the parents got the kids here. Most of my team had power. We were kind of lucky."

Parents of the football players continue to brainstorm about doing something for the community. "They're planning some kind of a collection," Longo said. "It's a great idea."

Aside from worrying about the safety and whereabouts of his players, Longo had to contend all week with questions about where Saturday's game would be played. One contingency was the field at Westhampton.

Although Floyd's usual home field on Lincoln Avenue in Mastic Beach was deemed unplayable, the Colonials went back to their old varsity field on Mastic Beach Road and played Commack there.

LAWRENCE GOLDEN TORNADO

Ripples in the multi-purpose turf field, sinkholes all around the high school, no power, many cars submerged, all making it look like a war zone in and around Lawrence High School. The Inwood community took a brutal battering from superstorm Sandy.

"We had an assistant coach lose his house and his car completely," said Lawrence head coach Joe Martilotti. "And a few players were displaced and living with family and friends because their houses were destroyed."

The Lawrence football season is still perfect on the gridiron. But as the canals rose and the flooding came there was doubt when they would play again.

"Our area took such a beating," said record-breaking quarterback Joe Capobianco, who threw for four touchdowns in yesterday's 50-0 win over Bethpage. "We didn't know where our playoff game was going to be played until today. And we still have guys without power. And we don't know when we're going back to school."

The field turf was repaired in time for the top-seeded Golden Tornadoes to host the Nassau Conference III quarterfinal game.

"We've been practicing in the outfield of the baseball field," Martilotti said. "Some areas of our field were under four feet of water and some of the product was washed out from under the turf creating a major safety issue for us to play at home."

The rising tide combined with a high water table spelled doom for the Inwood area. The high school is still not open after parts of the building remain without power and heat.

"They're saying we might be back in school Tuesday," Capobianco said. "No one knows."

"There was flooding in the auditorium and the basement of the school," said Martilotti. "We had one player who lives by the bay in Inwood lose his entire house -- it's just devastating."

To keep his players busy Martilotti had them meeting at the No. 2 School in Inwood on Donohue Ave., last week. There, they unloaded FEMA trucks and helped pass out clothes, diapers, food, all sorts of necessities.

"Talk about your life lessons, we've had plenty these past weeks," Martilotti said.

And there's more . . .Members of Lawrence's boys volleyball team, forced to forfeit Friday's playoff game against Bethpage, can't even think about sports.

"I live in Merrick on the water so the first floor of my house is destroyed, I have [nothing] really," coach George Klein said yesterday. "Most of the guys just said that they couldn't play, and nor could I. I mean we're in disaster mode."

SAYVILLE GOLDEN FLASHES

Confusion. Worry. And a long way down the road, football.

"At first, all anyone thought about was, 'Are our kids all right?' '' coach Rob Hoss said. "We have kids in south Sayville and we didn't know what the deal was. You're worried about your own family, too, and we just took inventory of what happened."

There were the expected problems of communication -- "We had some kids who not only lost power but their cell phones went dead," Hoss said -- as well as the question of practicality. Once everyone was located and safe, should the Golden Flashes practice or just continue to help out at home and in the community? And where did football fit in the big picture?

"The coaches were raking leaves and cutting wood on Wednesday [Oct. 31]," Hoss said. "I was in the middle of cutting down trees at my in-laws' house when the superintendent called to say we were allowed to practice even though school was closed."

Hoss said he texted his players and "about 90 to 95 percent showed up at practice, but there was no punishment if you didn't come. We kept the practices short because the kids were spending time fixing up their yards and had to put their lives back together. Plus, we didn't know whether we were playing that weekend or even if our opponent was going to change."

There were unfounded rumors that Hoss and his players heard: That the bottom four seeds were going to be eliminated in order to shorten the playoffs so they could finish on Thanksgiving weekend; that the Long Island Championships might not be played.

"Trust me, I was torn about having practice in light of what just happened. You almost feel like you're being insensitive," he said. "But not knowing when we were going to play, you have a responsibility to get the kids prepared. If we knew we weren't playing [last weekend], we wouldn't have practiced until Monday."

So Sayville practiced from Oct. 31-Nov. 2, immediately after Sandy struck Long Island with deadly force. "We had three really sloppy practices -- un-Sayville-like sloppy practices," Hoss said. "The kids were distracted. We had three coaches who couldn't be there. Two couldn't get gas for their cars. One works for KeySpan and was working 16-hour days. But even with all that, the kids were happy to be back on the field. They were fooling around again. The football field is where they find happiness."

MASSAPEQUA CHIEFS

"North of Sunrise Highway, some kids lost electricity. South of Sunrise near the water, some kids lost homes."

Massapequa football coach Kevin Shippos wasn't even sure that his fifth-seeded team would be allowed back in the playoffs, but his greatest concern was the kids.

"A lot of them now are living with aunts, uncles and grandparents," Shippos said. "But they know their coaches and teammates are a phone call away. Adversity has brought the team and the town together."

Shippos waited until this past Monday to hold his first post-Sandy practice. He heard the talk that officials were considering eliminating the lowest four seeds in each league to condense the tournament.

"If that happened, we would have been out and the kids would have been crushed," he said. "They worked so hard to make the playoffs, and with the storm, there was added motivation. We're playing for a community, too. Nobody wanted to hear that the quarterfinals would be eliminated."

That didn't happen. What did happen was that Saturday's playoff game against East Meadow was moved to Roslyn, a neutral site, because of conditions at East Meadow.

A small price to pay, Shippos said.

"Any time you have a natural disaster and can break away from how hectic your outside life is, that's good,'' he said. "Coming back to school and football gets us back to a routine. We're all experiencing something like this for the first time. None of us has ever seen anything like it. The kids are doing the best that they can, and that's all you can ask. For us, football was a little relief."

BAY SHORE MARAUDERS

Players drag themselves across the field and get dressed. It's been four days with no power. There's no heat and it was getting colder.

Coach Jim Giattino called his football players together and went over the practice plan and added a couple of additional announcements.

"I wanted them to know that whatever they needed we'd try and help them," Giattino said. "A lot of the guys weren't living at home, especially down by the shore."

Giattino estimates that half his varsity football team was displaced, living with each other or bunking with family. The communication has been very difficult with so many areas in this South Shore community ravaged by super storm Sandy.

"We didn't have school for a week but we were allowed to practice so we had to find transportation to the field," said Bay Shore quarterback Ryan Mazzie. "And then it was a gas problem. The guys are great on this team -- they'd do anything for each other."

Some players stayed home while the power was out to guard against looting in the area.

Giattino said his assistant coach Barry Luckman were bringing in food and stocking the refrigerator inside the locker room for players that hadn't been eating enough.

"We've pulled together," Giattino said. "I try to have them eat together to make sure they stay strong. It has not been an easy go here."

EAST ROCKAWAY ROCKS

East Rockaway was hit hard, real hard. So hard that many people won't be back in their homes for a very long time.

Members of the girls volleyball were among those uprooted from their homes, and the team itself was forced to move to South Side High School in Rockville Centre to prepare for and play yesterday's playoff match.

The Rocks lost, but at least they got to play.

"This is something the team had as a distraction, now I don't know," said East Rockaway coach Ksenia Ferrand, who praised South Side's hospitality. "South Side has been so gracious letting us go in there and accepted us and have made the best of a really tough situation."

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