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Island Trees football champions reunite at homecoming, 25 years later

Island Trees High School's 1992 football champions --

Island Trees High School's 1992 football champions -- with cheerleaders, coaches and faculty from that year -- reunited at homecoming to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of their victory on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Credit: Rachel Weiss

Dec. 4, 1992: A band of underdogs from Island Trees took part in the first-ever Long Island high school football championships. The “Rocky” soundtrack played on loop as they made their way toward Hofstra University, ready to face Mount Sinai.

Besides the brassy anthem blaring from the bus speakers, it was dead silent.

“Nobody was allowed to talk… It was just totally intense,” recalled Phil Pierro, one of the team’s captains. “The guys were just ready and laser-focused.”

Former captain Carmine Apuzzo added, “I don’t think there was a doubt in any of our minds whether we were gonna win or not. Whatever it would take, there was no doubt that we would win that game.”

As confident as they were, they were nervous. Left guard/defensive tackle A.J. Gravina remembered hearing that Mount Sinai was set to play an offense they had not seen that season, the wishbone.

“So we were a little nervous about how that was gonna go,” Gravina said. “It was a whole new way of playing defense for us, because we were a very aggressive defense.”

“And we had to be patient,” added Apuzzo.

Gravina nodded, “We had to be very patient.”

“Which was very hard,” Apuzzo said.

“Which was very difficult for us,” Gravina agreed. “But we didn’t let up a single point, did we?”

After a nail-biting, scoreless fight in regulation against Mount Sinai, Island Trees took home the first Class IV championship title, winning 8-0 in overtime.

It’s been 25 years, yet the players and coaches remember every bit of that day. They reunited Saturday at the Island Trees homecoming celebration, where they were honored on the football field during halftime. About 15 out of 28 players were able to attend, and some of them traveled a long way for the occasion. A couple of the guys came from Florida, and linebacker Joe Lucas drove from Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I left after high school, went to the Marine Corps, and never came back to Levittown,” Lucas said. “So this is the first time I’ve been back in 25 years.”

Standing in the gymnasium before the big game began, for the first time in over two decades, the team reminisced.

Kicker Chris Neglia recalled, “What stood out for me was that our community kind of came together. Back then, you didn’t get many people at the games here… And then after, when we won, it was like we were celebrities.”

The players agreed that after that game, it felt like their worlds changed a little bit. They would get stopped on the street and in supermarkets by vaguely familiar neighbors, family acquaintances and strangers.

“I was like, oh my God,” Gravina said, “They actually know about Island Trees football?”

The victory didn’t sink in until later. In fact, Neglia swears the guys didn’t even celebrate the night that they won.

“We went, as a group, to a place in town,” he said. “There was no party. We sat there in disbelief and just talked about the game. We were so exhausted, and we were freezing -- it was December! And we just couldn’t believe what we’d done. That’s the honest truth.”

The day before the homecoming festivities, the teammates relived all of this and more. They convened in the auditorium with the 2017 Bulldogs and watched highlights from the 1992 game. The current players asked the champions about what that season was like, and how they got through it together.

One player on the championship team -- Michael Bonsignore -- is now a physical education teacher and coach at Island Trees. The gathering was particularly special for him.

“It was cool watching the kids watch our highlight film, and asking questions about the season,” Bonsignore said. “We talked to them about being a team... and just the bond that we built through being around each other and fighting for each other and not letting anybody -- whether it’s in school or on the field -- take advantage.”

Stuart Wexler, the team's quarterback in 1992, hopes to impart everything he gained from his experience on the team to future generations.

"We played football and we executed techniques that were intrinsic to the game of football, but what made us a team and what made us champions transcends all of that," he said. "I coach my son's soccer team and I try to instill the same types of core values that made us successful, in him... The lessons we learned that season are rare, I think, in high school. For all of us, it was a blessing."

At halftime, the 1992 Bulldogs were announced one by one. They each waved to the crowd and walked across the field. The championship trophy made an appearance as well, which was borrowed from defending champion Shoreham-Wading River High School.

Following the game, the team organized a barbecue so that they could maximize their time spent together.

“Tomorrow we go back to reality,” Neglia said. “I’m back on the plane, Joe’s driving back to Carolina, these guys are going back to their lives, and who knows when we’ll see each other again.”

But for the weekend -- and the rest of their lives -- they would be champions.

“I don’t know if we could ever replicate that kind of chemistry,” Pierro said, thinking back on the glory days. “It was amazing. It was really amazing.”

“Like the Cowboys in the '90s, right Phil?” said Gravina. The team erupted with laughs and groans. “That’s right, baby,” Pierro smiled.

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