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SportsColumnistsGregg Sarra

Babylon's success rooted in culture of football

Babylon's Shea Amdur (53) and Luke Zappia (2)

Babylon's Shea Amdur (53) and Luke Zappia (2) share a word after he ran for a 43-yard touchdown in the first half on a fumble recovery during a game against Port Jefferson. (Sept. 28, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

As day turned to dusk Friday evening, players moved from the field to the school. The light wind coming off Argyle Lake in Babylon reminded all that summer was turning to fall.

The Babylon football team formed two lines and walked across what's left of the grass on the varsity field and back inside. The afternoon walk-through was over.

Babylon started playing football in 1929 and is one of Long Island's oldest and most successful programs. Since the inception of the Long Island championships in 1992, the Panthers have won five Long Island titles -- only Bellport, Floyd and North Babylon have won more.

The Panthers have made 28 playoff appearances, including the last 17 consecutive years (1996-2012), during which they've won 10 Suffolk crowns.

But the work is never done for the defending Long Island Class IV champions, who finished 12-0 last season and earned the Rutgers Trophy as Suffolk's top team. The school with the fourth-smallest enrollment in Suffolk County is a giant in football.

"It speaks volumes when the coaches recognize your program as the best of the best," said Babylon head coach Rick Punzone, who has a 90-19 record in his 11 years. "There is a commitment to football in Babylon that begins in the seventh grade -- it's a culture."

With practice complete, players head for an elementary school-sized classroom for the Friday night meeting. The room is small, shades are drawn and desks shifted into a circle where players form a chain by holding hands. It is this unity that drives Babylon.

"We are the black hats," senior quarterback Nick Santorelli said. "We are guys who aspired to wear the black hats when we were little. Everyone in Babylon wants to be on this team. We have no names on our jerseys and no stickers or stars on our helmets. We are a team with one goal."

Santorelli completes the circle locking hands with Jake Carlock as everyone stares toward the middle of the room.

The room is silent. Players sit dressed in game jerseys waiting for the coaching staff to address them. Messages of inspiration are the order of the night. Each coach takes a few minutes to speak and to send a personal message -- some have a specific tone.

There is an unflinching focus. It is quiet. No one moves. The room is getting hotter and all eyes are now upon Punzone -- the last to speak. He serves a mix of challenges and praise. He first creates a goal-oriented challenge and finishes by explaining the opportunity before them -- the chance for those who earned the right to play this week.

"Make a name for yourself," Punzone said. "Become the guy they talk about, the guy they fear, become the one."

Punzone hits the very core of what makes football players tick and what drives Babylon to great success. There is a bunker mentality in this little room. Guys are here to etch their names in the great lore of Babylon football.

In his summation, Punzone asked that the leaders in the room, his captains, raise the bar and drive others to meet expectations. Players such as senior defensive tackle Tazon Rogers and junior defensive tackle John Visgauss, who earned their first chance to start Saturday at Port Jefferson.

And Punzone pointed out junior linebacker John Larsen, whom he said, "ignited our practice on Wednesday" like he's never seen in his 11 years as head coach.

And he looked at Rogers and said, "you make something special happen -- opportunity is here, now."

"You grow up in this town and you want to be a part of Babylon football because it's the center of the community," Santorelli said. "We have that small-town feel, that Texas feel. I get so emotional when I think that it's about to end."

Santorelli is small in stature at 5-8, huge in heart, and the leader of this Panthers program. The honors student will live his personal dream and stand before a selection committee to be appointed to West Point next month.

"Now that's real pressure," he laughed.

Santorelli's focus is unyielding. He is interesting, engages in deep conversation and can run or throw a football with the best of them. He has some of Long Island's top athletes at his side. There is All-Long Island wide receiver Jake Carlock, who at 6-3 is nearly impossible to cover. He also has a 6-5 wide receiver in Ray Wardell, who is headed to the Naval Academy to play lacrosse. And if they're not open, he can check down to the 5-10 Eric Schweitzer, who will play lacrosse at Binghamton.

"They catch everything and make it easy for me," Santorelli said. "I'm going to miss everything about Babylon football. But before I go on to those other challenges, I'm going to enjoy the rest of the ride."

That journey passed through Port Jefferson on Saturday, when the Panthers beat the home team, 42-0.

The black hats with no names on their jerseys came in, did work, and left with another win -- their 15th in a row.

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