West Islip was a football town when Scott Craig took over the boys lacrosse program in 1988. “Now it’s a football-lacrosse community,” he said.
Craig is too modest to say so, but it might be more accurate to call West Islip a lacrosse-football community, and that is a major part of the legacy he leaves behind.
He changed a town’s identity.
Craig, 64, who retired as a teacher in 2015, coached his 600th and final game on Friday, a playoff loss to Connetquot. He finished his 31-year career, all at West Islip, with 479 victories, the ninth-highest total in New York State history.
The Lions won all five of their state Class A championships during Craig’s reign, which also included seven Long Island championships and nine consecutive Suffolk titles. Twice his teams finished No. 1 in the national rankings.
“He definitely changed the program,” said Nicky Galasso, who graduated in 2010 as Long Island’s all-time leading scorer with 500 points.
“On the high school circuit, West Islip is recognized, nationally, as a premier program,” Craig said. “Obviously, it’s been a few years since we’ve gotten back to the pinnacle [the Lions’ last Long Island and state titles came in 2012], but I think most people know that Long Island lacrosse — especially the A division — is the cream of the crop.”
The cream wasn’t rising, however, when Craig began. “West Islip had always been a pretty competitive lacrosse program, but it was a roller-coaster,” he said. “They’d have a good season; they’d have a bad season. It was usually based on their football athletes and how many of them wanted to compete in lacrosse.”
Then Craig and his assistant since Day 1, defensive coach Bill Turri, started a summer camp. “That was all about skill development,’’ Craig said. “Then we started doing open fields on Tuesday nights and started a little league program. Eventually, it took effect.” And eventually, West Islip lacrosse didn’t have to depend on football players.
It took a long time, however, for Craig and his Lions to overthrow the reigning king of lacrosse, Joe Cuozzo, at Ward Melville. According to Craig, Cuozzo’s Patriots beat him 19 straight times before the Lions won 17 of the next 21 meetings. A milestone was reached when West Islip blitzed the Patriots, 16-4, in the 2002 Suffolk semifinals. And though the Lions lost to eventual state champion Northport in the county final that year and lost to Smithtown in the county final in 2003, Craig knew “we had crossed a bridge.”
It was the bridge to a dynasty. West Islip won its first state crown in 2006, going undefeated, and repeated in 2007. The Lions made it four state titles in five years by going back-to-back again in 2009-10.
Though Craig won’t rate his teams, he mentioned 2006 because it was his first state championship. He expressed a fondness for the 2009 team because his son Shane had a four-goal game in the state semifinals.
Then there’s the 2012 squad, the last roar of the Lions to date. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, they won all those championships with Nicky,’ ’’ Craig said. “To come back and win the state championship again, that was a pretty impressive feat.”
So is what the school referred to as the Decade of Champions, the period from 2004 to 2013. West Islip recognized that era with a celebration on May 5 in which 75 alumni showed up and were honored. “Everyone that graduated from West Islip and played boys lacrosse in those 10 years won either a state championship or a Long Island championship or both during their careers,” Craig noted. “Our record in that time was 200-15. In high school lacrosse in this day and age, that’s a phenomenal record and I’m very, very proud of that and of what they accomplished.”
But more than the championships and individual honors, it’s Craig’s human touch that lingers, according to Galasso, who played on four state title teams.
Galasso lost his mom, Cindy, to lung cancer in 2004 and still was emotionally adrift at times when he got to the varsity late in the season as an eighth- grader.
“When I was going through what I went through with my mom, he wasn’t just a coach. He knew it was a tough situation and he knew how to make it the best for me,” Galasso said. “It was a little different for me because he was my youth coach, too. He knew me. He always pushed me. There were times I’d be down or upset about my mom, but he was always there for me in a positive way. He was like another father figure.”
Galasso, one of 31 Lions to be named an All-American under Craig, cited his coach’s humorous side as well. “In the locker room, he kept it fun,” Galasso said. “Even it was a serious moment in a big game, he’d put his hat to the side or he’d dance with us. He kept us in the flow.”
And now it’s ebb tide for Craig, the perfect time to let someone else ride the waves.
“The program is in a great place. We have 38 kids on the team and 28 will be coming back. The JV ended up with a 15-1 record,” said Craig, whose final team went 11-5. “I did not want to leave the cupboard bare. I’ve put my life’s work into this. I don’t want to see it fold up just because I’m not here. I’d rather it grow back up to what it was six or seven years ago. I would love to see that happen. I’d be the No. 1 fan.”
Appropriate for the man who made West Islip No. 1 in lacrosse.