Fourteen games into its state title defense, the Whitman boys soccer team has used 14 different starting lineups.
Injuries piled up. So did three losses, and coach John DiGiacomo scrambled to find the right combination.
But the Wildcats finally are at full strength. With a 3-0 road win over previously undefeated Half Hollow Hills East on Thursday, Whitman reminded the county why it was widely considered a preseason favorite to win Suffolk’s Class AA title this year.
Anthony Palazzolo made his first start since slightly tearing the MCL in his right knee in a season-opening draw with Chaminade. Kevin Herrera started for the first time since midway through last year, when he tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee.
Each scored in the first half, and Herrera assisted on Kelvin Uceda Alfaro’s goal in the 77th minute. “It’s a big boost having these guys back,” DiGiacomo said. “They helped us a lot.”
When Palazzolo and Herrera could do nothing but watch, Whitman struggled. The Wildcats (9-3 in Suffolk II) sandwiched a 2-1 loss to Hills East on Sept. 19 with losses to Northport.
“It was really tough,” said Herrera, who returned for summer league but tore a hamstring, setting back his 2016 debut. “I wanted to play, but just knowing that if I played I would re-tear my hamstring, I held on. It was worth the wait because I came back, my teammates came back and we’re stronger than ever.”
Stronger than ever because other players such as Uceda Alfaro (nine goals and one assist) were forced to fill larger roles. Even 2015 Newsday All-Long Island second-teamer Blake Aronson (eight goals and six assists) has shouldered more of the load than expected.
“It takes a little pressure off some of the other guys,” DiGiacomo said. “They got the experience [with Palazzolo and Herrera out], so it takes a little pressure off everybody.”
Hills East (9-1-2) has all but locked up the Suffolk II title and the high seed that comes with it. Northport (9-3) holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Whitman. Playoff opponents still will identify the Wildcats as the reigning champions, but perhaps the three losses and a lower seed will relieve the team of some pressure.
“We don’t have the best seeding,” Palazzolo said. “We’re not first in the league or second in the league either, but we’re pretty confident we could do some big things in the playoffs.”