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LI players out to begin new win streak at Empire Challenge

Kyle Nuñez, East Islip lineman, practices at Hofstra on

Kyle Nuñez, East Islip lineman, practices at Hofstra on June 19, 2017, for the 22nd annual Empire Challenge. Credit: James Escher

Three captains, three units, one goal.

“The reality is we want to win a football game together,” said Kyle Nunez, a lineman from East Islip who was elected by his teammates as offensive captain for Wednesday night’s 22nd Empire Challenge All-Star football game between Long Island and New York City at 7 o’clock at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium. “It’s on our minds every day. We end practice the same way by saying, ‘Together.’ ”

The Long Island players know the game’s history. They are well aware that L.I. has won 12 of the 19 games against the City team (the first two were between Nassau and Suffolk) and very well aware that their squad had a five-game winning streak snapped last year when NYC rallied late for a dramatic 39-34 victory.

“We’re going to treat it as a real game,” said special teams captain Joe Valenti of Wantagh. “Last year we lost and we have to come back this year and start a new streak. We use that as motivation every day.”

Strong safety Frankie Stola of Northport, the defensive captain, said, with emphasis, “We are totally motivated. We want to win.”

Each of the captains were Newsday All-Long Island first-team selections last fall, as were many of their teammates. “Phenomenal talent on both sides of the ball. Haven’t seen better kids than this ever. It’s awesome,” Stola said. “You play against some of these guys and you know the names, but now we’re meeting them and playing with them and you realize we’ve got a great team here. It’s really cool.”

Valenti said he has enjoyed the competitive practices where “you’re going against great guys every day and you know that the guy next to you is a great player who can do anything on the field.”

That’s literally true with Valenti, who will play defensive end and stay on the field for special teams. “I love hitting,” he said, breaking into a wide smile. “Kick returns, defense, I love it all.”

Nunez, a 300-pound guard, said the high talent level will serve him well later this summer, when he begins his college career at Stony Brook. “It’s a great experience having all these guys next to me who know what they’re doing,” Nunez said. “It’s prepping me for college. When you move to the next level, they’re all kids like this. Everybody is working hard and we’re having fun doing it.”

There’s always a fun element to the Empire Challenge, but Stola, a hard-hitting 6-foot, 190-pounder, is treating it like a business trip.

“From the first second of practice, he was checking with me on the fronts and about any changes, then going right into calling them. He did it on his own,” defensive coordinator Sal Ciampi of East Islip said of Stola. “He’s kind of been my voice out on the field. It’s great to have a kid like that in an All-Star Game.”

Ciampi also had high praise for the 6-5, 250-pound Valenti, who was a big factor in Wantagh’s 21-14 victory over East Islip in the LIC. “Obviously a very impressive player, physically,” Ciampi said. “Getting to know him the last couple of weeks — a great kid, good leader, very coachable. You can see why he’s had so much success.”

Russ Cellan of Freeport, the offensive line coach, has been impressed with Nunez’s serious approach. “He’s legitimately interested in this game and he’s legitimately interested in getting better every day. He’s working all the time,” Cellan said. “He’s a big, strong guy with a great attitude. A good football mind. He gets it.”

He’s a captain.

United Health Care Empire Challenge


What: United Health Care Empire Challenge, an All-star football game featuring the best high school seniors from Long Island against the best from New York City. Proceeds from the 22nd annual game benefit the Boomer Esiason Foundation, the Gunnar H. Esiason Scholarship Fund at Hofstra University, and local youth football programs.

When: Wednesday at 7 p.m. Gates open at 6 p.m.

Where: Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium.

Parking: Parking is free, but limited.

Tickets: Available at stadium ticket booths on game day beginning at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person.

Television: CBS Sports Network on tape delay, July 1, 10 p.m.

Pregame activities: FanFest is from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the main parking lot near the entrance to the stadium. FanFest is free and is an interactive theme park with inflatable rides and games.

History: Long Island leads the series 12-7. 15 of the 21 games have been decided by less than 10 points.

Last Year: New York City won, 39-34.


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