Tucked away, insulated from the mechanized grumblings of main streets, amid twisting back roads lined with bare trees and littered with brown leaves, is the unlikely home of a Long Island hockey powerhouse.
Driving up to the Portledge School in Locust Valley, you just might miss the turn off Duck Pond Road. The school looks more like a country estate and is situated down a paved path, leaving the buildings nearly invisible on their own street. Even if you've been clued-in to the secret - that the Panthers are one of the top teams in the state - you'd find scant evidence of it here.
The Portledge gymnasium's walls are covered with banners, flags and pennants from soccer, lacrosse and basketball. No mention of hockey. But when you're a league-less program, forced to look outside of Long Island for serious competition, that's the price you pay.
"There is no IPPSAL hockey," athletic director Phil Hills said. "We're completely independent, and every year we try to create the most challenging schedule we can."
The team finished 18-4 in 2009-10, culminating its season with a semifinal loss to Albany Academy in the statewide Empire Cup Tournament.
Portledge's enrollment is around 175 students - 24 on the hockey team, which boasts several players that are legitimate Division I prospects.
Sal Magliocco, 18, ranked nationally among the top 25 goalies in his age bracket, played all but 15 minutes this season, saving 453 of 506 shots for a 2.41 goals against average and .895 save percentage.
"It all starts with Sal," coach Mike Coope said. "When he first came, we weren't as strong and a lot of times he was shelled. But he hung in there and played with passion and energy. Each year we got progressively better, so for his senior year, for us to peak at this level, we were happy."
Michael Goldstein (18 goals, 20 assists) and Ori Benyamini (10 goals, 28 assists) tied for the team lead in points with 38 apiece. "He's not the biggest kid, but in terms of his work rate, in terms of his vision, he's unmatched," Coope said of Benyamini. "He sees the ice so well."
Ron Fishman, who had 17 points and 15 blocked shots in 19 games, led the defense.
"Our offense starts with our defense," Coope said. "Fishman is probably one of the best skaters I've seen."
The program strives to have at least five of the top 20 players on Long Island enrolled at Portledge in any given year. Because rules prohibit the coaches from recruiting players, according to Hills, the school relies on word-of-mouth to attract talent from as far away as the Queens border in the west and Commack in the east.
"The first component is the product we're selling," said Hills, who coached the team from 1990-2005. "Being in a small class where you have a strong relationship with a teacher only helps the students manage their work in conjunction with hockey. And hopefully they then go out and tell their hockey buddies about it."
The program began in the early 1980s, and around 1990 it began changing its schedule from metropolitan based to one that encompassed the entire eastern region, including schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
"Our schedule is off Long Island because of the competition," Hills said. "The schools we play are fully recruited teams where more than half their players are going to be college players."
Prep school hockey tends to emphasize defense and close checking. But it's also more difficult and is the favored style for many Division I college programs and pro teams.
Since 1999, Portledge has graduated 23 hockey players to top collegiate programs, many of which are Division I, such as Boston College, Cornell, Harvard and Yale. Three of those players - Douglas Murray, Ryan Vesce and Eric Nystrom - have gone on to careers in the NHL.
"Ryan Vesce always epitomized what our program could do for somebody," Hills said. "He wasn't the biggest guy in stature - 5-4 or 5-5, 100-nothing when he was here - but he was a very skilled player and a very smart player.''
But after the anecdotes and reminiscing, Hills gets serious. He leans in, sighs and shares his one concern about some people's perception of hockey on Long Island.
"All I've ever heard is if you want to be any good, if you want to make it in hockey, you have to get off Long Island," he said. "That is absolutely not true."
Want proof? If you can find it, just go to Portledge.