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25 years later, Island Trees still celebrating its only LIC title

Island Trees High School's 1992 football champions --

Island Trees High School's 1992 football champions -- with cheerleaders, coaches and faculty from that year -- reunited at homecoming to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of their victory on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Credit: Rachel Weiss

Maybe you can’t live in the past. Maybe those glory days will pass you by. And then there’s the Island Trees football team of 1992. For those forever teammates, adults who remain boys of fall at heart, their Long Island Championships experience remains a powerful memory that cements an already solid bond.

“I hadn’t gone back to my school until we had the 25-year reunion,” linebacker A.J. Gravina, who lives in Deer Park and is a lineman for Optimum Cable, said of the Sept. 23 homecoming weekend that paid homage to the Bulldogs’ dramatic 8-0 overtime victory over unbeaten Mount Sinai in the 1992 Long Island Class IV championship game.

The reunion was attended by players and coaches who lived nearby and from as far away as Florida. “It was such a nice event,’’ Gravina said. “I brought my wife and kids there. You could see how it still means a lot to all of us. It was one of the best times of my life and I look back on it fondly. We were the only team in school history to win it. We’re almost like legends of the school.”

Their legendary status at the small Levittown school has been enhanced because of what has occurred since 1992: Of the eight teams that participated in the inaugural Long Island Championships that year, Island Trees is the only one that has not returned. In some ways, that has made the Bulldogs’ championship an even bigger deal now than it was a quarter of a century ago.

“These guys are rooting for Island Trees to get back to the LIC and win it all. We want the kids from today to experience what we did,” said kicker Chris Neglia, a gym teacher in Davie, Florida. “Every year that they don’t, it’s bittersweet. At the end of the football season, the guys, no matter where they live, check the standings, and when they see Island Trees hasn’t made it back to the LIC, they drink a toast. It’s not that we’re happy that they didn’t make it. It’s more that we reminisce about what we did. It’s still a great memory, and it does make it more special that we are the only ones. It’s one of those magic moments that, if you’re lucky, you see once in your lifetime.”

The magic of that game, which attracted a crowd of more than 3,400 fans to Hofstra on a windy, cold Dec. 4 night, is in the details, which this special group of teammates can recall with high-definition clarity 25 years later.

Neglia, a soccer player who moonlighted on the football team, had kicked a game-winning field goal against Manhasset during the season and was reliable on extra points, so he knew he was going onto the field after Island Trees scored a touchdown in overtime. He was hoping the Bulldogs would run Black 99, a trick play designed for him to score two points. “My wife says I’m always forgetting things she tells me, but I’ll never forget Black 99,” he said. “It was a fake kick that we worked on a lot that week. It was me rolling out to the right and getting a pitch from the quarterback [and holder], then running into the end zone.”

But after Joe Kaiser broke the scoreless tie with a touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak on the first possession of overtime — when all drives began at the defensive team’s 10-yard line — Bulldogs coach Bob Daly eschewed Black 99. “We score that touchdown and everyone is going crazy on the sidelines,” Neglia said. “I heard someone say, ‘We’re going to do the fake,’ and my face lit up. Then Coach calls a different play. Black 99 is stuck in my brain because I wanted to score so badly. But winning the way we did was better than me scoring.”

Daly, who is retired and lives in Rockville Centre, remembered the sequence quite well. “We ran ‘Fire,’ which was something we had practiced two or three times a week all season,” he said while on vacation in South Carolina. “The holder would take the center snap, put it down [as if for a kick], then pick it up and throw it to the tight end. We put Black 99 in that week just in case there was a situation where we needed something else. But when we scored in overtime, I didn’t think it was time to mess around with something new.”

Something old worked just fine. Kaiser took the snap, and when he stood up, there was tight end Phil Pierro all alone in the end zone to score those two critical points.

“We were shocked Coach even went for two,” recalled Pierro, who lives in Huntington and works as a systems engineer for Arista Networks. “We knew they would come hard because they had blocked a field goal earlier. I was so wide open that when the ball was coming to me, it was like slow motion. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it.’ ’’

When Mount Sinai, which entered the game with a 10-0 record and a powerful rushing attack, got the ball in overtime, Keith Moore gained four yards before Jaimie Pennisi picked up five yards on second down, a play that drew a facemask penalty. That gave the Mustangs three cracks at a touchdown from less than a yard out.

“I was nervous on the sidelines. It was hold your breath and hope for the best,” Neglia said.

The two-point conversion had given the rugged Island Trees defense a bit of a cushion, even as the Bulldogs lined up in the end zone for three straight plays. “The sentiment in the huddle was that even if they scored, we were confident they wouldn’t be able to get into the end zone on us twice,” Pierro said.

Gravina had similar thoughts. “When they got to the 1, I assumed they were going to punch it in. I was the nose tackle and my job was to plug the middle, get underneath and let [star linebacker Mike] Duggan make the tackle. Of course we were trying to keep them out. But if they punched it in, we knew we would stop them from getting the two points.”

On second-and-goal from inside the 1, Pennisi was stuffed for a 2-yard loss by linebackers Pierro and Duggan, an All-Long Island selection. “I called the defensive plays in the huddle,” Duggan said from his home in Kendall, Florida, where he is a special education teacher. “We were beating them at the line of scrimmage the whole game. They were not going up the middle on us. We went into our four-point stances and just blew them back.”

On third down, Gravina and tackle Gerry Papadatos stopped quarterback Steve Scimone’s sneak at the 1. On the Mustangs’ final attempt, Moore took a pitchout and tried to get outside left end, but linebacker Bill Spoering and cornerback Larry Babino combined to end the game.

But that season has never really ended for the Bulldogs.

“I played football and lacrosse in college and played on winning teams, but I never remember having a chemistry like that team,’’ said Carmine Apuzzo, the team’s leading rusher and a starting defensive end who is a plumber for Local 1 and lives in Babylon. “We were a brotherhood. On and off the field, we were tight.”

In overtime, Apuzzo recalled, “We were going on emotion and adrenaline. There was nothing that was going to stop us. Too much had happened during the season to that point. We were seeded No. 10 [out of 14] in the preseason. Everyone thought us being there was a fluke. We were the underdogs. How could we not do it? The tension built up in overtime and the odds were against us when they got to the 1. But we weren’t giving in. Our defense won us the championship.”

Said Duggan, still with a touch of incredulity in his voice, “We had bonded that summer in summer camp. We were like a brotherhood. In the huddle, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is why we did all that hard work. They are not getting through.’ They had second and inches. It was just an amazing thing.”

Daly easily hit the rewind button in his mind about that goal-line stand. “I can see our guys coming across the line on the snap. Just a wall of bodies,” the coach said. “They tried the middle, which was the strength of our defense. That didn’t work. They tried to pitch, and the linebackers and cornerbacks were already in the backfield. Mount Sinai had nowhere to go. I remember the looks on the kids’ faces. There was no way they were letting Mount Sinai cross that goal line. It was amazing, the most awesome game of my career and certainly the greatest group of kids I’ve ever coached.”

After the final tackle, Neglia said he was standing next to some coaches and jumped on their backs and let them carry him to midfield before he jumped off. “It was madness. There was hugging, crying. We were getting carried by coaches,” Neglia said. “I was in a state of disbelief. I was lucky enough to have had some success in soccer, so I felt for my friends, the football guys. They got a bad rap. The reputation for Island Trees football was that we’d always wind up 4-4 and miss the playoffs. Winning the whole thing was beyond our wildest dreams.”

The Bulldogs’ triumph rumbled throughout the Island Trees community, with aftershocks that lasted for weeks. “It was surreal how Island Trees football was suddenly on the map,” Apuzzo said. “We’d go into the delis wearing our football jerseys and they’d give us free lunch. It brought the community together more than I remembered. It had never happened before.”

Duggan still gets emotional when he thinks about the team’s camaraderie. “For every game, we would come out on the field in two lines, military fashion,” he said. “I was a captain, so I’d shout, ‘Who are we?’ They’d answer, ‘Dogs!’ I’d say ‘What are we?’ ‘Hungry!’ Then, ‘What do we stand for?’ ‘Intense, legal pain!’ That was our chant, and it showed how together we were.”

So did a postgame ritual when Island Trees won. “We’d go down to an end zone and do victory push-ups,” Duggan said before adding with a laugh, “We only had to do eight that day, but they were the best eight push-ups of our lives.”

They were glorious.

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