Wheatley Pink Panthers lead pack as underdog team

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Coaches Michael Mizhiritsky (left) and Chuck Santarelli (right) pose with members of the Wheatley Pink Panthers basketball team. (Photo courtesy of Michael Mizhiritsky)

Michael Mizhiritsky and Chuck Santarelli started the Wheatley Pink Panthers basketball team to give a group of close friends a chance to share the court, they said.

But the team of 12 boys, now sixth-graders at the Willets Road School, have proven themselves against some of the toughest teams their age.

“Little did we realize that we had a lot of talent on our hands here,” said Mizhiritsky, a Roslyn Heights resident.

The team has garnered a 15-2 record in the Island Garden League, regularly beating travel teams with more resources, Mizhiritsky said.

That’s rare for a “town team” from an area as small as the East Williston school district, said Santarelli, an East Williston resident.

The players’ camaraderie and friendship have driven their success on the court in the two years since the team was founded, Santarelli said.

“They cheer each other on,” he said. “Whether you start or you come off the bench, every kid treats each other kid the same way.”

The Pink Panthers — a name the players chose themselves — held no tryouts or cuts when Mizhiritsky and Santarelli first fielded the team of fourth-graders, Mizhiritsky said.

Most of them have known each other since kindergarten and also play on other sports teams together, the coaches said.

“We struggled initially, but with a lot of practice these kids really understand what it’s like to play as teammates and friends,” said Mizhiritsky, a physician who practices in Manhattan.

The team practices two hours each week and plays about 60 games from September to June, Santarelli said.

Many have to balance their Pink Panthers schedule with other sports they play throughout the year, such as baseball and lacrosse, the coaches said.

While other competitive travel teams can pay professional coaches and trainers, the Pink Panthers have climbed to the top with two coaches who have no professional experience.

Santarelli, the vice president of operations for Mersant International, a livestock and cargo shipping company, played basketball at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay and coached Catholic Youth Organization teams.

But Mizhiritsky’s experience just comes from “the love of the game,” he said.

The coaches push the kids and will be stern with them if necessary, but above all, they want to maintain the inclusive environment that’s led to the team’s success, Santarelli said.

“It takes five people to succeed on a basketball court,” he said. “One or two kids isn’t going do it.”

No matter what the coaches do, it’s the players’ dedication to the game and to each other that helps them win, Santarelli said.

He and Mizhiritsky plan to keep coaching the Pink Panthers as they get older, Mizhiritsky said.

They work really hard and I’ll never take that away from them, ever,” Santarelli said.

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