North Shore high schools, athletes capture championships in return to sports

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North Shore high schools, including the Great Neck North Boys Soccer, saw success in the return to athletics halted by the coronavirus pandemic last year. (Photo courtesy of Anton Berzins)

High school teams across the North Shore saw success in various sports for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck last March.

Headlining some of the North Shore schools’ athletic achievements was the Manhasset High School football team winning its first Nassau County Conference III championship since 1996 on May 1.  Manhasset capped its undefeated 8-0 season with a 28-19 victory against Plainedge, the second time the two played each other in a shortened season caused by the pandemic.

After winning a 13-7 battle against Plainedge in the third week of the season, Manhasset brought more firepower to secure the  championship.  The Indians were led by quarterback Rory Connor, who ran for two of his team’s four rushing touchdowns in the game. 

After defeating its two previous opponents by a combined score of 72-7, Plainedge fought back, and was down by just two points late in the fourth quarter. With a chance to take a late lead, Plainedge threw the ball into the hands of Manhasset’s William Cargiulo, who took it back 60 yards for a touchdown to put the finishing touches on the victory.

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“We made a couple of big plays in the second half when we had to,” Manhasset head coach Jay Iaquinta told Newsday. “These kids earned and deserve this.”

“We’ve had this dream,” Connor told Newsday. “Most people thought it was unrealistic. We just stuck together. We kept working. And this is what happens.”

Manhasset’s field hockey team also brought back hardware to the school, defeating  Locust Valley 2-1 for its first county title in nearly a decade on April 21.

With the score tied 1-1 with a little over eight minutes remaining in the game, Manhasset’s Lily Klimuszko scored what would be the game-winning goal against a team Manhasset had split the regular season series with.  With the win, the team advanced to the Long Island Class B championship against Miller Place.

Klimuszko, a sophomore, answered the call once again.

After a scoreless regulation period, Klimuszko scored the game-winning goal for the second game in a row to win 1-0.

“This is the highlight of my life. I tried to tell myself savor the moment and soak it all in,” she told Newsday. 

The Great Neck North boys soccer team also captured glory, but shared it with Garden City High School due to the pandemic’s restrictions on not having islandwide championships. After a full regulation match and two 15-minute golden goal sessions, the match ended in a 2-2 tie. Great Neck North head coach Anton Berzins touted the success of his team going from 0-9-1 last year to 8-1-4 this year.

“This season was a complete 180-degree turnaround from last year,” Berzins said in a phone interview. “We exceeded expectations, but we also dreamed of this moment since the beginning.”

Berzins said his team lived by two mantras this past season. “One team, one dream, one family, one love” and “Taking souls,” an homage to retired Navy SEAL and motivational influencer David Goggins.

“We all knew that we may not have been the all-around best team, the fastest team, or the strongest team, but every opponent we faced understood that we wouldn’t quit,” Berzins said.

That was reflected in the team’s final game, being down 2-0 late in the game. With less than 11 minutes remaining in the game, the Blazers of Great Neck North finally scored, matching the total amount allowed by Garden City all season long. With 27 seconds left in regulation, Ben Avakook scored what would end up being the final goal of the game.

“The home fans were stunned, and our fans were screaming in disbelief,” Berzins said. “It was a made for movie moment to never give up. The underdogs had leveled the playing field. We knocked them down.”

The Wheatley Wildcats’ volleyball and girls soccer teams also won their respective Nassau County Class B championships. The girls volleyball team defeated Oyster Bay in three games on April 28. After Wheatley won the first two games 25-11 and 25-23, Oyster Bay came back and took the third game 25-17. Before Oyster Bay could mount a comeback, the Wildcats won the fourth and final game 25-16.

The day before, the Wildcats’ girls soccer team knocked off the previously undefeated Carle Place Frogs 1-0 to claim the Class B title. Sophomore Jennifer Thaler scored the lone goal in the match, which led the Wildcats to their eighth county championship since 2005.

Despite their storied history in county championship games over the last 15 years, Wheatley came into the match as the underdogs, facing the county’s all-time leading goal scorer in Leah Iglesias of Carle Place.

“The girls showed accountability, respect and ownership all season long and I could not be prouder,” Wheatley head coach Andrew DeRuvo told Newsday. 

“I was really nervous because everyone kept telling me that I was playing great throughout the game,” Behar said to Newsday. “My adrenaline just kept multiplying, so it was awesome.”

In late February, Michaela Palumbo, a freshman on Mineola High School’s girls bowling team, won Nassau County’s individual bowling championship  following the school’s boys team capturing the team title.

The 15-year-old rolled her way to a 1,236-point total in a six-game series at AMF Garden City Lanes on Feb. 23.  Palumbo told Newsday she sought vengeance after the girls team lost in a bowl-off to Bellmore-Merrick in the county’s team championship three days before.

“We really wanted to come out on top because [coach] Mr. [Mark] Miller has never been with a team like this before, but now that I won this, it’s kind of redemption,” Palumbo told Newsday.

“To have two freshmen go first and fourth in the county? I’m psyched,” Miller told Newsday. “I’ll tell you something — I’m going to coach the girls team until these two graduate.”

On the boys’ end, Mineola captured the county championship on Feb. 20, scoring a total of 5,983 points over a six-games series at AMF Garden City Lanes.  The boys championship is the first in the school’s history.

Roslyn junior gymnast Shani Sirota won her second consecutive individual all-around Nassau County title with a cumulative 37.1 (out of 40) score at the individual championships in  February.

Sirota won three of the four individual performances each gymnast participated in, scoring a 9.625 in the vault performance, a 9.50 in the beam performance, and a 9.675 in the floor exercise. She also came in third in the bars routine, with a score of 9.275.

“Shani is just such a consistent athlete,” Roslyn head coach Stephanie Orfni told Newsday. “We come into this with the mindset that we practice awesome and we’re going to have an awesome meet.”

“Just the thought that this could even happen is crazy and exciting,” Sirota told Newsday. “And I was so pumped to show what I could do after this whole quarantine thing.”

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