Katherine Wilcenski didn’t have a good memory of the last time she played against the Centereach Cougars. It was in February when the Mattituck Tuckers center went down with a series of injuries in her right knee in a basketball game against Centereach. Wilcenski tore her anterior cruciate ligament, her medial collateral ligament and her meniscus, costing her the final half of her junior season.
So, after rehabilitation and working her way back to the court, Wilcenski was ready on Friday night for her first game in a little over nine months. The opponent? You guessed it. Centereach.
Life has a way of arranging things that way sometimes.
Wilcenski said that when her father, Don Wilcenski, Mattituck’s assistant coach, told her who the Tuckers would play in their season-opener, her reaction was, “Oh God.” She said: “I kind of like bit my tongue and was a little nervous, but as it got closer to the game, I kind of realized that it’s just another game. I just got amped to play.”
Now Wilcenski can take a good memory away from a game against Centereach. Her return was a victorious one. Jackie Berkoski hit a big three-point shot down the stretch for Class B Mattituck, which withstood a late surge by Class AA Centereach — as well as four missed free throws in the final 14.5 seconds — to win the season-opener, 52-50.
Berkoski’s three-pointer gave the Tuckers a 51-47 lead in the non-league game at Mattituck High School. Shortly after, Centereach replied with a three from Jenna Agostino, making it a one-point game. A Wilcenski free throw accounted for the game’s final point with 36.3 seconds to go.
Things remained interesting, though, when Lauren Guja and Liz Lasota both missed a pair of foul shots that could have given Mattituck a little more breathing room during the final seconds.
Centereach Coach James Steigele called a timeout with 8.1 seconds left to set up one final shot for his side. It wasn’t a good shot, though. Dominque Wilson was double-teamed as she made a move toward the basket and put up a desperate attempt that bounced off the backboard before Wilcenski grabbed the rebound. The game ended with the ball in her hands.
“It was definitely a vital way to start our season off,” said Katherine Wilcenski, whose younger sister, Allie, came off the bench to make her varsity debut. “It sets the tone for the rest of the season.”
Katherine Wilcenski said she is about 80 percent back to where she was before the knee injuries. She said it was heart-breaking to watch the team play last season and not be able to contribute. She said the injuries gave her a different outlook.
“It definitely makes me appreciate everything more, even down to running suicides,” she said, referring to the torturous sprinting drills the team does. “I enjoy it almost. It’s just such a pain to miss out on that with your team. I just get a lot more into it than I used to and I’m a lot more grateful and thankful for my team.”
The Tuckers can be thankful to have Wilcenski, who captains the team along with Berkoski, back. Wilcenski had eight points, eight rebounds, four steals and an assist.
“She is definitely inspiring to everyone else, coming off such a bad injury, to come back and play her heart out,” said Guja.
The game also marked the long-awaited return of Mattituck senior forward Stefanie Loverde, who torn an ACL early last season.
And yet, it was a sophomore, Guja, a 5-foot 10-inch forward, who stood out the most. Guja played what might have been her best game for the Tuckers, collecting 14 points along with nine rebounds, nine steals and three assists.
“She’s only going to get better,” said Mattituck Coach Steve Van Dood.
Berkoski had 11 points. Shannon Dwyer, a freshman making her varsity debut, chipped in nine points.
Although Morgan Zuhoski didn’t score for Mattituck, Van Dood said she did a great job on defense guarding Wilson.
Ballhandling could prove to be Mattituck’s Achilles’ heel, though. The Tuckers turned the ball over 31 times.
Agostino was Centereach’s top scorer with 15 points. Heather Ferchland and Wilson each accounted for 13 points, seven rebounds, five steals and three assists.
Katherine Wilcenski said there were a couple of times during the game when her legs were wobbly, but she said she kept running and jumping.
“I think I did well,” she said during an interview some 20 minutes after the game. “I felt like I was on another planet, honestly. I had so much adrenaline. I still have goosebumps.”