SPORTS DESK/Bob Liepa: It’s a teary end for a team that had it all

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03/14/2011 2:39 PM |

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Yianni Rauseo of Mattituck prepared to launch a shot while John S. Burke Catholic's Dante Cowart tried to stop him.


Some reddened faces emerged from the Mattituck Tuckers’ dressing room at Farmingdale State University. With the emotion and disappointment written on their faces, this group of Tuckers filed out together as a high school boys basketball team for the last time and headed toward a hallway full of awaiting fans.

Playoff endings are tough for any team that doesn’t finish as the state champion, and so it was for the Tuckers, whose 75-59 loss to the John S. Burke Catholic Eagles in the Southeast Region Class B final was as decisive as it was expected to some. Although one wouldn’t know it by the teary eyes, the Tuckers had an awful lot to feel good about. Look at what they accomplished this season: They finished as co-champions of Suffolk County League VII along with the Center Moriches Red Devils. They reached the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They toppled the Wyandanch Warriors and then Center Moriches for their first county title since 2004. They pulled off a stunning triumph over a powerful Malverne Mules team, courtesy of Steve Ascher’s dramatic last-second tip-in, for their first Long Island championship since 1979. And then they fell one win shy of a coveted place in the New York State final four.

Not bad for a team that was predicted by one newspaper to finish fifth in League VII.

“The sting is going to go away fast,” Mattituck Coach Paul Ellwood said. “These guys gave us the ride of our life, so I’m so happy. I’m very satisfied with the outcome of the season.”

These Tuckers were the pride of Mattituck, and for good reason. This was a team their community could truly be proud of. Not only were the Tuckers champions on the court, but they handled themselves with class off the court. They are genuinely nice people who are fun to be around. It really was a special group, built around eight seniors.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Cody Huntley is one of Mattituck's eight seniors, five of whom are starters.

“They had everything,” Ellwood said. “They had heart, talent, desire, chemistry, camaraderie. A lot of teams are good and don’t have all those things. We had all those things. I never had any headaches with these kids. They’re just a pleasure to coach.”

It will be quite some time before Mattituck sees another team like it.

One of the things that made this team special was that the players made themselves into champions. They did it through hard work and dedication. Many of them had played together since they were in elementary school. After entering high school, they continued their drive to improve, playing in spring, summer and fall leagues in addition to the school season.

It’s easy to forget now, but just last season they were 6-12. Their final record this season was 16-7.

But the Tuckers were about more than numbers. They played with heart and, of course, undoubted talent. The Ascher twins, Steve and Tom, have a nose for the net. They showed a remarkable ability to hit shots from just about any angle. Connor Davis is a tremendous playmaker who can bury an outside shot or drive to the basket. If you need rebounds or putbacks, Cody Huntley and the athletic Yianni Rauseo are your men.

“We’re just confident,” Steve Ascher said. “We know what we can do.”

To his credit, Ellwood did his research and knew the sort of team the Tuckers were facing in Burke Catholic, whose 21-2 record does not lie. The Eagles are tall, quick and smart. They have a gem of a player in junior guard Zach Rufer. Brendan Miller, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, plays like a player his height should play. And there are others who give the Eagles a great deal of depth.

No wonder they are headed back to Glens Falls for the state final four. They will play in a state semifinal Friday night against the Westhill Warriors, the same team they lost to in last year’s state final.

When Ellwood asked other coaches about the Eagles, he was told they were very good. “Good luck,” he was told.

“They’re just a different level,” Ellwood said. “They’re by far the best team that we’ve played. Nobody from Long Island is going to beat them. I’m just proud that we got to this point.”

There was some magic along the way. Steve Ascher’s game-winning tip-in at the buzzer, which gave Mattituck a 68-67 triumph over Malverne in the regional semifinal last Wednesday night, was the highlight of the season. It also goes down as one of the legendary shots in team history.

But the Tuckers weren’t thinking about that in the aftermath of their season-ending loss on Saturday night. Regardless of what they had achieved, losing still hurt.

“Everything fell our way to this point,” Rauseo said. “It’s going to be even more sad tomorrow when I’m not going to practice.”

At least the Tuckers can take solace in knowing that they are forever bound together as members of this Long Island championship team. It’s a team Mattituck fans will not forget. It’s a team they will talk about for many more years to come.

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