So, what is different about the current Mattituck boys basketball team as compared to last season’s squad?
Answer: Just about everything.
“It’s going to be a complete makeover,” Mattituck coach Paul Ellwood said. “It’s like one of the shows my wife watches.”
That is bound to happen when a team — even a team that reached the Southeast Region Class B final and finished with a 16-7 record — loses nine players. Among them was Mattituck’s entire starting lineup.
That is why the defending Long Island champions were picked in a coaches’ poll to finish in last place in Suffolk County League VII this season.
Last season’s Tuckers left this season’s squad with an awfully tough act to follow. What are they to do for an encore?
“It’s just going to be an uphill climb this year,” said Ellwood, who enjoyed his second winning season since taking over the Tuckers in 2003. “The bad news is we don’t have any experience. The good news is everybody is going to get some playing time.”
The most experienced player Mattituck has is Tom Sledjeski, a 6-foot-5 forward/center. Three other seniors — guard Connor Egan, guard Austin Tuthill and forward Matt Jacobs — have precious little varsity playing experience.
But the Tuckers have had a couple of positive developments. Ellwood is anticipating good things from Eugene Allen, a sophomore guard who was brought up to the varsity team late in the regular season. Allen had posted a few 30-point games for the junior varsity team.
“He won’t be a secret for long,” predicted Ellwood.
A wide-eyed Allen witnessed the wild playoff ride Mattituck enjoyed, including Steve Ascher’s buzzer-beating tip-in to defeat Malverne in the Long Island final. Mattituck players simply refer to that memorable play as “the tip-in.” It may be the most legendary shot in school history.
“Even though I was the youngest guy out there, it felt good to storm the court,” said Allen.
Mattituck also has the good fortune to have K. J. Pertillar, a 6-3 transfer from Riverhead who played for that school’s JV team. Because of an ankle injury, Pertillar has been limited to light shooting in practice, but he is expected to be one of the team’s pivotal players. “He’s super athletic,” Ellwood said. “He’s going to help.”
While the team is expected to run primarily through those three players, role players like small forward Justin Tyler, point guard Tyler Connell, forward Will Gildersleeve, point guard Chris Dwyer, 6-3 center Taliek Flythe and forward Dylan Gougian could have a big say in how well the team does.
“We’re going to have ups and downs,” said Ellwood.
The coach cannot deny that there is a curiosity factor among outsiders regarding how the team will look after its makeover. The Tuckers do have their work cut out for them. Most, if not all, of Mattituck’s league opponents are deeper, with more proven talent. The Tuckers have little experience in their back court and are more of a counterattack team this season.
“Obviously, you want to emulate, you want to replicate what you did last year, but it’s tough,” Sledjeski said. “It gives you something to work for if nothing else.”
This season marks a significant break from the past for Greenport (18-2). For the first time since at least when Gerald Crenshaw arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, the Porters do not have a single marquee name on their modest roster. One would have to go back over the years before Dantré Langhorne, Ryan Creighton and Crenshaw to mark the last time Greenport didn’t have a player of star value on the court.
The defending League VIII champions are picking up the pieces. They no longer have Langhorne, who scored over 1,400 career points and is now playing for Queen City Preparatory Academy in Charlotte, N.C. Tremayne Hansen has also graduated. On top of that, the Porters suffered another blow when Jalen Shelby, who would have been Greenport’s top player, transferred to Riverhead for his senior year.
But Greenport coach Al Edwards isn’t despairing. “We took a hit, but we’ll bounce back,” he said. “I like the chances with the team we have.”
What Greenport lacks in star power it hopes to make up for in teamwork and work ethic.
The Porters, who lost to Port Jefferson in the Suffolk Class C final, are once again back in Class D. “We shouldn’t have a problem making the playoffs, and who knows what happens once you get into the playoffs?” said Edwards, who has over 300 wins to his credit since becoming Greenport’s coach in 1979.
Sean Charters, a senior who will play shooting guard or small forward, is the only returning starter. “He’s a good stand-up shooter,” Edwards said. “He’s a smart player.”
Matt Dibble, a junior guard who played sparingly, is the only other returner.
Billy Doucett, a 6-1 junior forward, could be a starter along with 6-2 sophomore center/forward Austin Hooks, sophomore point guard Gavin Dibble (Matt’s brother) and sophomore point guard Max Eggimann. Mike Reed, a senior forward, will see plenty of minutes, said Edwards.
All of these players have played together in summer and fall leagues.
Unlike previous years, Greenport is more of a finesse, fast-breaking team. Edwards said the Porters will need to play good defense, pick up steals and score quickly.
“We want to make sure that we don’t give up a lot of second and third shots,” he said. “We have to try to find a way to make it work.”
The most talented player in League VIII this season may be wearing a Southold uniform.
Winston Wilcenski was one of the top scorers in Suffolk last season, averaging 22.1 points per game and nailing down a Long Island-leading 65 three-point field goals. The First Settlers (10-9) are hoping for more of the same from their all-conference senior shooting guard. Not even a broken nose that Wilcenski suffered this fall while playing soccer for Southold has kept him off the court. He hasn’t missed any practice time.
In September, Wilcenski made a Suffolk top 40 team.
“I think he’s one of the top shooters in Suffolk County,” Southold coach Jeff Ellis said. “He’s a pure scorer, so that obviously in itself is big. Obviously, a lot of teams are going to be focusing on him, [so] that [will] free up some other guys.”
Ellis knows that one player alone, not even a player of Wilcenski’s caliber, can win games by himself. Others will have to contribute, like senior guard Kyle Clausen. In addition, senior center Alex Sinclair, senior forward Will Fujita, sophomore forward Matt Stepnoski and junior guard David O’Day may fill more prominent roles than they did last season.
The newcomers are freshman guard Liam Walker, junior forwards Peter Dicandia and Cesar Umana, and junior guards John Tomici and Cole Hiney.
Southold lost only two players from last season, point guard Sal Manno and big man Alex Conway, a big-time rebounder who averaged 12 boards a game. The First Settlers are athletic, but small, and rebounding could be a challenge.
Ellis doesn’t know what the precise makeup of his starting lineup will be, nor does he know who will be his sixth and seventh men.
“I know we’re going to play hard,” he said. “I know we’re going to play the best we can.”