Up two flights of stairs in an arena that seats more than 4,300, there was the Shelter Island boys basketball team Tuesday, huddled up outside its locker room.
A team with just nine players in uniform, from a school that had never before won a Suffolk County Championship, the realization was just setting in for the Indians that they are now one win away from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s biggest stage.
“We’re 32 minutes from Glens Falls,” shouted assistant coach Jim Colligan. “Thirty-two minutes.”
The bus ride to get to the game in White Plains was longer than any before. The Westchester County Center was a larger venue than they’d seen in the past. And yet the Indians came out as strong as ever, posting a 63-35 blowout win over Section I champion Clark Academy of Dobbs Ferry, New York, in the Class D regional semifinals.
“It’s just so unbelievable,” said senior Matt Dunning, who scored 13 points in the victory. “We come from a small Island with a generality that we don’t like to work hard. We know we have to work extra hard to get to Glens Falls.”
All that stands between them reaching that goal now is Saturday’s Class D final against three-time regional champion Coleman Catholic of Hurley, New York. The Section IX champion enters the regional final with an 11-4 record. Tipoff is at 11 a.m. Saturday at SUNY New Paltz.
If Tuesday’s semifinal is any indications, Shelter Island (12-10) will not be rusty or intimidated when they lace them up against the Statesman Saturday.
Despite not having played an elimination game since Feb. 15, the Indians came out on fire Tuesday afternoon, jumping out to a double figure lead in the first quarter and never trailing again.
Shelter Island center Tristan Wissemann led all scorers with 19 points, including 15 in the first half alone. After the game, he said he “didn’t even realize” he’d scored as much as he did.
“We’ve just practiced a lot and we’ve come together as a team,” said the humble sophomore, who also pulled down eight rebounds, recorded four steals and blocked a shot in the win.
Indians coach Mike Mundy said his squad’s goal heading into the season was to be playing basketball in March, a mark they surpassed with a 73-66 win over Greenport in the Suffolk County Class D Final last month. It was Shelter Island’s first win in three straight appearances in the title game.
“I knew this year, starting four seniors and having been there before, that we could win it,” he said.
But after playing just one game in the two weeks since — a non-elimination loss to Class C champion Stony Brook — Coach Mundy feared his team might be rusty when it took the court Tuesday. That wasn’t the case.
“We went hard in practice six days a week,” he said. “The guys were fired up. They controlled the ball and did what they had to do defensively.”
Specifically, they took away the transition game from the Knights (7-13), forcing them to shoot from the outside, where they struggled all game. Clark Academy hit just 11 field goals, including only one 3-pointer.
Five Indians matched or outscored Clark’s leading scorer Andre Carthorn — who scored eight points for the Knights — including Matt Belt Cappellino (nine points), and Riley Willumsen and Nate Mundy (eight points apiece). Cappellino added seven rebounds and Willumsen had four steals.
Clark Academy scored the game’s first basket, but never led again. An 11-0 run in the second quarter helped Shelter Island to a 36-21 lead at halftime and the Indians widened the gap by outscoring the Knights in each of the game’s final two quarters.
For Dunning and his teammates, all the motivation they need to keep moving forward with a win Saturday is a look back at the postseason seedings. Despite finishing tied in the standings with Smithtown Christian and Greenport, the Indians were seeded third in the tournament. After wins against both those teams and now a victory on Tuesday, the team is believing the sky is the limit.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Dunning said. “And we’re working our butts off. We’re going to keep working real hard.”