On Thursday, we presented the state champion Mattituck baseball team with our Sports People of the Year award at a ceremony at Martha Clara Vineyards. This is the video we screened during the ceremony and the original announcement from January.
It took some time for the magnitude of the momentous achievement to sink in.
Seven months have passed since that memorable Saturday last June in Binghamton, N.Y. It took a few of those months for Joe Tardif to gain a clearer perspective and a greater appreciation for what he and his teammates on the Mattituck High School baseball team had done.
Tardif said, “Some days when I wake up, I say to myself, ‘Wow! We’re the state champions.’ ”
How about that?
The first state championship in the Tuckers’ 95-year baseball history was immediately followed by what may be the longest postgame celebration in the program’s history.
Ian Nish gloved a routine bouncing ball, trotted to first base and stepped on the bag for the final out in a 4-1 victory over Livonia in the New York State Class B final. That set off the postgame party. Gloves were heaved high in the air. Mattituck players tackled relief pitcher Chris Dwyer. Tardif, racing in from center field, launched himself on top of the jubilant dogpile that formed in front of the pitcher’s mound at SUNY/Broome Community College’s Hornet Field.
Meanwhile, the Tuckers’ coach, Steve DeCaro, sought out his right-hand man and one of his assistant coaches, Gene Rochler, before being intercepted by the three team managers and other assistant coaches.
The celebrating didn’t stop there. Before the Tuckers lined up along the third-base line to receive their state championship medals, their second baseman, Jon Dwyer, executed an acrobatic backflip. “I’ve been saving it all year,” he said.
Moments later, DeCaro was presented with the state championship plaque.
Even after that, the celebrating wasn’t close to being over. Players posed for photos (some with Optimus, a hockey player figurine that an assistant coach, Rich Pisacano, found and the team adopted as its good-luck charm for much of the season), were interviewed by reporters and spoke with fans who followed them onto the outfield grass with cameras in hand to record the happy moment.
The occasional call to wrap things up was largely ignored.
“I don’t want it to end,” Tardif said during the midst of it all. “I really don’t.”
When they were finally ready, the Tuckers boarded the team bus. They had a long, happy ride back to Long Island ahead of them.
DeCaro was kept busy returning congratulatory text messages on the ride home. “I think I had my head down in my phone the whole time, and I probably had the state championship plaque on my lap and I know my medal never left my side,” he said.
Upon their return to Mattituck at around 2 a.m., the Tuckers received a welcome home reception befitting state champions, with music playing and plenty of people cheering.
“When we got home, the whole freaking town was there,” said Jon Dwyer, who is Chris Dwyer’s younger brother. “It was awesome.”
And so, the celebrating continued.
“I don’t even know if it’s ending now,” Jon Dwyer said a half-year later. “We still talk about it.”
Certainly, there is a lot to talk about. It has to qualify as the greatest season in the team’s history.
When it was all over, the Tuckers had finished with a sparkling 27-1 record, the sole loss being by one run to Babylon. After winning their first 15 games of the season, the Tuckers suffered that loss to Babylon, their first defeat in almost a year. No matter. The Tuckers went on to clinch their fifth league championship in 18 years and second in a row.
Then came the second season — the playoffs.
The Tuckers swept Port Jefferson in their Suffolk County semifinal series, 9-5 and 15-4.
From there it was on to the county finals against Babylon. Tardif drove in four runs, homering and allowing only two hits in the six innings he pitched for a 7-0 win in Game 1. The following day it was Chris Dwyer’s turn to shine. “Chris is about as good a hitter as I’ve ever coached … and today he showed it,” DeCaro told reporters after Dwyer went 4 for 4 as the Tuckers romped, 11-6, for their fifth county title in 13 years.
That earned the Tuckers a place in a regional semifinal against the Nassau County champion, Oyster Bay. Marcos Perivolaris, a senior in his fifth varsity season, hurled a two-hit shutout for a tidy 5-0 win and Mattituck’s third Long Island title in five years.
“That’s what we wanted to do,” Jon Dwyer said. “We wanted to keep winning.”
The Tuckers were brimming with confidence. Asked after the game if the thought had occurred to him that the Tuckers might actually lose, Ian Nish replied, “I don’t think we ever have that thought in our mind.”
And so they rolled along. Next up was a regional final against Albertus Magnus and a chance for redemption. Playing on the same Mamaroneck High School field where their 2014 season ended with a loss to Rye Neck in a regional final, the Tuckers faced their toughest test of the year. Albertus Magnus took Mattituck to 10 innings before the Tuckers prevailed, 9-5, with Chris Dwyer driving in five runs. It was only the second regional championship in the team’s history, according to DeCaro.
From there it was on to Binghamton.
Great things were expected of the Tuckers in 2015. “The coaches together, we had known for years that this was the year,” said DeCaro, a 31-year coaching veteran who took over the Tuckers in 2002. “For years we prepared for this.”
With those expectations came pressure, the pressure to grab a state championship.
“That’s the most stress I ever experienced playing baseball, but it was worth it,” catcher Mike Onufrak said. “It was well worth it.” He explained, “You feel a lot of pressure because you start to realize what you’re playing for and you start to realize that you could change history as you keep winning, so it’s stressful, but it’s baseball, so it’s fun.”
Because of the scheduling of the state semifinals and finals, which are all played on the same day, teams most likely use their top starting pitcher in the semifinals. That was the case with the Tuckers, who pitched Tardif in the semifinals against Ogdensburg Free Academy.
Half a year removed from the events of that day, DeCaro said it remains something of a blur to him. What he can recall sharply is that “our guys rose to the occasion.”
They did and they came away with a 7-2 win over Ogdensburg.
“It was almost too easy,” said DeCaro.
A short while later, on the same field, the ball was handed to Perivolaris as the Tuckers took on Livonia (25-2).
“We had a lot of confidence,” Tardif said. “We knew Marcos was going to throw strikes and we knew we’d put out a good defense to succeed and the batting was always there the whole season. We just had to play our game.”
They did. The Tuckers took a 4-0 lead by the fourth inning and Perivolaris (10-0) scattered eight hits over six and one-third innings for the biggest win of his life.
“We almost made it look easy because we came after them,” Jon Dwyer said. “We came out swinging, throwing strikes.”
Afterward, an ebullient Perivolaris said, “We showed it: We’re the best.”
Who could argue? It was truly a dream season.
The Tuckers had the talent and the experience, with six seniors and nine players who had experience as starters from the 2014 team that reached the Southeast Region final. It was a team that didn’t seem to have a weakness. The fielding, the hitting, the pitching. It was all there. Onufrak called it the best team he has ever played on, “by far.”
What fans didn’t see and may not have known was the degree of dedication and behind-the-scenes work that went into building this state championship team.
“Unless you go to Mattituck, you have no idea how much time these guys put into things,” DeCaro said. “They practice constantly. In March, we have five-hour, six-hour practices.” In addition to practices, there were extra workouts, time in the batting cage, weight training, dancing.
Jon Dwyer explained that the Tuckers are sometimes allowed to play music while getting their swings in during batting practice. “I dance a lot,” he said.
For Dan Fedun and Tardif, it was their second state championship in the same school year. Both had played for the Mattituck boys soccer team that won a state crown in the fall of 2014.
It was a second state championship for DeCaro, who was on the coaching staff of Levittown Division when it won a state title in 1996 along with his mentor, the late, legendary coach Doug Robbins. That, he said, had been the pinnacle of his career — `presumably until last year.
After the season, the awards flooded in. Mattituck was selected the No. 2. team in the country for small schools and 19th overall by MaxPreps.com. Tardif was named the state Class B Player of the Year and DeCaro was chosen the state Class B Coach of the Year by the New York State Sports Writers Association. All-state honors also went to pitcher/left fielder James Nish, who made the fourth team, and Perivolaris, who was named to the fifth team.
Togetherness may have been the special sauce for this Mattituck team. “We’ve been playing since Little League together, and not many teams play as many games as we did together,” said Tardif.
The Tuckers were all together once again one night in October when they were presented with their state championship rings.
“We got them all sized and signed balls and pictures,” Jon Dwyer said. “Pretty legit. … It’s got our name, our position, our number. It says ‘champion’ on it. It’s pretty sweet.”
And yet, for all the awards and honors, what makes what the Tuckers did so special may be its lasting effect. Onufrak said he still gets the same chills he had that memorable day when he watches video clips of Mattituck’s state triumph on YouTube. “It’s something that I’ll never forget,” he said. “It changed me.”
What is the best thing about being a state champion?
“Just the memories,” third baseman Will Gildersleeve said. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”
DeCaro said Optimus will be retired and given a place in his physics classroom, overlooking the Mattituck High School baseball field. Also, the blue-and-gold Mattituck camouflage uniforms that the Tuckers wore in the state final will never be worn again, he said.
Is being a state champion all that it’s cracked up to be?
DeCaro said he recalled thinking to himself, while his team lined up before the state final, that it had been a great trip to Binghamton and even if the Tuckers lost, it would still have been a tremendous experience.
“I was wrong,” he said. “It was not even close. Being a state champion, it’s been tremendous.”
Last month DeCaro was asked if his feet had touched the ground yet.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, looking down at his shoes, “they’re coming back down now because now as a staff we’ve stopped. We’ve been on cloud nine, but now we have to look to next year, and now that’s starting. So, the 2016 season is on the horizon, so we’re ready to go.”
Photo caption: Mattituck Captured its first State Championship by defeating Livonia 4-1 in the NY State Class B Baseball Championship game at SUNY Broome on 6-13-15. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)
2014 — Mat Litchhult