03/14/11 2:39pm
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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03/13/11 1:30am
03/13/2011 1:30 AM

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Connor Davis of Mattituck tried to penetrate John S. Burke Catholic's defense.

FARMINGDALE — The Mattituck Tuckers, the high school boys basketball team that never gives up, conceded defeat and acknowledged the inevitable with 3 minutes 4 seconds remaining when an emotional Connor Davis was substituted for.

Then, 27 seconds later, it was Cody Huntley’s turn to head to the bench. That led to a touching scene in which teammate Jovan Booker, sitting between Davis and Huntley, held a consoling arm around each of them.

Shortly after, it was Yianni Rauseo’s turn to exit. Finally, with 54.6 seconds left, the twins Steve and Tom Ascher walked off the court before hugging Coach Paul Ellwood and the assistant coach, Kevin Chartrand.

A season — and, in the case of eight Mattituck seniors, high school careers — ended on Saturday night. This time there would be no dramatic ending. The mighty John S. Burke Catholic Eagles saw to that.

Burke Catholic snuffed out Mattituck’s hopes of reaching the New York State Class B final four by trouncing the Tuckers, 75-59, in the Southeast Region final at Farmingdale State University. It will be the Eagles who will play in a state semifinal on Friday night in Glens Falls against either Westhill or Binghamton Seton Catholic. Burke Catholic lost to Westhill in last year’s state final.

“It’s just disappointing,” Rauseo said. “We made a hell of a run, but …”

Burke Catholic (21-2) got in the way. The Eagles are a formidable squad that has won three straight Section IX titles. Ten of their players are listed at 6 feet 2 inches or taller, including the 6-7 Brendan Miller and the 6-6 David Polman.

“They have an answer for everything,” Ellwood said. “They’re at just a different level. They can do everything.”

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | For Tom Sledjeski and the rest of the Mattituck players, the loss to John S. Burke Catholic marked the end of a memorable season.

He might as well have been talking about the active Zach Rufer, a 6-3 junior guard who can seemingly do anything on the basketball court. Rufer shot 7 for 14 from the floor, 6 for 7 from the foul line, and finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and seven assists — all game-high numbers — as well as four steals.

Miller was a considerable force inside. The senior forward hit all eight of his field-goal attempts for 16 points and was credited with six blocks.

Dante Cowart tallied 11 points, Richard Douglas had 10 and Billy Garreau nine, giving the Eagles splendid scoring balance. Burke Catholic shot 57.1 percent from the field and outrebounded Mattituck by 35-25.

“A different person scores every night, and that’s the good thing about our team,” Cowart said. “We have different weapons, and everyone has a certain role. As long as we always bring the intensity, I believe that we can do anything.”

While the opposing fans from the two facing sides of the gym exchanged barbs and chants, the teams went at it on the court.

A 15-2 Burke Catholic run spotted the Eagles a 35-18 lead late in the first half. Rufer had 12 points at the half. Five Eagles scored during that spurt. Burke Catholic closed out the half on a hot 10-for-13 shooting spell, many of those baskets coming on layups or other shots in the paint.

The 14-point halftime deficit turned to 16 points after three quarters. As the game progressed deep into the third quarter, Mattituck fans encouraged their players by chanting, “Don’t give up!” But as time went on, Glens Falls seemed further and further away for Mattituck (16-7), which was playing in its first regional final since 1979. The Tuckers had their hands full trying to keep tabs on the Eagles, who received a pair of second-half dunks from Miller, the second of which ignited a 14-0 run that made it 73-45.

“When we tried pressing, they spread us out and really killed us,” said Rauseo.

Steve Ascher, the hero of the regional semifinal three nights earlier with his last-second tip-in against the Malverne Mules, said, “We just couldn’t do it today.” He was the top Mattituck scorer with 18 points and had five assists. Tom Ascher was good for 14 points.

But it was Burke Catholic that won the prize it was looking for: a return trip to Glens Falls.

“Knowing that feeling that you’re going to Glens Falls, that’s the best,” Rufer said. “It feels great. Our goal this whole season was to get back to Glens Falls and to win the state championship. … We’ve been really motivated and determined.”

As each of the five Mattituck starting seniors bowed out of the game, they were greeted at the bench by Ellwood, who had some words to whisper in their ears.

“I just wanted to say something different to each kid, unique to that personality, and what they meant to me,” the coach said. “I just said something a little special to each one of them. Each one of those kids means a lot to me. I did a lot of stuff, was with them a long time. I’m so proud of them.”

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