Boys Basketball: It’s a new start for the new Tuckers

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Will Gildersleeve, a freshman, is one of the young players looking for a place for himself on a Mattituck team that has undergone dramatic change.

It might be safe to say that hardly a day has passed since the 2010-11 high school boys basketball season ended that members of the Mattituck Tuckers team haven’t talked, been reminded of or thought about the magical season that was. Not only did the Tuckers reach a regional final for the first time since 1979, but they created a lifetime of memories, many of which can be brought to life on DVD.

What was the best memory of the last school season?

“The tip-in,” said Mattituck senior Tom Sledjeski, referring to a dramatic last-second tip-in by Steve Ascher that gave the Tuckers a thrilling come-from-behind triumph over the Malverne Mules for the Long Island Class B championship. “I’m never going to forget that.”

Another Mattituck senior, Connor Egan, isn’t likely to forget that one, either. “God, I’ve watched the video on YouTube, I don’t even know how many times,” he said. “I watched the game like five times, six times.”

But, as they say, that was then, this is now.

It has only been three months since that playoff run, but so much has changed. The Tuckers have lost an entire starting lineup — and more — to graduation. Eight seniors have moved on. It’s time to start over.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Mattituck senior Austin Tuthill tried to evade the long reach of a Hampton Bays player.

Coach Paul Ellwood has a largely raw group of players that he is trying to mold into a team.

“It’s the way it is,” he said. “We’re not a basketball factory, by any means. Some schools are lucky. They just reload and reload and reload. I don’t know what that life would be like.”

The Tuckers currently playing in the Town of Brookhaven Summer League include only four players who were a part of that dream school team — Matt Jacobs, Austin Tuthill, Egan and Sledjeski. As for the rest, they were playing either junior varsity or junior high school basketball this past winter. One player with varsity experience, senior Ryan Malone, has elected not to play this summer.

It was as clear as the final score that times have changed for the Tuckers when they tipped off their summer league season on Tuesday night with a 32-10 loss to the Hampton Bays Baymen at Riverhead High School. It was no contest. Part of that can be explained by the strength of Hampton Bays, which looks to have a good team. Part of it can be explained by the unfamiliarity the Tuckers have playing with each other.

The Tuckers played in a spring league, but the summer league is regarded by some as more competitive, with more teams. For players coming up from the JV ranks and lower, facing varsity competition represents a huge jump.

“The thing is, they’re young,” Sledjeski said. “The varsity game is different. It’s faster, a lot of kids are stronger. It’s not just talent any more. You got to be big and strong as well.”

The Tuckers, who only a few months ago rang up points with seeming ease, struggled mightily on the offensive end. Indeed, neither team scored in the opening 8 minutes 59 seconds during which they combined for 11 missed field-goal attempts before Harry Fotopoulos followed up a missed shot for Hampton Bays.

From that point on it was all Hampton Bays.

Luke Mercurio, the Baymen’s athletic senior, brought his complete game. In addition to a game-high 11 points, he was responsible for eight rebounds, three steals, two assists and one blocked shot. Justin Carbone added seven points while Fotopoulos pulled down nine rebounds to go with his six points.

Mattituck didn’t get on the scoreboard until Chris Dwyer made a layup 11:02 into the game. Those were Mattituck’s only points in the first half, which ended with the score 18-2.

The Tuckers shot 1 for 11 from the field in each half and made only 6 of 15 free throws.

“We’re going to be better than this,” Egan vowed. “This is a first-time experience.”

It’s a new beginning. As ambitious as it seems, the Tuckers have something to shoot for: returning to the heights they reached during the last school season.

“We want to emulate what they did,” Sledjeski said. “That’s our goal, but it’s going to take a lot, a lot of work, patience, progress. It’s a learning process.”

Like his players, Ellwood has made good use of his DVD player as well over the past few months.

“Any time someone comes over my house, I’m like, ‘You want to see a good game?’ ” he said. “But at some point you got to move on. It wouldn’t be fair to these kids to keep living in the past.”

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