Boys Basketball: Defending L.I. champions picked to finish last

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Tom Sledjeski, a 6-foot-5 senior, has the most varsity playing experience of any of the current Mattituck players.

Strange as it may sound, Mattituck, last season’s Long Island Class B boys basketball champion, was picked to finish in last place among Suffolk County League VII’s eight teams last week in a poll by the league’s coaches.

It wasn’t so much a matter of how quickly they forget as a reflection, perhaps, of the new reality. This season’s Mattituck team is not the same group of Tuckers who last season took the county by storm, won a Long Island championship in thrilling fashion and reached a regional final for the first time since 1979. Nine players from that team have moved on, and now it’s a new ball game for a new, younger group of Tuckers looking to make their mark.

Talk about a tough act to follow.

“Everyone’s excited to see what’s going to happen,” said sophomore guard Eugene Allen, who was brought up to the varsity team for the playoffs last season and witnessed the team’s magical ride as the youngest player on the bench. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Eugene Allen, a sophomore guard, was brought up to the varsity team for last season's playoffs.

The mere mention of last season inevitably brings a smile to a Mattituck player’s face. And why not? Commitment, chemistry and work ethic took the 2010-11 Tuckers far. Mattituck shared the league championship with Center Moriches, won its first county title since 2004, stunned Malverne in the Long Island final on a dramatic tip-in at the buzzer by Steve Ascher, and fell one win shy of the New York State final four. A loss to John S. Burke Catholic in the Southeast Region final left the Tuckers with a 16-7 record. It was a remarkable run for a school with a modest boys basketball history, making the Tuckers mini-celebrities in their own school.

“Unforgettable,” said Tom Sledjeski, a 6-foot-5 senior who can play forward or center.

But coach Paul Ellwood’s thoughts have turned to the new season, the first steps of which were taken last Wednesday when the team held its first practice.

“I’ve [since] been through spring, summer and fall leagues with these guys,” he said. “I don’t think about it. … As a coach you just move on to the next year. You have new goals and new challenges and you just look forward to those.”

Surely the Tuckers have no shortage of challenges, including replacing an entire starting lineup and loads of points. Ellwood said, “We had 1,400 points last year; I think 1,300 of them graduated.”

Whereas Mattituck had a senior-laden team last season and its league opponents were young, the situation has since been reversed, with all of the League VII teams, including No. 1 pick Wyandanch, bringing one or two all-league players back. All of Mattituck’s award winners have graduated.

Sledjeski, who was a reserve player last season, has the most varsity playing experience among the current Tuckers. The only other returning players aside from him and Allen are Connor Egan, Matt Jacobs and Austin Tuthill.

“We got to incorporate the young guys into our system,” Sledjeski said. “We got some talent coming up so we have to wait and make the best of it. We’re really progressing. I got to say we made a lot of progress.”

Ellwood said the Tuckers, having seen what a productive offseason can do for a team, have had a “great” offseason in terms of players working on their game. “Everyone’s gotten a little better, a little stronger, a little confident, and they expect to go out and compete,” he said. “I don’t think there’s pressure on them to win. They just know, just go out, play hard, get better as the season goes on and see what happens.”

One luxury the current Tuckers cannot afford, Allen said, is to have an off day and expect to win. Last season’s team “could have bad games,” he said. “We can’t have any bad games. We have to work a hundred percent every day in practice.”

The first test will come Dec. 6 when the Tuckers open their season with a non-league game against Southold. Not long after that they will begin their league season and quest to prove the league’s coaches wrong. Ellwood said his players have a chip on their shoulder about being picked to finish last, but he doesn’t seem to be putting too much stock in the prediction business. “No one picked us first last year,” he said, “so that shows us what the coaches know.”

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