Regardless of what lies ahead for Southold in the Long Island Class C final — and perhaps beyond — once the final chapter of its high school boys basketball season is written, the First Settlers will be able to look back on 2019-20, shake their heads in wonderment and say, “What was that!?”
It has been a season of good and bad, with everything mixed in between, including injuries and illness. The Settlers have seen their star player, Nick Grathwohl, become at least the fifth Southold player to score 1,000 career points (he currently has 1,116). They have been riddled with injuries and illness, most notably a nagging hamstring injury that has limited one of the team’s best players, Steven Russell, to playing in only eight of Southold’s 22 games. They won their fourth Suffolk County championship and first since 2006, upsetting Pierson, 62-60, on Grathwohl’s three-pointer in the dying seconds.
Say what you will about this season for Southold, it hasn’t been easy.
“Sometimes you need those highs and lows to go through in order to kind of see how tough you are,” said coach Lucas Grigonis, who was a senior captain on Southold’s 2004-05 county champion team.
Through all the hard knocks the Settlers have sustained, they are still alive and kicking, trying to do something they haven’t done in 14 years: win a Long Island title. Perseverance is the word.
Southold (14-9) finds itself chasing history. The Settlers will play East Rockaway (8-12) in a Southeast Region semifinal/Long Island final March 10 at Centereach High School.
“If we win, we go on. If we lose, it’s over,” said junior power forward John Kaelin.
The 2006 team could be called the greatest in Southold history, winning the first and only Long Island and regional titles in team history. That team reached the state semifinals before falling to Stillwater, 80-68, ending a 20-5 season. That was the final game for Southold’s Sean O’Hara and Seamus Long. Southold’s first county title was in 1948.
Since its dramatic county final triumph, Southold played in two games in the interclassification county tournament, beating Smithtown Christian in the Class CD game, 51-30, and losing to Center Moriches in the Class BCD game, 107-55.
The date of the Long Island final will be 17 days since Southold’s last game. “It definitely feels like it’s really far away,” senior point guard Cole Brigham said before a practice last week.
East Rockaway, meanwhile, played Monday night, losing to Malverne, 64-48, in the Nassau County Class BC championship game.
This dead period leading up to Southold’s next game is “very strange,” Grigonis said. “A lot of planning has to go into it. You know, rest is just as important as us getting meaningful minutes on the court right now.”
Both teams have big scorers. East Rockaway’s Franklin Infante averages 20.8 points and Grathwohl is good for 19.3 points per game, according to Newsday.
Injuries have left their mark on Southold, though. “And we still have injuries,” Grigonis said. “It’s nuts.”
Russell, a senior small forward, is Southold’s most experienced player in his fourth varsity season. His status for the upcoming game is day-to-day, said Grigonis. Senior power forward Barry Asip has sat out the last two games with bulging discs in his back and was to undergo an MRI. “As of now, he’s out for the foreseeable future,” said Grigonis.
“It’s been a really weird season, to be honest, because I’ve been sick, a bunch of our teammates have been sick or injured and it’s been really weird,” Kaelin said. “We’ve just had to fight through it and just keep moving forward.”
Perhaps that adversity has a plus side to it, though. Brigham said the season hasn’t gone as expected, “a lot of bumps in the road, but it’s forced all of us to adapt and do new things, and I think by forcing us to do new things, we’ve become better players overall and I think that’s contributing to our success this season, just being able to do so many different things and have so many different responsibilities.”
Southold is senior-rich, with 10 seniors who total 22 seasons of varsity experience. That senior know-how and composure has undoubtedly helped during trying times. “With that experience we’ve been able to weather the hard times and enjoy the good times,” said Brigham.
Grigonis said: “A lot of these guys have multiple years of experience. They’ve played in plenty of tough games … They’re more thick-skinned, and in that sense, hopefully, more composed in these big games.”
And there’s at least one more big one to go.