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Boys Basketball: Ex-Settler coaches Pierson to playoff win over alma mater

Pierson has a way of giving its basketball-playing opponents a whale of a difficult time.

The Whalers are deadeye shooters, tenacious rebounders, ball-hawking defenders who seemingly pick off passes at will and quickly transform steals into layups or dunks. As if that isn’t enough, they have nice height, start five seniors and don’t seem to have an obvious weakness.

That is what Southold had to contend with Saturday. To make matters worse for the First Settlers, their shots weren’t falling through the cylinder with the regularity they would have liked.

And so, top-seeded Pierson bounced No. 4 Southold, 67-41, in a Suffolk County Class C semifinal in Sag Harbor. Chalk that up as the 11th straight win for Pierson (19-1).

“Against teams like this, it’s hard to find the holes and weaknesses because they seem like they showed none,” said Southold power forward Gavin Fredricks.

The game featured a coaching matchup of two former Southold basketball players. Pierson coach Will Fujita (Southold Class of 2012) also played for the Southold soccer team that Southold coach Lucas Grigonis (Southold Class of 2005) serves as an assistant coach for. Fujita, who has a 5-1 record in his three seasons as Pierson’s coach against his alma mater, said it felt strange the first time he faced Southold. Now, though, it’s just another game.

Pierson beat Southold (9-12) three times in as many games this season, but their previous meeting on the same court saw the Settlers hang with them before falling short by four points.

This one wasn’t close.

Southold’s shooting difficulties began from the start. The Settlers shot 3-for-14 in the first quarter, falling behind, 16-7. They did pull within two points of Pierson before the Whalers kicked into another gear.

Southold’s Robert Cooper (red uniform), in his fourth game back from a season-opening ankle injury, battles Pierson’s Brendan Burke for possession, resulting in a jump ball. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Pierson presents many challenges with players like the 6-4 Wilson Bennett (21 points), Dan Labrozzi (16 points, five assists) and 6-3 Cecil Munshin (14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists). The 6-5 Charlie Culver is a big presence in the paint, too.

“It helps that they’re tall,” Fujita told reporters.

With Labrozzi knocking down two of his four three-pointers, Pierson closed the first half on a 13-4 burst for a 29-18 lead.

Then, Bennett poured in 10 points to fuel a 14-0 run, highlighted by his dunk off an alley-oop pass from Labrozzi. Later, in the fourth quarter, Bennett finished off a steal with a second dunk, making it 55-30. Pierson led by as many as 27 points late in the game.

“We had a whole talk about how momentum is just not really a real thing and that it’s all mental, but we really just got caught up in it today, I guess,” said Southold small forward Cal Karsten.

Pierson shot 26-for-54 (48.4%) from the field to Southold’s 17-for-54 (31.5%). The Whalers also went 7-for-14 from three-point distance and won the rebounding battle, 36-23.

“I feel like they can compete with any team they play with,” said Karsten.

Fredricks said: “For what our game plan was, I think we played good, like we moved the ball. The only thing that killed us was just shots not going in. We moved the ball, we got open looks, we got easy looks.”

With 10 points each, Karsten and Fredricks were the only Southolders in double figures. Jack Sepenoski had nine points.

Pierson advances to a county final against Greenport or Port Jefferson Wednesday night in Westhampton Beach.

Southold, which made its fourth playoff appearance in five years, bids farewell to five seniors: Robert Cooper (who played his fourth game since returning from a season-opening ankle injury), Conor Kilcommons, Dylan Newman, Fredricks and Karsten.

“I mean, for me, it’s a success,” Grigonis said of the season. “We had young guys that got a lot of minutes. They had good senior leadership to lead them throughout the year. The togetherness and family aspect of this team, it’s hard to replace, to be honest. So, I mean, I see the success for what we did. Could we have won two or three more games? I think so, but for what we did, where we started from to where we ended, we were playing good basketball.”

Grigonis said he and Fujita are friends. “He’s a great young coach,” Grigonis said. “And, I mean, look at what he’s doing. I mean, he’s building a little mini-empire out here so I’m happy for him. I’m proud of him.”

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