Hard-fought soccer rivalry reaches end; Center Moriches 3, Mattituck 1

To the casual observer, a non-league boys high school soccer game before the school year begins might not seem like the most exciting encounter.

But for Mattituck and Center Moriches, the continuation of Long Island’s longest running — and arguably best — sports rivalry, was a big deal.

“It means everything,” said Mattituck head coach Dan O’Sullivan, whose team dropped a 3-1 decision at Center Moriches on a cool August Monday night. “If you can play in this, you can play in any soccer game in high school. It turns into a full-out war. These guys are coming off the field and they’re beat up, they’re bleeding. It’s for a lot of them when they do it for the first time. They’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s a great game to build off of, especially not having them in our league now.”

For the past 87 years, these two archrivals have tussled at least once and sometimes as many as three times a season, including when a Suffolk County title was at stake.

“It’s no surprise,” said senior midfielder Tommy McGunnigle, who tallied the Tuckers’ lone goal. “I love playing them because it always gets rough and competitive.”

“It’s probably the most physical that it’ll get during the season because it’s a rival,” added co-captain and senior midfielder Wesley Secaida. “It’s been around for years and it’s going to keep going on like that.”

Center Moriches head coach Chris O’Brien called it “a rivalry for the ages.”

“Even the referees mentioned that they love to do these games because they know they’ve got to be on their toes,” he said.

For the first time, these two rivals won’t be vying for county honors in the same classification. Center Moriches moved up to Class A, thanks to a rising student population. Mattituck remained in Class B.

Both coaches wanted to keep the tradition going, so they scheduled a non-league affair on the earliest date possible, Aug. 28, after players completed the mandatory six preseason practices.

The results have see-sawed back and forth over the decades. Last season, the Tuckers won both regular season games, but the Red Devils captured the Class B final, 1-0.

To truly appreciate the rivalry, a history lesson is needed. These schools perennially have produced quality teams. The Tuckers have won three state championships (1980, 2003 and 2014), while the Red Devils have claimed two (2009 and 2017).

In Mattituck’s inaugural 1936 season, Center Moriches prevailed, 1-0. In the second meeting, on Nov. 12, 1937, the Tuckers recorded a 1-0 triumph to capture the first of 34 Suffolk County titles, the most of any school. Center Moriches is next with 24.

According to the Long Island Traveler newspaper’s account of the 1937 title match, the two teams “put up one of the hardest-fought games ever to be witnessed in the county.”

The rivalry rarely has missed a beat since then.

Monday’s match was no exception. It had all the trappings of a championship game. The confrontation was physically intense, punctuated with hard tackles, and at times played at what felt like 100 miles an hour.

The Red Devils drew first blood 5 minutes into the first half as Joe Hiller, off a Nick Rotunda assist, scored from close range. Mattituck equalized at 34:02, as McGunnigle tallied on a lightning-quick counterattack off a pass from junior Sean Szczotka. Only 24 seconds later, the hosts retook the lead on Hiller’s second goal. Center Moriches added an insurance tally early in the second half after senior goalkeeper Jack Golder came off the line for a ball, leaving the net open for Alex Devaux.

Although he was disappointed with the outcome, O’Sullivan realized the ultimate challenge will come during the regular season and playoffs. The Tuckers open their league campaign Sept. 6 at Babylon.

“That’s a good gauge for us,” he said of Monday’s match. “Obviously, we know we have a lot to work on but at least now we have some game film and some game action to help ourselves.”

The Tuckers also earned plenty of respect from O’Brien.

“Mattituck has a team to beat in that league, maybe on Long Island, in that classification,” he said. “When they’re going on all cylinders, they’re going to be very tough.”

When the playoffs time comes around in October, it will be a new experience for Mattituck without their old rivals.

“It’s going to be weird playing different teams,” Secaida said. “We’re going to miss it.”

So will O’Brien, a Southold native who will retire following this season, his 27th as head coach.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” he said. “The next time I see them play, I’ll be a fan.