If you grew up in Suffolk County, as I have since my family and I moved here in October of 1998, you no doubt know about the legacy of the Sachem Football program. If you could make a comparison to the NFL, Sachem would be on the level of the likes of the Steelers, Packers and Cowboys. From 1977-2003, Sachem won six county championships and appeared in 11 championship games. Until William Floyd won three consecutive county championships from 2005-07, Sachem was the only Division I football team to do so, when they did it from 1977-79. Whether it is defeating future NFL stars (Boomer Esiason’s East Islip squad lost to Sachem in the ’78 Title Game) or creating their own future stars (Jumbo Eliott was Sachem Class of 1984), the glory days of Sachem football were stacked with talent. Fred Fusaro, who coached the team from 1971-2002, became a local legend around the Island. In an area of the country where college football has never been huge, and the closest professional teams played was in New Jersey, Sachem was the place for football on Long Island.
And then the times changed.
For those unaware of the geography of Long Island, Sachem School District is one of the largest districts on the Island. By 2000, the the kingdom outgrew its castle. That school year, the district voted to reconfigure the school district. Up until then, freshmen and sophomores attended high school at Sachem High School South and upperclassmen attended Sachem High School North. Both schools were situated right next to each other. But in the new district, students that lived in the western half of the district would attend all four years of high school at Sachem North, and all students on the south and eastern part of the district would attend all four years of high school at the newly built Sachem High School East. In addition, another new middle school would be built and a the South campus of the high school would become a middle school. The changes would take effect beginning with the 2004-05 school year. It was also decided each high school would have their separate athletics teams.
The football team felt the impact worse of all athletic programs. The football team, in 2003, went to the County Semi-Finals under first year head coach David Falco. That was the final year that Sachem fielded a singular football team. The following year, Sachem North finished a game under .500, and while Sachem East had a winning season, it too, fell short of the playoffs. In the first game of the 2005 season, Sachem East played Sachem North for the first time, with East running away with the victory, 40-13. However, despite another 5 win season, East fell short of the playoffs again. Four chances for a Sachem team to make the playoffs, four failures. Not since 1980 and 1981 had the Suffolk County playoffs gone two consecutive years without a Sachem team being a participant. Sachem was losing its edge.
Meanwhile, a new program was making its history. While Sachem struggled in the new millennium, a former cupcake, William Floyd, transformed into a giant. From 2004-2009, William Floyd would not lose a regular season game. They lost once in the County Championship in 2004, and once in the 2008 semi-finals. They won three consecutive County Championships and three consecutive Long Island Championships en route to being nationally ranked #25 by Sports Illustrated at the end of the 2007 season.
Fortunes for Sachem started to change in 2006, when Sachem North went 5-3 and reached the Semi-Finals. The district had seen much better days, but the season was seen as a stepping stone. Although both teams missed the playoffs in 2007, Sachem East reached the (newly formed) Quarter-Finals of the playoffs in 2008.
Despite making the playoffs in 2008, and in that respect, having an equal amount of success as Sachem North over the first four years of a split district, East was always viewed as the second class. Up until 2009, there wasn’t much difference between either program. Both were ordinary.
Then the world changed again.
Sachem North, on the opening week of the 2009 season, defeated William Floyd, in Mastic Beach. It was the first regular season loss for the new golden boys since 2003. More poignantly, it was the golden boys of the past that pulled off the upset. The following week, Sachem East had a chance to silence their crosstown rivals. At 1-0 on the season, and coming off their first playoff appearance the previous year, it could have been Sachem East’s time to shine. Instead, Sachem North had their way and rolled to a victory. In fact, Sachem North would roll all the way to the County Championships (where they would lose to – you guessed it – William Floyd). Sachem East never won another game that season, and finished 1-7.
East proved that it could get even worse. In 2010, they would not win a game, becoming the first Sachem team since 1967 to not record a single victory. It would cost coach Brian Harvey his job. The students of Sachem East were forced to watch North gallop into the Championship Game yet again. But, to their delight, it amounted to another loss to William Floyd. Chalk that up as 5 county championships in 6 years for the boys from Mastic Beach.
Enter Mark Wojciechowski. A former Sachem player in the 80’s, he was awarded the Hansen Award in 1985, which is given to the County’s most outstanding football player every year. For many years, he was an assistant on the Sachem coaching staff under both Coach Fusaro and Coach Falco. But after a falling out with Falco after the 2008 season, “Woj” went over to Sachem East. He was an assistant in 2009 and 2010, but after Coach Harvey was removed from his position, Woj took over as head coach.
East responded immediately. A booming 4-0 start, the best in school history. Although they would lose three straight, a win over Brentwood on the season’s final night carried them into the playoffs, where they met up with West Islip. In a thriller, Sachem East, led by running back Steven Casali’s 38 carries and three touchdowns, won 21-14. North, as they have been doing the past three years, rolled to a 7-1 regular season and easily dispatched their first round opponent, Patchogue-Medford.
And now, the rivalry has reached a new level. Since Suffolk County re-seeds playoff teams after the quarterfinals, number one seeded Sachem North will take on number six seeded Sachem East on Friday afternoon. The master, Dave Falco, will take on the apprentice, Mark Wojciechowski. In the long, storied history of Sachem Football since it became a county powerhouse in the late ’70’s, this upcoming game may arguably be the biggest game in Sachem History.
I have called games for Sachem’s radio station since 2005. This is not a long amount of time when put into perspective of the forty years of success that Sachem football has had. But I’ve seen when both teams were at it’s lowest. I’ve had the pleasure of calling both exciting county championship games that North has been in. I have had the pleasure of calling both playoff-clinching games that Sachem East has won. I’ve seen a lot of the post-split Sachem football. I have never seen anything as exciting as this Friday’s match-up.
The rivalry, when I was a student at Sachem North (2004-07), was in its infancy. Many of the players had been on the same middle school teams, had gone to the same schools, and, in the oddity that was the realignment of the district, had ended up on different high school teams. There was respect. The players wanted to win, but it was akin to a Civil War. You were forced into playing against your friends and former teammates. The rivalry, like the current Knicks-Celtics rivalry, was an invention of fans and faculty. Now, with none of the current players having played together on any middle school teams, the rivalry is at an all-time high.
The reward is a trip to the County Championship game. Either Sachem East will be playing in its first, or Sachem North will score a hat trick. The winner will play either Longwood or William Floyd. One of the best players on Long Island, and a D-I recruit, Dalton Crossan will try and propel Sachem North back to glory. A gem from the glory days, Woj, will try and coach his team and write a new legacy for a Sachem team. Perhaps the game will be a display of two great running backs, Casali and Crossan. Perhaps the unconventional flex-bone offense of Sachem North will confuse Sachem East’s defense. Perhaps the football gods will be smiling on the underdog on Friday. We all will see what will happen when that moment comes and we’re set for kickoff at Fred Fusaro Alumni Stadium in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, a field that has seen a lifetime of memories. Whatever we see will be history for a district and a county where football has taken a backseat to Lacrosse over the past twenty years. It will be a throwback to when the district, as one team, dominated the headlines of the local news. For one weekend, Sachem will once again be the epicenter of Long Island High School football.
If you live on Long Island, you can watch the game at Sachem High School North at 3 PM on Friday afternoon. If you’re unable to make it to the game, you can listen to the students of Sachem Radio 91.9 FM WSHR, and myself, present to you this game. The station can be heard from Queens to Riverhead. Follow WSHR Sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/91.9WSHRSports.
You can also follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo.