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Big Cousins are Big Winners


Slater's Slant







by Chuck Slater



Through his expertise and his dedication, including his vaunted youth program, Bill Swertfager has carved an enviable record as the wrestling coach at John Jay Cross River. His athletes have produced myriad individual and team titles, including the overall Section 1 Division 1 crown for a second straight year this past season.

But he has never had an individual state champion. He came the closest he ever has recently when senior Bim Gecaj came in third in the top (285-pound) category at States. And next year, he figures, could be the breakthrough. The Indians’ 220-pounder, Halil Gecaj finished sixth at the State tournament — “And,” Swertfager notes, “the five wrestlers ahead of him have all graduated.”


Halil Gecaj (left) and Bim Gecaj (right) have been wresting for 10 years. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HALIL GECAJ)

The same last name is no coincidence. The Gecajs are first cousins. “They are great kids,” the coach said. “Wholesome, great kids.” Bim was 43-4 this past season, facing the heaviest of high school grapplers. His year-younger cousin was 44-4 at 220 pounds. As large, strong, athletic young men, they also played varsity football for the Indians and both were all-league and all-conference. But wrestling is where the youngsters of Albanian decent truly made their mark.

“My confidence level jumped this season,” said Bim Gecaj, who took over 8th place in the John Jay lifetime record with 121 career victories. “I love the sport,” said Halil, who turned 17 in February and might fill his cousin’s 285-pound slot next season. “It’s individual. You can’t blame anyone else. It’s all on you, and the training you put in.”

Bim’s two older brothers are also wrestlers and the Gecaj boys often try their holds on each other. “We started wrestling all together close to 10 years ago,” Halil said, “at the (John Jay) youth program.” But when it comes to the cousins’ approach, here the similarity ends, much to Swertfager’s amusement. “The temperament is so different,” the veteran coach and former Olympic-hopeful wrestler said. “Bim is Mr. Cool. A lot of kids let their emotions get to them. Bim does not. Win or lose, easy or difficult, he’s the same. Halil is the exact opposite.   He’s very emotional for a match, very excited getting into it.”

Either approach invariably ends with a Gecaj victory.


July 19, 2017 |

Ellie Walsh’s Special Experience


Slater's Slant







By Chuck Slater



As she prepares to enter Cornell University in mid-August, Bronxville graduate Ellie Walsh can look back on a high school sports career in which she captained varsities in lacrosse, field hockey and basketball.

Ellie Walsh at JBFC Girl’s Home in Tanzania talking to and making friendship bracelets with a resident. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLIE WALSH)

Twice an All-American midfielder in lacrosse, she led her team to an 18-2 record and the state finals as a senior while being named to the NY Hudson Valley Tournament team. In field hockey, the 5-foot, 5-inch athlete won all-section and all-league designation and was named to the all-state tournament team on a squad which achieved the state semifinals. In basketball, she is a defensive standout.

But perhaps what she looks back on most fondly came the summer before her three-sport stardom. From her school, she was a student ambassador to the JBFC Orphanage in Tanzania. She calls it, “A point in my life I will never forget.”

As with many countries where funds are not plentiful — and the African nation falls into that category — orphanages, where they exist, concentrate on boys. But a local Tanzanian man formed the girls-only JBFC Orphanage.   It has grown into a home for 50 girls.

“It’s an amazing place,” said Walsh, who is unable to return this summer because of her college needs. “It’s amazing to have had the experience. It’s an experience I cherish and I hope to go back. JBFC is really unlike anywhere I’ve been before.

The girls, an impressed Walsh said, dream of being doctors and teachers, having lives well beyond that in which they grew up. “The people that live there are probably the happiest people I’ve ever met, even though they don’t have nearly as much as us,” related Walsh. “You can be happy with so little, even after a rough patch in your life.”

Walsh worked with a fellow student on the lacrosse team to raise money for JBFC during the season through an art show — including selling pieces she created — and photography. “We raised more than six thousand dollars!” she said proudly. “We even had a bingo night for elementary school students.” Some of the funds went to tile bathroom floors at the orphanage, she reported.

But soon she will report to college, enrolled in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She expects to be a one-sport performer at the next level. “Just lacrosse,” Ellie Walsh said of the sport in which she was a two-time All American. “I have four older athletic brothers and lacrosse is probably the biggest sport in my family.”

July 12, 2017 |

Running is Tuohy’s Passion


Slater's Slant







By Chuck Slater


“I really like running,” says North Rockland freshman Katelyn Tuohy. “As soon as she could walk,” recalls her mother, Denise, “my mother would tell me she was running all over the house all the time.”

Katelyn Tuohy ran regularly with her entire family. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DENISE TUOHY)

And now Katelyn Tuohy is the fastest high school distance runner in the country. As a freshman! Early last month she ran away from the field in the 1,500-meter run at the New York State Track and Field Championships at Union-Endicott High School with a 4:18.51 clocking. That was almost seven seconds under her previous best and, yes, it was under what any other distaff schoolgirl had done this high school season.

She then finished her season in late June by winning the girls’ mile at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 4:45.95, a New York State record for a freshman, despite sticky 88-degree weather.

Last fall, Tuohy was All American in cross-country — again, as a freshman — and has also spun some otherworldly times already: 2:47.86 for 1,000 meters, 9:30.18 for 3,000 and 16:55 for the 3 mile.   Former Bronxville prodigy Mary Cain is considered the area’s best runner ever and Tuohy has eclipsed a few of her records already, including that mile mark in Greensboro.

“I’m not really surprised at what I’m doing now,” Tuohy said. “I started varsity in the 7th grade, so I knew I was pretty good.” “Katie never quits,” says outdoor track coach Kyle Murphy. “When you go into coaching, you dream of getting an athlete like her.”

“I’ve been running since I can remember,” the freshman phenom said. “Ever since I was little, we (mother, father, two brothers) would go to the track as a family.” Older brother Patrick went to States in the 1,600.

But perhaps most indicative of her devotion to and need for running is what happened after cross-country season. To give runners a break, coaches mandate two weeks off between cross-country and indoor track. But Tuohy so pestered them, they relented and let her start running after one week.

“Running makes you feel good. It is definitely a stress reliever at times,” she said. But it is her opponents who are under stress. “She always wants to run,” Murphy said. “Practice is her favorite part of the day. And she’s remarkably intelligent.” That she is modest about her success is an indication. “Staying humble is a big key in the running world,” the freshman said. “If someone brags, no one likes them.”

And now that Nationals is over, what will Katelyn Tuohy do for her summer? “I’ll train for cross-country,” she said. Meaning she will spend it running.


July 5, 2017 |

Concentration is Han’s Forte


Slater's Slant







By Chuck Slater



His grandmother introduced Nathan Han to golf. (PHOTO COURTESY OF LEIGH FIORITO)

In this space a week ago, one read about a local golfer who won the girls’ state high school championship as a junior, Carmel’s Lauren Peter. Well, a day later, a local golfer won the boys’ state high school championship as a sophomore. And second-year student Nathan Han of Somers had to work overtime to do so. He needed a three-hole playoff to edge Adam Xiao of Manhasset over two rounds at the famed and challenging Robert Trent Jones Golf Course in Ithaca. And whereas Peter had been second as a freshman and sophomore, Han had tied for second as a freshman.

Peter, whose family did not play golf, picked up the sport at a Centennial Golf Club camp. Han, who also plays at Centennial, was introduced to the game by his golf-playing grandma and his whole family usually travels to tournaments with him.

While Peter is known for her icy dedication to thinking golf all the time, Han is cited for his icy concentration when playing the sport. “Nathan is as good a golfer as anyone I’ve ever had,” said Somers golf coach Leigh Fiorito, a coach for 39 years. “He has extraordinary concentration, exceptionally focused on each shot. This is part of what makes him so good. Whatever happens, he just keeps working for the next shot. He’s young — he doesn’t hit a long ball. But as I said, he cuts out the noise. In States, he was in the rough a lot but he didn’t let it faze him.”

“I managed to scramble pretty well,” said Han, who also is an exceptional student scholastically. After the first round at States, the Somers sophomore was in third place, two shots back of Xiao. He closed with a 72 of his own the next day and seemed to have won outright until Xiao birdied the par-5 18th. Han had to scramble on the first and third extra holes after dropping his drive in a fairway bunker. But, as is his wont, he recovered both times and the second time he won the event by holing a 10-foot par putt.

“I felt a huge shock of relief,” said Han, who was engulfed by teammates after the winning putt. “The pressure escaped me and I showed a lot of happy emotions.” Han praised his teammates for their “great support,” but now it is on to another shot, another tournament.

“He’s been playing in a lot of tournaments,” said Fiorito, who will have her champion for two more seasons. “To him, States is just another tournament. He’s on to the next tournament.”


June 28, 2017 |

From Just for Fun to Just for Forever


Slater's Slant







By Chuck Slater



Lauren Peter improved on two second-place finishes.    (PHOTO COURTESY OF LAUREN PETER)



Nine years ago, Carmel junior Lauren Peter enrolled in a Centennial Golf Club camp to pick up a new sport, “just for fun.” Now she is the New York State girls high school champion, having beaten three-time defending champion Lindsay May of Auburn by two strokes over two rounds at the famed Bethpage Yellow Course recently in Bethpage State Park after two seasons as the runner-up. And this coming week she will be one of the elite contestants in the five-day Polo Junior Invitational for the best young female golfers in the world.

And it all started as a lark nine years ago in a game neither of her parents played. “But I just loved it from the start,” Peter said. “Golf is great fun and challenging all the time.” And now there is a putting green in the family garage. “I don’t think my game has any particular weakness,” Peter said, “but putting is the strongest part of it.”

“She is a phenomenal putter,” praised Carmel golf coach Matt Murphy, whose Peter-led girls team finished 13-0, then won its sectional championship. Then Peter won something even bigger at Bethpage. She entered the second round with a two-stroke lead following a stunning 68 and closed with an even-par 72 but encountered a challenge in that final round. When she bogeyed the par-5 10th hole, she fell into a tie with May. But she notched two birdies and went bogey-free on the final eight holes to win by two strokes. A welcome change from the previous two finishes. “She’s improved tremendously,” said Murphy, “especially mentally.”

Lauren Peter has hardly treated the game she took up as a lark in lark-like fashion. “She’s as hard-working an athlete as I’ve ever had,” said Murphy, a veteran coach. “How dedicated? She was even swinging a golf club in her prom dress!”

“She’s just very devoted to the game,” said Amanda Tully, another of the four crack Carmel golfers who made it to the state tournament. “A very hard worker. She always wants to get better. I’m a junior, too. We’ve gone to a lot of tournaments together and I’ve been fortunate to be her friend for a long time.” “She’s always thinking golf,” said freshman sister Caitlin Tully, who also went to States.

The talented junior is thinking about college golf, too. Peter has made a verbal commitment to Ohio State. And after Polo she will spend her summer in AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) tournaments.

And afterward, would a professional career interest her? “Yes, sure,” Lauren Peter said with enthusiasm.

June 21, 2017 |

The Lefty Who Keeps North Salem Right


Slater's Slant







By Chuck Slater



Connor Mahoney has always been a pitcher. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CONNOR MAHONEY)

Senior left-handed ace Connor Mahoney is a big reason — the biggest — that North Salem High School made it to Binghamton to play for the Class C State championship that it won a season ago. Not only did he average double figures in strikeouts with his sharp breaking ball but he also was the winning pitcher in seven of the Tigers’ 16 victories that got them to Binghamton. He had the opposition hurting all season.

But his most heroic performance came in a game in which he was truly hurting. It was the Section 1, Class C playoff final against top-seeded Tuckahoe in Dutchess Stadium at the end of May. Mahoney spent all morning sick with a stomach bug, so sick that Coach Rob Gilchrist was set to start his number 3 pitcher Will Baumler in the big game. “He was throwing up before the game,” shortstop Adam Concadoro, the team’s top hitter, said of Mahoney. “I was sick,” Mahoney acknowledged. “I did what I could.”

What he did was start — ill and all — pitching into the sixth inning, allowing just two hits and striking out 13 in a 7-2 title victory. “Once Connor decided to go, we were at ease,” Gilchrist said. “He’s been our ace all season.”

And he continued being the ace in the Regionals. In the 3-2 semifinal victory over Section 9’s Pine Plains, Mahoney relieved J.B. Healy and saved the game in the seventh inning on June 1. Then two days later, the lefty went the distance with 12 strikeouts to edge Long Island champion Southold, 2-1. He finished the game with a 0.65 earned run average for the season.

“He’s the best lefty I’ve ever had,” said Gilchrist, a veteran coach. “I’ve always been a pitcher,” said Mahoney, “since C ball at around ten.”

A year ago, the Tigers surprised even their coach with their first section title since 1967 before winning the state crown. “No, this time I was not surprised at all,” said Gilchrist. “We had seven returning seniors. We had the experience.”

Concadoro, who played injured in the playoffs, led the way with a .407 batting average, 11 RBI and 22 runs scored with 15 walks and just 5 strikeouts. Mahoney, who played left field when not pitching and will be at Quinnipiac next year, batted .355. Newcomer Rian Balbino, a sophomore, played a strong center field and batted .315 with two hits against Pine Plains. Veteran catcher Nathaniel Carminucci also had two hits, and two RBI, against Pine Plains. Healy, a hard-throwing right-hander, amassed five wins on the way to Binghamton with an ERA a little over 2.00. Balbino, who finished for the ailing Mahoney against Tuckahoe, provided effective southpaw relief all season.

“Hey, pitching wins games,” said Gilchrist.

June 14, 2017 |

The Five-Event Star of the Pentathlon


Slater's Slant







By Chuck Slater



The 110-meter high hurdles, when you are trying to skim over them faster than any competitor yet not trip over the obstacles, can be a most challenging track and field event. Nor is it easy high-jumping near or above your own height in competition. Ditto seeing the distance you can stay airborne in the long jump.

Mike Panzarino’s shot put could be improved. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE PANZARINO)

And, if you think it’s simple throwing a heavy metal ball at distances over 30 feet, just try the shot put. Plus, to really test your speed and stamina, go for a 1,500-meter run — the so-called “metric mile” — against others. Each one can tax to the max. Yet in the pentathlon, one athlete does all these events, sometimes in a span of only a few hours, and finishes up with that demanding long run when already tired. Whew!

And the area’s best pentathlete is Somers senior Michael Panzarino. He’s not particularly big — 5-feet, 11-inches and 165 pounds — yet Panzarino comes up very big in those combined events. Just ask Mike Sokolofsky. He has been coaching track at Somers for 17 years, the last four as the head coach. “We have had pentathlon athletes before,” he said, “but none nearly as successful as Mike has been.”

How successful? At the recent Loucks Games, which attracts top athletes from all over the East and sometimes nationwide, Panzarino took second in the pentathlon behind a standout from Staten Island. He won its 1,500 in 4:24.87. No, it wasn’t a personal best, but PBs are rare when you are tackling five varied events, one after the other.

Yet a week later, in the Westchester County championships at Byram Hills High School, Panzarino not only won his second county pentathlon but also, incredibly, achieved personal bests in all five events. He took the hurdles in 15.78 seconds, the high jump at 5-feet, 11 ¾-inches, the long jump at 18-10, the shot put at 32 feet and the 1,500 in 4:20. Of course his point total of 3,225 was also a PB. And a week afterward, he notched the sectional pentathlon title, albeit without PBs because of the rain-hampered conditions.

Weighing just 165 pounds, Panzarino is understandably weakest at the shot put. He could compete for state honors at 3,400 points if he could get it up to 34 feet. “I’m working on it. Hard,” he said. “He’s like an iron man for me,” Sokolofsky says of his versatile star. “He’ll go in any event I need him.   He’s even added the pole vault — and he’s pretty good at it.”

And next year this solid student will be multiple-event performing for SUNY Brockport. The hurdles and 1,500 are Panzarino’s best events. But how does one get so accomplished in five disciplines? “A lot of work, a lot of training,” Mike Panzarino says. “I do what the coaches say. “That’s all I can say.” The pentathlon marks say a lot more.  

June 7, 2017 |
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