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Life After The Big Split- From Newsday Sports

Varsity - 2005 Season
Posted Wednesday, December 29, 2004 by David Falco

Life after the big split

September 3, 2004

The first in an occasional series on Sachem, a perennial power in sports for years, now two high schools with separate athletic programs.

The horn blares. It's 5:15 a.m. and Sachem North football players roll out of their bunks ready to run. A grueling 2-mile run awaits, through the cool mist that wafts through the mountains of Fishkill. Sleepy-eyed but willing, the joggers start under a full moon that illuminates a small trail through the densely wooded climb toward Puwanee Peak.

The run ends at the summit, where the players convene along the rocks, sing the school song and watch the sun creep over the tree line to the east. Coach Dave Falco breathes in the moment, almost like a religious experience, and takes the opportunity to bring his team even closer at Fresh Air Fund football camp earlier this week.

About 140 miles to the southeast, the football players of Sachem East, some former teammates of the ones in Fishkill, are still asleep. Players are expected to report to their practice field at 6:30 a.m. They too, are expected to endure a strenuous workout. Rain showers pound the practice field and an hour of conditioning includes much agility work in the mud. It's definitely not like watching a sunrise. But the spirit level is still high.

It's a different world this season for Sachem football, which fielded its first varsity team in 1961 and has qualified for the playoffs 22 consecutive years since 1982.

The largest district in the state split up its old high school campus, which housed 4,700 students, and reorganized into two schools 5 miles apart - Sachem North in Lake Ronkonkoma and Sachem East, atop a hill in Farmingville. The state will help reimburse the district, which is spending $228.6 million in construction of Sachem East and a new middle school, as well as renovations at Sachem North and other buildings in the district.

The teams at North and East are virtually first-year programs, unknown entities and not expected to reach the playoffs. North, however, inherits the team's records and past achievements.

"This is a tremendous challenge for the football players at North and East," said Falco, 38, whose North team is seeded ninth out of 14 teams in Division I, Suffolk's largest. "We lost some quality seniors who were leaders and had game experience.

"Our [former] program allowed players to evolve into roles and that philosophy was ripped apart with the split of the senior class. For this year, some players are forced to reevaluate their roles and some might not be ready to step in and make that transition."

Sachem North started preseason workouts with 48 varsity players and finished camp with 36 after the final run on Misery Hill.

"There is no depth like in years past," Falco said. "We are basically starting over. We are building the foundation again."

At Sachem East, 45 players began preseason workouts and the fledgling program is similar to an expansion team. There are five seniors and coach Al Bertolone has a team that is seeded eighth in Division I.

"We'll develop our own identity and cast a foundation in 2004," said Bertolone, 45, who guided the Sachem JV Red team to an undefeated record in 2003. "For one year, the break will be difficult and then we'll be neighboring schools in the same district."

Both schools have beautiful football fields with lights. East is still waiting for a press box to be built and the equipment for the weight room is expected any day. The main school building overlooks the field, which sits atop a hill to the east. The Veterans Memorial monument on CR 83 peers majestically over the trees to the northwest of the practice field. That kind of flavor is everywhere at East.

Though the differences are easy to pinpoint, one thing that won't change is the nickname. North and East will both use the same logo and be called the Flaming Arrows for at least this season. The uniforms will be different. North will wear traditional black and gold with red accents. East has 49ers red and black colors and Vegas gold accents.

"We love the new look," East two-way lineman James Mignone said. "It's the traditional look versus the modern look. They're both great."

Mignone walked off the practice field through a soaking rain and into East's new locker room after the morning workout. Cardboard covered the floors as Mignone entered the freshly painted building.

Untainted lockers are a welcoming sight as players break between the two-a-day workout schedule. Players head home to everyday routines of cell phone chatter, computer use, watching television or to see their girlfriends. Some say they're headed for a quick trip to the beach or to the mall.

East didn't go to football camp. There was too much to do to get organized and familiarized with the new school setting. There were student orientations that the players couldn't afford to miss.

"No one knows where the classrooms are," Bertolone said. "We couldn't be away for a week because we had to get acclimated to the new building and attend orientation.

"It's like we're moving into a new house, there's so much to do. This is more than football, it's life-changing."

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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