The Eastport South Manor football team is coming off a banner year in which it finished the regular season with its best record—7-1 in Division III—in the program’s 10-year history.
And, after a 31-28 victory in the final week of the regular season against Bellport, the Sharks looked as if they were primed to also earn their first ever playoff win as they were facing the same Clipper team a week later in the opening round of the postseason.
But Bellport dashed all hopes for ESM, downing the Sharks, 14-0, in front of a stunned crowd in Manorville and, since then, the Sharks have taken on a completely new identity.
The changes can be seen everywhere, from top to bottom. Shortly after the fall season ended, Paul Mastronardi stepped down as head coach to become the athletic director at Mercy High School in Riverhead. Then in June, ESM had arguably its best class of football players graduate. Players such as Mike Bianco, Joe Pesce, Jagger Chaisty, Austin Macchi, Mike Lieberman, Cole Zeller, Joe Zarcone and Joe Barlie have all left the program.
There’s a familiar face, though, in Bill Ashton, hired to fill the void left by Mastronardi’s departure and he now has the task of rebuilding the Sharks’ program.
Ashton served as an assistant coach under Mastronardi and has a long history of coaching varsity football on Long Island. His latest head coaching stint came a few years ago when he was at the helm of the Shoreham/Wading River team for 10 years. It was there that he coached Brendan Kelly, who went on to play at Florida State and, over the course of his college career, competed in four bowl games.
Ashton said during a recent interview that he was pleased to return to ESM.
“I always felt like I had unfinished business—I had people wanting me to stay,” he said. “It wound up working out really well, with the kids wanting me back and I wanted to coach them again.”
The team is going to take on a new identity offensively as well. Under Mastronardi, the offense liked to pound the ball on the ground and throw the ball once in a while. Ashton is going to change the offensive scheme to a spread offense, which means there will be plenty of balls thrown through the air this fall.
Throwing those balls will be junior Matt Kane, who saw a good amount of playing time last year when Macchi went down with injuries. Kane was under center during the team’s regular-season victory over Bellport, but he was also there in the ensuing playoff loss. Still, Ashton thinks Kane has taken the necessary steps in the offseason to become the Shark’s new leader on offense.
Also returning are running backs Jake Hobbie and Mark Zaharis, and fellow senior Danny Dowsett, who will be a jack-of-all-trades type of player this season, seeing time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Seniors Justin Pugal and Pat Minogue are also returning as two tall targets for Kane at wide receiver.
Minogue is also a big threat at defensive end, having led all of Suffolk County in sacks last season, according to his coach. Ashton also noted that junior Nick Garone should see more playing time this season and could be a difference maker for the team, and added that senior Kyle Sullivan will continue to hold down duties at center.
Lineman Bryant Stiles and receiver/defensive back Danny McCormick are two seniors who did not play last year but are on this year’s squad. Junior Luke Lafferty, who stars on the track team for ESM in the winter and spring, has also joined the team.
Following its best season ever, the Sharks are now preranked seventh, which would give them the second to last spot in the Division III playoffs—assuming they finish the regular season in seventh place. It’s almost exactly where Ashton thought he’d see his team at season’s end.
“We lost [Bianco], an All-State player, we lost guys like Cole and [Pesce],” he said. “We lost a lot. The seventh spot still puts us in the playoffs at 4-4, 5-3, and, going into the year, we should be making the playoffs.
“They all have high expectations, I have high expectations, and we have to let it go from there,” he continued.
The same prerankings list Sayville as the team to beat in the division, with Huntington falling to second and Miller Place sitting in third. Cross-town rival Westhampton Beach was ranked fifth.
ESM will get to dive right into the fire to start its 2014 season, playing its first contest at Miller Place on Saturday, September 6, at 1:30 p.m., before visiting Sayville the following week on Saturday, September 13, at 2 p.m. The Sharks host their first home game of the season on Saturday, September 20, at 2 p.m., when they will take on Comsewogue. ESM will visit Westhampton Beach on Friday, October 10, at 6 p.m.
“I wouldn’t quantify anything and say that we’re definitely going to make the playoffs, and that we’re going to win the championship, but we do expect the kids to play well every game,” Ashton said. “They’re going to be coached well and we expect them to do the best they can.”