With the first decade of the 21st century in the books, Long Island Pulse magazine decided to look back at the most significant figures on the Long Island sports scene. There were high profile athletes such as Kings Park and Houston Astros baseball star Craig Biggio and Hofstra and New York Jets wideout Wayne Chrebet. Prime-time events such as golf’s US Open at Bethpage (2002 and ‘09) and Shinnecock Hills (2004) put the region in the spotlight. Great teams abounded, from Speedy Claxton-led Hofstra in men’s basketball (2000) to the Bratton brothers-fuelled Huntington boys lacrosse run (2005-07).
But the people who made the greatest contributions to Long Island sports in the last decade were often coaches and administrators, people on the bench or away from the public view. Others championed causes, opened the way for new sports to flourish or built the foundation for great teams. Here is our Top 10:
10. Louis Acompora: The Northport High School freshman died on March 25, 2000 after being struck in the chest by a ball during a freshman lacrosse game. Acompora, 14, suffered commotio cordis, a rare form of cardiac arrest. He could have been revived had there been an automated external defibrillator. His parents made it their mission to raise awareness and their son lived on through the Louis Acompora Foundation. The Long Island sports community reacted almost immediately, putting defibrillators at high school sports events. On June 27, 2002, with father and driving force John Acompora on hand, Gov. George Pataki signed into law a bill requiring one portable defibrillator in each high school. Louis’ Law was the nation’s first.
9. Sarah Hughes: The figure skating prodigy from Great Neck burst onto the world consciousness with a remarkable gold-medal performance at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Then 17, Hughes jumped from fourth to first with a flawless long program and joined the ranks of local Olympic immortals Derrick Adkins and Al Oerter. Hughes has served as a spokesperson for breast cancer awareness and supported the outreach program Figure Skating Harlem.. Younger sister Emily Hughes also developed into a figure skating star in her own right. Emily Hughes competed at the 2006 Olympics. Sarah Hughes graduated from Yale in 2009.
8. Russ Cellan: The Freeport High School football coach turned a downtrodden program into one of Long Island’s best, developing talent and innovating along the way. The result was a feared program that played in six Nassau Conference I championship games this decade and won four. He popularized the spread offense on Long Island, coached NFL standouts D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Morlon Greenwood and led one of the great teams in state history, the 2003 Red Devils. Cellan closed the decade in November the way he began it in 2000, winning a Long Island Class I championship.
7. Tim Cluess: The C.W. Post men’s basketball coach is a fierce competitor, a master tactician and a great teacher. He was a legendary high school coach, dominating the Catholic league at St. Mary’s. He went 262-87 in 14 seasons with the Gaels, winning a pair of state Class B Federation championships before tensions between he and the administration led him to leave in 2005. He coached current NBA player Danny Green. Cluess jumped to Suffolk CC-Brentwood and led it to the NJCAA Division III quarterfinals in 2006. Division II C.W. Post hired him weeks later. Last year, Cluess guided a Long Island-heavy roster to a 30-1 season and the elite eight of the NCAA Division II tournament. He is very likely Long Island’s next big D-I prospect, a la Billy Donovan at Florida.
6. Jim McGowan: The longtime Bay Shore High School softball coach has dominated the game like no coach in any other sport. He is the winningest softball coach in state history and a pitching guru who has developed dominant windmillers throughout Long Island. This decade alone, Bay Shore won state Class A titles in 2000 and 2005 and five Suffolk titles from 2000-07. And the Marauders are in the hunt each season. They lost in the county championship series last spring. Beyond his work as a coach and an instructor, he’s been instrumental in building up the coaches association and championing the game. With former players now becoming coaches themselves, his influence will live on.
5. Boomer Esiason: You know him today as a TV commentator and radio host. But the former East Islip standout and NFL quarterback is an iconic Long Island sports figure. Sure, he played in a Super Bowl and starred for the New York Jets. But he’s emerged as an even more influential force off the field. The Manhasset resident started the Boomer Esiason Foundation after his son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in 1993. BEF generated $6.4 million in 2008. Meanwhile, Esiason turned his twin passions – football and fundraising to fight CF – to promote Long Island football. There’s no event quite like the Outback Steakhouse Empire Challenge, an all-star football game played each June at Hofstra before big crowds and regional TV. The Empire Challenge only strengthened the sport, giving Long Island coaches an opportunity to grow while helping the development of youth and high school programs in need. For example, austerity-plagued Roosevelt High
School received game helmets and uniforms. By the way, graduating seniors got a first-class showcase event.
4. Don Buckley: The longtime athletic director at St. Anthony’s High School helped build the Catholic power into one of the nation’s premier sports programs. Sports Illustrated recognized the school as the best in the state from 2005-09. The football program won eight CHSFL titles in the decade and boys basketball captured a state Federation crown. Girls soccer has been a powerhouse and boys soccer finished ranked second in the nation in 2008. But the former track coach’s true love is running and the Friars have a boys and girls program with several hundred participants. Yet Buckley’s influence goes well beyond Huntington Station. Buckley has served as president of the CHSAA and the state Federation, forging a reputation as a key figure in New York high school sports.
3. Cathy Gallagher: The long-time executive director of Section XI was a pioneer in women’s sports and a strong voice in New York state high school athletics. She retired from Section XI, Suffolk County’s governing body for high school sports, in 2003 after 21 years at the helm. Gallagher first taught at Smithtown and Cold Spring Harbor. She officiated girls basketball, volleyball, softball and field hockey.
Her career path became clear in 1972, thanks to the landmark legislation known as Title IX, which leveled the playing field for women and promoted a nationwide explosion in sports participation. At Section XI, she implemented scheduling of games, brought content online, oversaw the addition of numerous sports from girls lacrosse to girls golf, helped streamline procedure and educated schools on safety issues. Gallagher helped usher in the Long Island football championships and transform high school sports in the process. Ed Cinelli succeeded Gallagher and deserves mention. So does Todd Heimer in Nassau. But Gallagher was a ground-breaking administrator for three decades.
2. Jim Fiore: He’s presided over the rapid rise of Stony Brook University athletics. The Long Beach native took over as Stony Brook’s athletic director in August 2003. In the years since, Fiore has overhauled staff, upgraded facilities and set the Seawolves on a path toward Division I competitiveness. Football was non-scholarship when he arrived. Now it’s the only Division I program on Long Island. Under his watch, men’s and women’s lacrosse, baseball, softball and men’s soccer each qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Fiore also inked the first TV contact in school history, with MSG, in 2005. He helped secure $30 million in state funds for school facilities and opened the Goldstein Student-Athlete Development Center in 2006. With lacrosse primed for another NCAA run this spring, the Seawolves roar into the new decade as a force on the Long Island sports scene.
1. Charles Wang: From merely big-named Long Island businessman as co-founder of Computer Associates to iconic figure in the community, Charles Wang is Long Island Pulse magazine’s sports figure of the decade. As owner of the New York Islanders, Wang is unquestionably the biggest backer of Long Island sports. He became part-owner of the struggling NHL franchise in 2000 and added immediate stability, ending speculation of a move and opening his check book to bring in fresh talent. Wang assumed full ownership 2004. The Islanders reached the playoffs four times in the decade, beginning in 2002 after a seven-year drought. In 2001, Wang relocated an Arena Football League franchise to the Nassau Coliseum. The New York Dragons won three division titles and made the playoffs six times before the league folded in 2009. He’s been in contentious negotiations with Nassau County to build a new arena and redevelop the area around the Coliseum. If the Lighthouse
project ever does move forward, Wang might go down as Long Island’s most influential power broker since Robert Moses.