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They slowly gathered in the north side of Thomas Sabatelle Alumni Gymnasium, one hulking former student-athlete after another. By the time they walked across the court during halftime to be honored for a basketball championship they won 20 years ago, you could see why this group is the only team in Sachem history to win a boys basketball county title.
Gathered in front of a packed gym on “program day,” which saw Sachem East and Sachem North play against each other in Lake Ronkonkoma, the district paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of its grandest team achievement in boys hoops.
Massive in stature, many averaging 6-foot-4 or taller in height, they looked like a formidable group of skilled ballers in their time. Sporting a program-best 20-3 record and a roster loaded with some of the school’s top athletes across many sports from football to volleyball to soccer, this group beat Walt Whitman in the Suffolk County final before losing to Nassau’s Hempstead High in the Long Island Championship.
Sachem was led by Jerry Schlie, a junior during that magical season, who is still the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,191 career points and played at the University of Miami. He averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds per game his junior year and finished with similar career averages that remain as some of the highest career marks in Sachem basketball history.
He remembers the losses more than the wins, especially the heartbreaking defeat to Hempstead.
“We were right there, we could have beaten them,” he said. “We let it slip away. That one hurt. I remember losing and knowing that team wasn’t going to be together anymore.”
But it’s not the loss to Hempstead that’s remembered historically, at least not in Lake Ronkonkoma. The victory over Whitman is a blur for almost everyone from the coaching staff to the non-starters on the squad.
“I remember when we beat them, and the excitement afterwards,” Schlie recalled. “It all happened so fast and it was a long time ago. I remember being ecstatic that we were the first team to do it and no one had done it before.”
“It was exciting but not surprising,” added Craig Stolzberg, the team’s point guard, who played at SUNY Geneseo. “It truly was a bunch of people that were talented and willing to put in the time, but more importantly, were unselfish.”
Stolzberg cited Sachem’s already contagious winning atmosphere as an aide in the basketball program’s desire to continue the streak. Football won a county title and played in its first Long Island championship game that fall. Boys volleyball won a county championship, as did girls basketball, girls soccer, girls volleyball, boys bowling, girls gymnastics, and boys gymnastics.
“This team was a fun group and a hard nose group of guys,” said Matt Di Stefano, a starter on the county championship team, who is a teacher and coach at Sachem North today. “I remember practices were very intense, especially when starters versus non-starters would battle. We were a very tight group, but also a very competitive group. Everybody wanted to get minutes. Coaches would separate guys, it got ugly at times, but I think that made our identity of who we were. If you didn’t go hard everyday, there was someone else waiting to get a turn.”
In a season that saw 23 games come and go, there were some interesting and memorable moments that extend beyond just championship contests. Sachem opened the season with a loss against Smithtown that put a sour taste in the team’s mouth from day one. The Flaming Arrows followed that with 19 straight victories until finally losing to Amityville in the “overall” Suffolk County final, which is nothing more than a glorified scrimmage before the large school, Sachem in this case, and the small school each go on to play in their respective Long Island championship games.
You can’t overlook Sachem’s victory during that season’s tournament at Bellport High. They took down Bay Shore and super star Brian Ehlers, who went on to play Division I at Lafayette College and become one of the most decorated players in Patriot League history before playing professionally in the United States Basketball League and British Basketball League.
Or the time when Schlie fouled out in the fourth quarter against Brentwood, always a contender with athletes on the court, during the regular season.
“It’s like not having LeBron or MJ on the floor,” said Di Stefano. “I think we showed some guts in a very hostile place pulling out the win without our big guy.”
Even more crucial, how about the final 50 seconds of the county final when Di Stefano hit two clutch free throws for insurance points to increase Sachem’s lead to four points. He also insured his second county title in as many seasons having won a volleyball championship that fall. Fast-forward to 2015 and he was an assistant coach on the Sachem North boys volleyball team that won the school’s first state crown, a similarly exciting and historic rush for Di Stefano and the Flaming Arrows.
The team got its defensive prowess from coaches Steve Rich and Bill Marano. Rich was the head coach at Sachem from 1978-1997 and amassed more than 270 wins, none more important than the county championship.
“We were all on the same page,” he said. “The kids really bought into what we were trying to do offensively and especially defensively. The county championship was a wonderful accomplishment for a great group of kids, a real team. The game is a blur for this old ball coach, but it was a great win for a wonderful group of kids, and our staff.”
1995-1996 Sachem Basketball Roster
-Words and modern photos by Chris R. Vaccaro