It has been 20 years since Sachem played in its first Class I Long Island football championship. The Flaming Arrows lost to Lawrence High School at Hofstra this weekend in 1995.
The program had gone 18 years before it played in and eventually won a Long Island crown, beating Farmingdale in 2013 at Stony Brook in one of the most magical moments in program history.
While winning the final game of the season is clearly every program’s objective, Sachem’s 1995 campaign was filled with thrills and character building moments, including the team’s sixth Suffolk County title, even if they lost the big one.
Earlier this season, players, coaches and supporters of the 1995 squad celebrated the 20thanniversary of etching their names in Sachem history. They gathered for a ceremony at Flanagan’s on Hawkins Avenue since the game against Ward Melville was postponed and the on-field ceremony was canceled. Players were recognized at the bar by Sachem Athletic Director Pete Blieberg.
“The common theme of the night was that all of my former teammates wanted to be insured that the Sachem football of today still upholds the same principles and traditions of the past,” said Dave Caputo, a captain on the 1995 team and current defensive coordinator of the varsity at Sachem North. “These are grown guys, leaders in their professions, and great family men who are still passionate about the state of their school and their football program. Many credit coach [Fred] Fusaro and Sachem football with making them the men that they are today.”
Sachem opened the ’95 season with a 22-19 loss against Lindenhurst. In Week 5 the Flaming Arrows lost to Longwood, 35-14. Both moments would prove to be crucial lessons later in the season when it mattered most. After the loss to Longwood, O’Neal stood up amongst his teammates while Fusaro was speaking and iterated they must come together and work harder than ever to win.
“When he spoke you listened,” said Will Campbell, a senior receiver on the team, who made it to Flanagan’s for the reunion. “This speech Jimmy gave was a mix of motivation and get-in-your-face. I know it resonated through every player and coach in that locker room because from that point we were a dominant football team.”
O’Neal was at Flanagan’s with a smile on his face for hours, reminiscing with teammates and friends. He cares so much about the connections he made on the football field at Sachem.
“I really do appreciate this,” said O’Neal, who at 37-years old still looks like the thoroughbred he was in high school and college. “This is what it’s all about. It’s about being with family and people you love.”
Earlier during the day of the reunion in October, he walked the halls of Sachem High School North. He went into the locker room and was immediately thrown back into a different time, one where he was the most dominant football player in Suffolk County and one of the top recruits in the northeast.
“It was surreal,” said O’Neal, who played at Iowa State before transferring to Nassau Community College and eventually Delaware. “The smell is the same. It brings you right back to where you were.”
Sachem played Lindenhurst in the Suffolk County semifinals. O’Neal rushed for three touchdowns and 274 yards on 35 carries. He scored a 10-yard touchdown run in overtime to beat the Bulldogs.
In the Suffolk County Division I final, Sachem had its way with Longwood, beating the Lions 21-0 and capturing its first county title since 1986. O’Neal had three touchdowns in that victory also. Caputo recorded two interceptions that set up both of Sachem’s final scoring drives.
“Going into that playoff game our team had a chip on our shoulder that we would not let that happen again,” said Campbell. “The coaches did a great job game planning and we came out with a vengeance that game. It was also the best defensive game we played all year. Helmet on helmet all game and we took the life out of them.”
Sachem’s luck ran out the following week against Lawrence. In a tight contest, Sachem ran 63 plays compared to Lawrence’s 30 and lost, 14-7. O’Neal had 137 rushing yards on 43 carries.
One drive in the third quarter lasted 21 plays and 77 yards for the Flaming Arrows. O’Neal had 16 carries and 42 yards in that span, but was stopped on the 3-yard line and Lawrence overturned the ball. That drive took the wind out of Sachem’s sails. But it’s all a memory now.
There are a number of notable alumni from that squad. Sachem East principal Lou Antonetti was a lineman. Sachem East football coach Jimmy Dee played tight end. Jesse Brush, the first freshman to play varsity football at Sachem and later at Harvard, was brought up midway through the season. Doug Shanahan was a junior and he went on to play football and lacrosse at Hofstra and is one of the best lacrosse players in the history of that sport. There are dozens of others who played sports in college, teach and coach today, and who represent Sachem proudly in their personal and professional lives.
“It doesn’t resonate with you as a young person that it’s going to be so important to you in the future,” said O’Neal, who still owns the all-time career rushing record at Sachem with 3,786 yards. “You take it for granted when you’re young, but fast-forward 20 years and this is it. This is what molds you. The things you went through, the relationships you made don’t deteriorate.”
The men from that 1995 football team like to refer to themselves as old school and blue collar Sachem kids who played hard nosed football and bought into a program that was bigger than any individual or any one team.
“There is still a pride that exists with that identity,” said Caputo, “a pride that is still evident 20 years later.”
-Words by Chris R. Vaccaro