Local professional teams are a crowd pleaser
BY JOE PIETARO
Long Island and sports have always gone hand in hand. From the pee-wee stage to the big stage. Go to a local game and you will see excited coaches, parents and just plain fans. It doesn't matter if it's a Dragons linebacker making the tackle or your nephew in a Pop Warner game. We can't get enough of it. And lucky for us, there is certainly a lot to choose from.
Professionally speaking, the island is loaded with teams in all different sports. LongIsland.com took a look at the clubs that grace our landscape, past and present.
New York Islanders, NHL - The history of this storied franchise is vast. Beginning as an expansion team in the 1972-73 season, they played at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. An instant rival of the long time area team, the New York Rangers, the Isles did not make a dent until upsetting their NY brethren in the first round of the 1975 playoffs. The Islanders became a dynasty a few seasons later, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups starting in 1980. Only the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers prevented them from continuing their streak. They have never reached the heights of the glory years since. Current owner Charles Wang has made improvements, but former General Manager Mike Milbury made some questionable decisions that have left the team taking one step forward and two steps back. This season, the Islanders were in contention for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference until recently, where untimely losses have made it all but a formality that they will be left standing at the altar when the regular season concludes.
Long Island Ducks, Atlantic League - Born in 2000, the Ducks have become the model franchise in the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Team owners Frank Boulton and former New York Met Bud Harrelson have given the fans on Long Island a wonderful product, and they have not disappointed. The 6,000 plus seats at Citibank (formerly EAB) Park in Central Islip are rarely empty, and the family atmosphere created by the staff is second to none. The team mascot, Quackerjack, is the Ducks' most recognizable face, much to the chagrin of Harrelson and Justin Davies, the West Babylon native that has been with the team since day one. The excitement at the ballpark reached peak levels during the Ducks fifth anniversary season when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time and rode the momentum all the way to winning the league championship in 2004. Their seventh season is just around the corner, starting on May 3rd in Bridgeport against their rivals, the Bluefish.
New York Dragons, Arena Football League- Islanders owner Charles Wang acquired the Iowa Barnstormers AFL franchise in 2001 and relocated the franchise to the Nassau Coliseum. The name was changed to the New York Dragons and indoor football fans hoped that the franchise would last longer than the two failed attempts for arena football at Madison Square Garden (the New York Knights in 1988 and the New York City Hawks in 1997-1998.) The Dragons have had success since their move east, winning three consecutive Eastern Divisions heading into the current season. The team lost their two top quarterbacks to season ending injuries and is 6-4 to remain in playoff contention. Aaron Garcia, the most prolific AFL quarterback in the league's history, went down with a fractured tibia in a week five win at home versus the Orlando Predators. Newly acquired QB Nick Browder has given the team a spark and hopes to continue the team's playoff appearance streak.
Long Island Rough Riders, USL 2nd Division - The 'Riders brought professional soccer to Long Island in 1994. In their second season, big name players such as Tony Meola, Giovanni Savarese and Jim Rooney led them to a 19-1 record and the league championship. They once again took home the trophy in 2002 and look to add to that this season when it kicks off on April 22nd at the Mitchel Athletic Complex against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
Strong Island Sound, ABA - Professional basketball is back on Long Island, ABA style. The original American Basketball Association was considered the 'maverick' or the 'outlaw' league when it went up against the NBA from 1967-1976. The New York Nets were one of the flagship franchises and eventually merged along with three other ABA clubs with the NBA. Julius Erving, Dr. J to most people, was the face of the league and franchise. Local hoops fans had a long drought until the 2005-06 season when that familiar red, white, and blue basketball starting bouncing out east again. The Sound had a very successful inaugural season in the new version of the ABA, which is an independent minor league in its second go-round. A slow start and blistering finish resulted in a Final Four appearance for the upstart club. Finishing the regular season at 16-14 and ranked 13th in the ABA Power Rankings, the Sound defeated the Birmingham Magicians at home by two. They then went to Harlem and ousted the division champion Strongdogs, propelling them to the Great 8 Tournament in Rochester. An intense game that went to double overtime resulted in the Sound knocking off the top seeded Indiana Alleycats and earning the respect of the entire league. Unfortunately the magic ran out after 10 straight wins when they were defeated by the league runner-up, the Southern California Legends.
Long Island Lizards, MLL - In 2001, the Lizards were founded as a member of Major League Lacrosse and won the league championship their first season and once again in 2003. They have finished in first place in the American Division three times. They brought the popular sport of lacrosse to the professional ranks and look to build on their success when their season starts in May. Their home field is the Mitchel Athletic Complex.
Next week we will take a look back at some of the defunct professional teams that have called Long Island home. You will be surprised on the number of clubs and hopefully have some fond memories of them.