Pierson Spirit Night Celebrates Whalers of All Ages

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A parade of Sag Harbor Youth Hoops participants was held during halftime of the Pierson girls basketball game as part of the 2020 Spirit Night festivities at Pierson High School on Friday night, 1/24/20. Michael Heller photos

A proud Pierson High School community showed off more than just its winning boys and girls basketball programs at its ninth annual Spirit Night on Friday.

A boisterous chorus got things started with the singing of the National Anthem followed by the school’s fight song, and between the boys and girls varsity basketball games, the Sag Harbor Youth Hoop paraded around the varsity gym with a number of those players getting some playing time in between games.

Pierson’s Robotics Club was also part of the celebration, showing off its dunking robot and shooting ping pong balls into the crowd from a homemade shooter, much like a T-shirt cannon seen at college or professional games. And the Sag Harbor Booster Foundation was able to give away free pizza from Sag Pizza and prize packages to The Clubhouse to three lucky students whose names were picked out of a hat.

Pierson students cheer on the Whalers at Spirit Night.

At the heart of the celebration were the two varsity teams showing off their games in front of a loud and packed gym. The girls basketball team, coming off a tough loss to League VII leader Port Jefferson, bounced back with a solid 43-30 victory over a scrappy Babylon team, while the boys defeated neighbor Ross handily, 68-30, to keep their sights set on an undefeated League VII title.

Possibly due to pregame jitters and all the nerves associated with the night, the Lady Whalers (9-3 League VII, 10-6 overall) got off to a slow start at Friday night’s game and trailed the Lady Panthers by six points early on. But senior point guard Chastin Giles turned things around for Pierson, draining a pair of three-pointers to pull her team even at 13-13 by the end of the first quarter. A Grace Perello jumper, a layup by Sofia Mancino and a pull-up shot by Giles was the lone offense the entire second quarter, as the Lady Whalers halted any momentum Babylon may have had at the start of the game and led, 19-13, at halftime.

Pierson’s Grace Perello shoots over a Babylon defender.

Giles opened the second half scoring for Pierson with another three, one of four on the night, and then a pair of free throws by Brooke Esposito put the Lady Whalers ahead by double digits, which they were able to maintain for the most part, the rest of the game.

Giles finished with a game-high 19 points, and is now 35 points away from the 1,000 career-point milestone, while Sofia Mancino and Grace Perello each scored eight.

“Always a game everyone is looking forward to,” Giles said after the game. “Love the crowd. It’s just a fun game.”

Pierson girls head coach John “Woody” Kneeland has been involved in Spirit Night games in the past, having been an assistant coach to Kevin Barron the past few seasons, but it was his first time leading the team on Friday. He was surprised how loud the gym was.

“Sitting as an assistant, I didn’t realize it was that hard to hear,” he said. “Kevin told me last year, ‘I don’t think they can hear me, it’s loud in here.’ I felt like my blood pressure was through the roof because I had to scream at the top of my lungs. I think that was the biggest difference for me.”

Most games are nerve-racking, but even more so for a young team such as the Lady Whalers, who only returned three players from last year’s Regional Finalist team in Giles, Mancino and Mahlia Hemby. The rest of the team made the jump from junior varsity, such as Perello, who along with the majority of her teammates, played in her first Spirit Night game.

“I would say it was pretty crazy,” she said. “I’ve been in games and stuff, but it’s never been this crazy. I was shaking so much. It was just a great experience overall.

“I think it gave us a little more adrenaline than we’ve had,” Perello added. “I think that kind of affected our game, but I think overall, we calmed down and had a good game.”

Kneeland said that while winning a league title is still in the cards for his team, after losing to Port Jeff he has shifted the focus to the postseason. While there is no other Class C team in Suffolk County, Pierson will compete in the Section XI Tournament and Kneeland said there is a ‘C’ team in Nassau County this season, meaning there will most likely be a Long Island Championship.

“That’s my focus and that’s what I want them to start focusing on and not have the stress of can we still win the league?” he said. “It’s more really now, how are we going to get better as a team? Just focus on us and then hopefully get some scrimmages going.”

Pierson’s Henry Brooks is introduced before the start of the Whalers’ game against the Ross Ravens on Friday.

As for the boys, a senior-laden group which is in line to win its League VIII title, a goal that was aided last week when Southold suffered a loss to Smithtown Christian, they were able to jump out to a 16-0 start on Ross on Friday night, at which point head coach Will Fujita started to rotate players in and out throughout the game.

Almost every player on the roster was able to get into the score book, except for Habtamu Coulter, who didn’t take a shot. Wilson Bennett led the team with 14 points in limited action and Henry Brooks scored 12. Harry Cowen (8), Charlie Culver (8) Hudson Brindle (6), Jessup Kunzeman (5), Cecil Munchin (5) and Richard Rodriguez (2) all scored off the bench. Fujita said they all deserved it.

Pierson’s Wilson Bennett goes for a breakaway layup against the Ross School on Friday.

“I’ve said this a bunch this season, everybody pushes each other so our guys are working very, very hard with each other at practice, and you could see it from top to bottom, the result was pretty much what we were looking for,” he said after the game. “We had some things we wanted to work on, and I thought both groups executed what we needed to do.”

It was a special night, especially for a number of seniors who were able to get a lot of playing time in.

“Spirit Night every year, it’s a perfect thing for Sag Harbor,” Kunzeman said. “The community comes together on this one night and it’s just an amazing feeling to have all of your classmates cheering for you and have them in mind when you’re scoring.

“It’s awesome,” said Nick Egbert, who scored six points. “I thought it was a great way to end my 2020 season. Not over yet, we have a lot of big things to do, but we have a few seniors on the team, and we’ve had a few Spirit Nights, but this one was one to remember.”

While Pierson (8-0 League VII, 10-6 overall) has a two-game edge on both Southold and Smithtown Christian, both Fujita and his players were mum when talking about a possible league title. Pierson played at Southold on Tuesday night and will host Bridgehampton this Friday night at 6:15 p.m.

“We got to take care of business,” Egbert said. “We got a few really important games coming up, and we’ve got to take it one game at a time and we can’t look ahead too far.”

The Pierson Robotics team’s robot “dunks” a basketball during halftime at Spirit Night
Pierson’s Peter Schaefer flies to the hoop.
The Sag Harbor Youth Hoops participants gather at center court.

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