It was a cool, crisp late October night, on Halloween Eve, and the Manhasset boys soccer team had a major game to play.
The Class AA semifinal against Long Beach was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Mitchel Field in Uniondale, but as the bus rumbled toward what could’ve been the last game of the season, the Manhasset coaches and players made a stop first.
They detoured to Queen of Peace Cemetery in Old Westbury, where six weeks earlier, two very important members of Manhasset’s squad had spent an agonizing time. Dr. Fara Vitale, mom to twin 11th-graders Gianluca and Joseph Milazzo, died on Sept. 9 after a long battle with appendix cancer at the tender age of 52.
Vitale was the ultimate team mom, knowing many of the Manhasset players in this small community since they were in first or second grade. Always cheerful, always screaming for her boys, she was as big a part of the team as any other parent.
For weeks, Joseph and Gianluca had used the soccer field as a refuge from their grief, from the constant well-meaning questions of “How are you guys doing?” from friends and strangers.
But on the night of Oct.30, when Head Coach Mark Giardino asked the Milazzo brothers if they wanted to stop and see their Mom on the way to the game, they both enthusiastically said yes.
The cemetery was closed, so two dozen teenagers and coaches stood around in a circle, held a moment of silence for Dr. Vitale, and “were reminded of everything we were playing for,” Joseph Milazzo said.
“It was really helpful and really important for us,” Gianluca Milazzo said. “We could play and practice and that does help us not think about what happened for a little while, but I also want to think about her, and win for her.”
“These kids are amazing,” Manhasset Head Coach Mark Giardino said of the Milazzo twins. “They show up every day, they work hard, and they never complain.
“The day after the funeral,” Giardino continued, “they were right back here working as hard as ever.”
After the short ceremony outside the cemetery’s gates, Manhasset got back to doing what it’s done all year: Win. It beat Long Beach, and then in the final against Garden City, did what it hadn’t been able to do in at least a decade: Send the Trojans home unhappy.
Gabe Feldman’s overtime goal eight minutes into the extra period gave Manhasset a 2-1 win and its first county crown since 2000.
A tic-tac-toe passing play led to Manhasset’s Manny Giouroukakis tapping the ball to Feldman around midfield, and the striker then beat two defenders, one “tugging his jersey the whole way,” Giardino said, and chipped a shot over the goalie to set off a raucous celebration.
The players raced over to the sidelines and jumped into the crowd to celebrate with their fans, a reaction team member Luka Petruccelli planned before overtime began.
“We had been talking about Garden City for months, talking about how we were going to finally beat them this year,” said Gabe Feldman, a senior who led the team in scoring. “And to beat them like that, when we knew we could do it and would do it, is just a dream come true.”
“This team, what an emotional ride they’ve been on, and just so proud of them and the efforts they all put forth every day,” Giardino said after the victory. “A game like that, with such an electric atmosphere, big crowd from both sides there, it was just an incredible night.”
Manhasset hoped that dream season would continue, but on Nov. 5 against Smithtown West in the Long Island Championship game, the dream ended three wins short of a state title. The Suffolk champs scored early in the second half and then hung on against a powerful Manhasset attack to win, 1-0.
“We didn’t score, but it wasn’t for a lack of chances,” Giardino said. “They played their game a little bit better than we played ours. But we had the ball on their goal line three times and somehow weren’t able to score.”
He added, “I’m not disappointed in the loss so much as I’m sad it’s over and I won’t get to coach these guys again.”
The season that started with heartbreak saw Manhasset accomplish many things, including the emergence of Feldman as a premier scorer, knocking in 26 goals, and the star play of goalie Jared Beschel, who hadn’t played competitive soccer before last year but “far exceeded expectations” this season, Giardino said.
And as close as the team was before the Milazzo family tragedy, they grew closer after it. Both Gianluca and Joseph marveled at how supportive their town and their team have been, giving them space to grieve but also enveloping them with love and support whenever it was needed.
Support that most certainly will be needed and appreciated now that the distraction of soccer season has ended.
“They’re my second family and have helped us through everything,” Gianluca Milazzo said. “Everyone knows everyone here in Manhasset, and everyone has just been so helpful. It has been awesome for our dad and my brother and me to see how much everyone cared. It’s helped so, so much.”