Coming off three strong, second place finishes in motorized tournaments in Nassau County, West Hempstead's fire drill team was feeling good heading into the New York State Championship.
Still, it had been 38 years since a Nassau County team other than the Hempstead Hornets had taken home the state title, and even longer -- 61 years -- since West Hempstead had its name inscribed on the trophy. So while expectations were high, the 16 members of the Westerners knew what they were up against.
"The way this sport works is that there have always been two to three absolutely dominant teams and in this era of racing, it's been West Sayville and Central Islip," says Andrew Brohm, 21, who co-captains the team with ex-chief Craig Hayes, 34, a 15-year racing veteran.
"If they have a good day, no one's beating them," Brohm added. "They have the bodies, they have the money, they have everything you need to be a great team and they've all been together for decades."
In contrast, West Hempstead's team -- which also includes Brohm's father Kenny, Ismael Villalba, Jonathan Poirot, Shawna Bennett, Anthony Rizzo, Patrick Gaffney, Kenneth Conn, Ray Magarie, Peter Lilli, Gerard Boettcher, Robert Di Monda, John Moskowski, Ralph Nicholes Sr. and Ralph Nicholes Jr. -- is fairly young, comprised of mostly guys (and one girl) in their twenties and thirties. "We have five or six members running key spots who have only been in for a year or two," says Brohm, who's been racing for four years.
Although the Westerners were one of the best teams in Nassau County from 1985 to 1993, Brohm says they hit "a bit of a rut" from 1995 to 2002. They continued to race, but only recently became competitive again after a batch of new recruits joined in 2003, "jump-starting" the team.
Knowing all this, Brohm says, the team would've been "disappointed" not to place at all at the 60-team state championship held on Aug. 18 in Main Transit, N.Y., after the season they had so far. But they weren't expecting a victory.
A poll conducted prior to the tournament though had West Hempstead tied with Central Islip and West Savyille as the favorites to win it all, and those who placed their bets on the Westerners were right.
The Westerners took points in six out of eight of the events, finishing first in B Hose and B Ladder.
"Going into Buckets, we were down two points so we had to come in third place or better to win the tournament," Brohm recalls. "West Sayville went before us and could have won, but they ran a high time and didn't earn any points. The only team who could beat us was Roslyn. No one else could catch up."
Roslyn, another young team who surprised everyone by finishing second, also over-timed in Buckets, while West Hempstead placed third in the event, bringing their overall points tally to 20 and earning them the state title.
"It's still a huge blur," Brohm says. "It was so surreal to everybody.”
The Westerners had practiced for more than 120 hours for five months to prepare for the eight tournaments they competed in this season and devoted countless hours to fundraising, along with their supportive alumni. But as Brohm, explains, it’s all worth it.
Not only does the drill team help the fire department recruit and retain members, but it also keeps them in shape, strengthens bonds among firefighters and prepares them for the situations they face when respond to an actual call.
“You get a lot more confidence,” adds Brohm.