Eye on the Ball: Winning with Cori Cass

BOV DeSTEFANO PHOTO | Cori Cass at his desk at Chase.
BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO | Cori Cass at his desk at Chase.

Give this a try: For the year 2006, name the Heisman trophy winner, Miss America, Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Now try this: A friend who helped you through a tough time 10 years ago, do you think you remember them? Of course you would. The point is, the people who make the greatest difference in your life are not the ones who won the most awards or have the most money. The ones who you remember are simply the ones who care the most.

Cori Cass cared for me 10 years ago when I suffered a stroke. Realizing that my wife and I were in a jam, without being asked, he was there to help. He took a one-month leave from his job and ran my entire operation. His caring not only took a great strain off my wife, but as she said, “He did it better than I would have.”

Cori is one of the best athletes to come out of the Shelter Island School. He’s a self-made man who always knew what he wanted and where he wanted to live his life. It’s a pleasure to know him and his family — wife Leith and two daughters, Ayla and Quinn.

Cori first arrived on the Island 30 years ago as a 7-year-old from New Hampshire. All during his youth his passion was sports. He arrived at just the right time since he was placed in a class with a good group of kids. It seemed they all loved athletics like he did and, fortunately, they always had some activity to play every day.

Of all the games he played, his favorite was baseball. He fondly remembers playing whiffle ball in Craig Simes’ backyard, basketball on Linda Court, tackle football on Klenawicus Field and organized football coached in those days by Dr. Peter Kelt. Although baseball was his first love, he soon found that living on the Island made it very difficult to find 18 kids to play.

Knowing how much easier it was to find kids for a game of basketball is the reason why many Island kids turn to basketball as their main sport. During those teenage years, Cori played on many all-star teams, starting with Little League right through high school.

In 1995 his team, the guys he grew up with, won a league title in basketball. At that time both he and Brian Regan were working for me in the golf shop. They knew something I didn’t, since together, they won a rather substantial wager from me. Cori made an outrageous even bet that their team would go undefeated that year. Brian, seeing what an easy mark I was, hedged his bet by betting they would have one loss. Needless to say, they went undefeated.

Cori and Brian were inseparable growing up. Cori said that even though they drifted apart after high school, the news of Brian’s death was one of the saddest and hardest things he ever had to hear.

I asked him to talk a little about that 1995 undefeated team and he suddenly had instant recall, noting that they were an extremely close group of guys. He had no problem remembering the names of his teammates from over 20 years ago. These names and their families are still a part of the Island: Craig Simes, Jamie Rice, Ed Kiaer, Brian Regan, Brian Springer, Ian Thomson, Joe Mollica and Charlie Zelnick.

Cori said there were a couple of things important to their success. One was that they played a lot together and the other was the entire team hated to lose. That left them with one goal in mind — to win. In other words, always think like a winner.

Winning a league title in your senior year was something special, a feeling of going out on top.

But the icing on the cake was the day the school retired his jersey and number. This great tribute was done at the Heights firehouse on a night the town was celebrating the team’s success. Coach Rick Osmer presented his jersey to him, solidifying his legacy in the Shelter Island High School sports program.

After graduation he spent two years as a basketball walk-on at Manhattan College. This was a team coming off an impressive Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA tournament. He was able to play for Manhattan through his first semester in college until the NCAA clearinghouse rules caught up with him. He had to be placed as a “prop 48 player.” That meant his grades were below the threshold to participate. (A lesson learned that I am sure will be taught to Ayla and Quinn.)

Cori transferred to Becker College, a junior college in Worcester, Massachusetts. His lesson was well learned since his grades put him on the Dean’s List. Not only did he maintain his grades, he also had a very successful basketball year, named Player of the Week numerous times along with receiving the team’s MVP award. Add these awards to being named first team in the conference and you’ll agree he made a great move.

From Becker, Cori transferred to St. John’s in Queens where things abruptly changed. While playing summer league softball, he severely broke his tibia and fibula bones. Complications with the first surgery put a hold on his life for the next five years. It took two more surgeries to clear up a bone infection. Today he still has issues from this injury but it doesn’t stop him from working out every day and playing basketball a few times a week.

Since his early years working with me, Cori has had an interesting list of job titles that should prepare him for anything. He worked in the New York garment district for C & L Sales, then on to Morgan Stanley, Citi/Smith Barney and back to Shelter Island and the Bridgehampton National Bank. Today he is at JP Morgan Chase here on the Island.

His ace in the hole all those years has been in construction with his dad, Brian Cass.

Today at 38, Cori’s priorities have changed. His family has become the driving force in his life.

He and Leith plan on continuing to raise their daughters here.

He would like to start getting more involved with the community that has supported him all his life. His first move was becoming general manager of the Shelter Island Bucks, the Island’s first collegiate baseball team. He has also recently been elected to the Board of Trustees of the Shelter Island Library.

Knowing him for over 20 years, I’ll remember him most for being a great friend and caring for my wife and me in a time of need. Next, I will remember him for never giving up the quest of always striving to finish on top.