Mount Sinai proves defense wins championships

Mount Sinai girls lacrosse had a mantra: "Defense wins championships." It was repeated often.

The Mustangs allowed 6.15 goals per game this season, they didn't allow more than nine goals in any single game, and outscored opponents, 274-123. Now, the Mustangs have other mantras but this one proved true and was repeated again after they held Skaneateles to six goals, winning the first state championship in school history.

"You plug kids into this system and you get them to believe in it,'' coach Al Bertolone said. "The rest of it is like a crescendo. They believe, you make adjustments, you work hard at it. Defense wins championships.''

Added defender Marisa Colacino: "It's been our motto all year. Defense wins championships.''

It was hardly only that, though. Time for mantra number two . . .

Goalie Julia Michaels emerg- ed from the exhausting final moments of the state semifinal against Honeoye Falls-Lima, a one-goal overtime thriller where she was repeatedly put on the hot seat. After parsing the final moments of the game in a cerebral, almost clinical fashion, she ended on a sentimental note -- that second motto.

"Game's over, game's over,'' she said. "Clear eyes, full hearts . . . ''

" . . . Can't lose,'' her coach finished.

It was an oft-repeated rallying cry steeped in fact. The Mustangs seriously could not lose. After going down early against North Shore in the Class C Long Island final, Bertolone called a timeout and reassured his troops. The ball went into Caroline Fitzgerald's hands and then Sydney Pirreca's. She scored to kick off an eventual game-winning run.

Against Skaneateles, it was more of the same: Mount Sinai looked overmatched, Bertolone called a timeout, the ball went to Fitzgerald, then Pirreca, then into the net. The Mustangs never looked back.

"We just pick each other up and our coach keeps us calm,'' Pirreca said. "We stay calm and once we get one goal, we keep the momentum. We keep going. It's all about draw controls.''

The result was a 20-0 record, the school's first perfect season. It came, appropriately, in Fitzgerald's senior year. The two-time All-American was one of a group of "kids that have been working at this since the seventh grade,'' Bertolone said. "This is a special, special group. It was a testament to their character and fortitude and, other than my kids, they're the loves of my life.''

Defense may have won a championship. Clear eyes and full hearts may have crafted a perfect season. But this Mount Sinai team didn't come out fully forged and state-title ready. The desire sprouted in 2011, when the Mustangs lost a two-goal lead late in the state final. The bus ride back was long and painful. But they were all young -- freshmen and sophomores galore -- and having the next two years to think about it was even worse.

"That feeling never, ever goes away,'' Pirreca said. "[Winning a state title] doesn't make up for it, but it fills the spot of that terrible feeling that we were feeling for two years straight.''

"That terrible feeling'' is replaced with dizzy joy and guttural screams. Pirreca, an eighth-grade starter two years ago, is one of the leaders, and the post-game celebration that day goes on for close to an hour. Just to the right of her, in the stands, parents and fans still hold the glossy, professionally printed sign with Mount Sinai's third mantra.

It says, simply, "Redemption.''

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