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Manhasset girls realize a dream with a state championship

Manhasset players celebrate a goal against Victor during

Manhasset players celebrate a goal against Victor during the NYSPHSAA Class B final at SUNY Cortland on Saturday, June 7, 2014. Credit: Rich Barnes

There it was, the storybook ending captured in a moment: Natalie Stefan, tears of joy streaming, as she held the championship plaque with fellow captains Emily Koufakis and Julia Glynn.

This was the dream she and her friends envisioned a decade ago when they began playing lacrosse. Manhasset had just won its first state title since 2003 and the All-American added the one thing previously absent from her athletic resume.

Except Stefan didn't play a second in the state tournament. The senior's season had ended with a torn ACL in Manhasset's first game back in March.

"It was bittersweet, but at that moment, I felt so proud of my team," Stefan said. "A lot of people probably wrote us off when I got hurt, but they did it. They proved they could do it without me."

The Indians didn't do it without Stefan, though. Her role simply changed. And that, really, was the mark of Manhasset's remarkable season: its ability to make adjustments and overcome adversity.

Five days after Stefan went down, Manhasset lost Sarah Phillips, one of its top attacks, to a similar injury. Then another attack, Kellen D'Alleva, had her season ended because of a stress fracture in her back. And another, Julia Sullivan, tore her ACL. And with all the strains and sprains, requiring braces and bandages, even the active players sometimes looked half mummified during games.

Then came the consecutive losses in mid-April, and gone was any air of invincibility that accompanied Manhasset's No. 3 national ranking. "With everything we were dealing with," Koufakis said, "even we began to have some doubts."

It was then that coach Danielle Gallagher challenged the Indians to "prove" they truly were contenders. There also were lineup modifications, including a rotation that involved in-game switches based on matchups. Koufakis and Abby Kucharczyk often would shift from the midfield to fortify the defense; Erin Barry and Glynn would alternate at midfielder and attack to spark the offense.

They found the formula, and Lindsey Ronbeck and Kathryn Hallet were at times unstoppable offensively. Jackie D'Alleva, Riley Garcia, Danielle Nicosia and goalie Erin Coleman anchored an elite defense.

There also was the addition of a de facto coach: Stefan. After knee surgery, she returned to the sideline "to help in any way I could." She often pulled teammates aside for quick tutorials and pep talks. During big games, Stefan and the other injured reserves delivered the loudest cheers and -- yes -- even danced. "That was huge for us," Barry said. "Natalie knew how to calm everyone down and keep things light, no matter how much pressure there was."

Added Glynn: "Intangibles are a big factor. Just hearing her voice and seeing how fired up she'd get always pumped us up."

A day before Manhasset headed for the state tournament, another challenge arose. Koufakis suffered a strained quad in practice, to go with ankle tendinitis. "I could barely walk," she said. "But every team, every person, has obstacles, so I'd have to overcome it."

With painkillers, Coleman's muscle stimulation machine and a high pain threshold, Koufakis took the field. She had two assists in the state semifinal. In the title game, her three caused turnovers helped Manhasset rally from down five to beat Victor, 11-7.

As the Indians' bus pulled into Manhasset High School and the team was greeted by a large crowd, the players smiled as they spotted a group of giddy young girls up front.

"They reminded us of us," Stefan said, referring to herself and her 11 senior teammates. "We were 8 when we first said we wanted to win states . . . and after everything we went through, it happened."

Not quite how she had imagined. But it happened.

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