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Mount Sinai's road to title: Mustangs put it in 'D'

Mt. Sinai's Sydney Pirreca celebrates her team's win

Mt. Sinai's Sydney Pirreca celebrates her team's win in the NYSPHSAA Class C girls lacrosse final at SUNY-Cortland on Saturday, June 6, 2015. Credit: Adrian Kraus

Mount Sinai's efforts this season were aimed at proving an old adage true: defense wins championships.

Perhaps no better example of the Mustangs' dedication to defense came when senior All-American Kasey Mitchell, a renowned attacker, made the switch to midfield prior to the season.

"We sat her down in the offseason," coach Al Bertolone said, "and told her we felt that she was too valuable an athlete to leave on just one half of the field."

Mitchell led the team with 42 caused turnovers, none bigger than the six she caused during Mount Sinai's 8-5 win over Honeoye Falls-Lima in the Class C championship.

"It was insanely difficult adjusting," Mitchell said. "I worked 20 times harder this past offseason. I wasn't in midfielder shape. But the team needed some help on defense, and I was willing to do whatever it took.

"Defense is our hallmark. From our first practice until the championship game, lockdown defending was our focus."

Actually, that defense-first mentality was brewed long before the start of the season. The Mustangs (20-1) did not allow a single opponent to reach double figures during its run to its second state title in three years, but that was just the continued success of a system already in place.

Over the previous two seasons, Mount Sinai had only surrendered a double-digit output once, Bertolone said -- an 11-9 loss to Bayport-Blue Point in the county finals last year.

"Our program, from the time our players are very young," Bertolone said, "it's based upon a real solid defensive infrastructure."

The conversation must begin with senior Mary Ellen Carron, who Bertolone called the "quarterback of the defense." The senior had 102 ground balls and 27 caused turnovers.

Senior Morgan McGrath, who had 52 ground balls and 23 caused turnovers, and sophomore Emily Vengilio, the team's lockdown markup player who drew the opponent's best attacker, bolstered the defensive unit.

"It was a combination of making defense a number one priority daily, younger kids stepping up to fill key roles, and heart," Carron said.

With sophomore goalie Hannah Van Middelem (122 saves) in net, Mount Sinai stifled some of the best offenses across Long Island. In a 10-9 win against Cold Spring Harbor in the LI title game, two of Van Middelem's eight saves came from point-blank range in overtime.

"She makes the stops that goalies are not supposed to make," Mitchell said.

In many instances this season, Mount Sinai's success leaned upon stout defense leading to easy offensive opportunities in transition. That's where having a weapon like senior All-American Sydney Pirreca paid huge dividends.

"Transition was very important," Pirreca said. "In a critical situation, it's easier for me to just get the ball from my goalie and run it up the field myself."

Bertolone added: "It's like basketball. We make a stop, get in transition, and get a lot of layups."

In 21 games this season, the Mustangs held opponents to just under six goals a game while averaging 11 a game themselves.

"Defense wins championships," Pirreca said, "and without them and their talent, we wouldn't have gotten to where we did."

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