One more time Sunday afternoon at Utica Memorial Auditorium, the members of the West Genesee ice hockey team stood in a line, faced their fans and raised their sticks in salute.
But they did so with heavy hearts.
Minutes earlier, the Wildcats' dreams of its first state Division I championship since 2001 dissolved when Massena's Mike Mailhot scored with just 29.3 seconds remaining in the third overtime, giving his Red Raiders a 3-2 victory to end the longest state final in the tournament's 29-year history.
The moment Mailhot's shot found the net, two vivid and contrasting scenes played out. As WG goaltender John Schlegel froze in shock and his teammates did the same, Massena's players formed a joyous pile near center ice, gloves, sticks and helmets tossed aside as they mobbed Mailhot.
Everyone in the arena, though, knew just how close the Wildcats (23-3-3) had come to winning, something not lost on head coach Frank Colabufo.
"Massena just made one more play than we did," said Colabufo. "It doesn't change all that we accomplished. Our kids have been the best team, in the best league in the state, for five months, and they left it all on the ice. They were warriors."
It took all that high quality for WG to even be in this position against a Massena team vastly improved from the 3-0 shutout the Wildcats gave them back on Dec. 9 in a tournament final up in the north country.
The biggest irony, of course, was that to even make the state final four, the Wildcats had to win a 3-2, triple-overtime game over Shenendehowa March 1 in the regional final at Shove Park on Erich Haney's goal.
Unlike that game, WG would never have a lead in this final. But it showed the team's true character and heart that, though down much of the game, it refused to quit.