Jun 10, 2009 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Once it had lay claim to an eighth straight Section III Class A title, West Genesee’s boys lacrosse team knew the routine for the week ahead by heart.
Blaze through the regional round Tuesday against an overmatched Section IV opponent. Then get tested in the state semifinals on Thursday, only to emerge triumphant. Then get the traditional Mohawk haircuts on Friday and finally, on Saturday, pursue that 16th straight championship.
This had been done so many times, by so many different Wildcat teams in the last three decades, that anything short of that full agenda would be considered a disappointment.
Based on all this, what took place last Tuesday night at Cicero-North Syracuse’s Bragman Stadium — namely, a 6-2 defeat to Ithaca in the Class A regional final — had to go down as one of the biggest jolts the program has ever suffered.
In 26 previous trips to the regional round, WG had gone a perfect 26-0. In fact, it had reached every state final since 2002 — seven in a row — winning that title game five times.
Thus, even with the drama associated with rallying past Fayetteville-Manlius 11-9 in the sectional final on June 5, it was generally assumed that the Wildcats would advance deep into the state playoffs because that’s what it always seemed to do.
The danger, though, was that the Wildcats, who owned an 18-game win streak, may have thought this way and turned complacent. If so, that would prove to be a costly mistake.
Ithaca, the Section IV champions, had not won any state playoff game since 1978, despite a host of chances — and many times, WG had knocked them out without much trouble. Hungry, and longing to change three decades of futility, the Little Red went to work.
Maybe the worst possible thing for the Wildcats was seizing a 2-0 lead in the first quarter. Jim Marks put WG on the board, and Ike Hopper followed with a bounce shot into the net at the 10-minute mark.
Thirty-eight minutes of game time remained. And in that long, frustrating stretch of lacrosse, the Wildcats would never convert again, for many different reasons.
First, WG could not win a single face-off. On 12 different occasions, the Wildcats went to the center X, and each time, Ithaca midfielder Gabe Mendola would win the ball. This allowed the Little Red to possess the ball and be patient, especially in the second half.
When the Wildcats did have the ball, it ran smack into an Ithaca zone defense that took away all kinds of options for various attackers and forced them to take shots from further away. A series of turnovers didn’t help WG, either, as it sometimes rushed to create scoring chance before that zone got settled.
Finally, there was the matter of Ithaca goalie A.J. Fiore. Proving why he is going to stay in town and attend Cornell University, Fiore (also a star goaltender on Ithaca’s ice hockey team) stopped everything he faced after those early goals from Marks and Hopper and would finish with 13 saves overall.
Ithaca caught up in those last two minutes of the first quarter as Riely Lasda and Torin Varn scored 38 seconds apart. And there it would remain for more than 22 minutes until Mendola beat Steve Mahle for the go-ahead goal late in the third period.
Stunned by all this, the Wildcats watched as Mendola kept winning face-offs (four of them) in the fourth quarter, leading to long Little Red possessions and goals from Lasda, Evan Thomas and Tyler St. Dennis that sealed the matter.
So instead of a 16th state title, the Wildcats would have to “settle” for its 20-2 mark and get to work right away on 2010. It will do so without Mahle, Hopper and Marks, plus standout defenders Joe Fazio and Jack Conboy, plus Conor Regin, Jordan Rogers, Ryan McConnell, Matt McCabe, Jaron Davie, Chris Burns and Tyler Brown.
John Glesener and Joe Fletcher will lead the returning cast next spring, one that will be hungry again after Ithaca abruptly halted West Genesee’s well-worn plans.