With five state championships and a near-miss in 2010 behind them, the Cicero-North Syracuse softball team is two wins away from a perfect season and a sixth state crown.
The Northstars clinched its return to the state Class AA final four on a sun-drenched Tuesday at the Gillette Road complex, using familiar elements from its winning past - like speed and defense - to push past Section II champion Bethlehem 4-1 in the AA regional final.
This state tournament experience was all new to Bethlehem, who prior to this season had not won a sectional title in 33 years. By contrast, CNS was going through it for the third time in four years.
Yet the Northstars did not want the same stress as it had in the Section III final against West Genesee, where it waited until the fifth inning to score all of its runs in a 7-0 victory.
"It's important to put the pressure on them early," said catcher Sam Cirillo. "And that's what we did."
Indeed, with the game 0-0 in the top of the second inning, Cirillo banged out a double off Bethlehem's freshman pitcher, Meagan Sullivan. After a sacrifice bunt, courtesy runner Chelsea Szabo raced home when Sarah Salamone singled.
Just as important was what happened in the bottom of the second. With two out, and the Eagles' Jessie Fleck (running for Sam Smaldone, who walked) on second, Morgan Mazzone singled to short left field. Quickly, the throw came in to Sydney O'Hara, who relayed it to Cirillo, who perfectly blocked the plate to tag Fleck out.
"We work on that play (blocking the plate) a lot, but it's the first time we got to use it this season," said Cirillo.
Fired up by preventing Bethlehem from pulling even, CNS struck for two runs in the top of the third. Amy Van Hoven beat out an infield hit, and O'Hara reached base, too, setting up Cirillo's RBI groundout. Moments later, Morgan Phillips doubled home another run.