By Danny Lopriore
Hundreds of excited fans, friends and family members welcomed the Pleasantville High School boys’ lacrosse team back home Saturday evening after the Panthers captured their first-ever New York State Public Schools title with a stunning 16-2 victory over Penn Yan Academy in upstate Rochester.
The high-powered and resilient Panthers, who finished the season with a near-perfect 21-1 record in winning their fourth straight Section 1 title, started slowly and were tied 2-2 before the offense ran off 14 straight goals and the defense shut out the Section 5 champions over the final three quarters to breeze to victory.
Jake Coleman and Jack Howe each scored three goals for the winners in a balanced offense that took over early in the second quarter.
Although the bus ride home and the arrival at the high school ignited a celebration, the team started off the weekend journey with travel woes. The coach bus that was headed to the school Friday to pick the Panthers up for the ride north was unable to cross the closed Mario Cuomo Bridge. So the Panthers boarded a pair of school buses and made a rendezvous at Woodbury Commons. Friday’s trip took seven and a half hours, but what followed on Saturday morning made the long ride well worth it.
Panthers coach Chris Kear said his players, 20 of whom were members of the school’s football team that won its own Class C state title in November, proved its maturity by winning the Class D lacrosse championship.
“The amount of things these kids have had to overcome as a team, in town, as a group, their ability to overcome adversity, has made them stronger,” Kear said. “When they get into big spots in playoff games, whether it was football or lacrosse, they just respond. These players will take that strength into their future lives.”
The band of seniors made up eight of the 10 starters who had reached the Class C state semifinals three years running before finally taking the crown in a realigned Class D. Kear said his team was built on a strong defense and scoring balance and singled out goaltender Jack Fitzgerald for keeping the championship game close early.
“It started with Jack today, making some huge saves in the first half that gave us the ability to build a lead,” Kear said. “We can score, but the defense has been our anchor all year. To shut out a team over three quarters in a state championship game is insane. The defense created turnovers, started transition and got us into our style of offense.”
Fitzgerald, who made 10 saves in all and anchored the defense, joined defender Charlie McPhee on the lawn in front of the school to greet the crowd. They each understood the significance of the Panthers’ title run.
“It’s all grit, really,” said McPhee, who had to pull away from family and friends to be interviewed. “Our mentality is, we may start slow but teams can’t pounce and take it from us. After a goal, we talk, figure out how to be better and make stops. We trust each other.”
Fitzgerald said the defense and offense were tied together by trust over several years together.
“Bend, not break, is the mentality,” Fitzgerald said. “We know if we go down a goal, we have the offense to come back. Lacrosse is like a microcosm for life. Just because you go down, it doesn’t mean you give up. We depend on each other.”
Surrounded by dozens of admiring youth lacrosse players who were practicing on the school fields before the championship bus arrived, the Panthers, who had dyed their hair blonde as a sign of unity before the playoffs, reveled in the moment.
“I remember we were just like these young kids, wanting to be like the high school players,” McPhee said. “It’s great to see them out here. I give credit to all the youth coaches and parents for helping us to get to be champions. We’ll never forget the time we had playing as a team.”