By Bill Landon
Four of the five starters on Mount Sinai’s girls’ basketball team helped the soccer squad score its first Suffolk County title last fall. This winter, the Mustangs brought those winning ways from the field to the court.
Winning has become a tradition at Mount Sinai. The Mustangs went nearly undefeated in League VI play, going on a 17-game streak before a 44-33 loss to Shoreham-Wading River. Despite that, Mount Sinai was able to grab a piece of the league title for the first time in school history. Then, the road to the Class A finals began.
The Mustangs crushed Bayport-Blue Point 91-48 before outscoring Sayville 68-54. The No. 1 seed ultimately found itself up against a familiar foe in No. 2 Harborfields. The two schools had also faced off as the top-seeded teams during the Suffolk soccer finals, and, in front of a near-capacity crowd of 500 at Riverhead High School Feb. 24, Mount Sinai pulled away with another crucial win, 54-42, for its second county crown of the school year.
“Our defense was the key in getting stops and rebounding, and turning those into points.”
For seniors Victoria Johnson and Veronica Venezia, the win was a long time coming personally and for the program.
“It feels amazing to be Suffolk County champions — Veronica and I have been on the team since eighth grade, so we started a long time ago,” said Johnson, who scored 11 of her 16 points in the second half. “Back then we didn’t win many games, and here we are — it’s a dream come true.”
Sophomore Gabriella Sartori had the hot hand in the first quarter, scoring 10 of her team-high 18 points. First, she swished a free throw to successfully complete a three-point play, and hit a shot from beyond the arc soon after to help her team double its opponent’s score with an 18-9 lead at the end of eight minutes. She also added six rebounds and two assists in the win.
“From the beginning of the season I just wanted to play at this level,” she said. “I’ve been with this group since the seventh grade and to reach this point and watch this team grow is just amazing.”
Behind 31-19 heading into the locker room, Harborfields head coach Glenn Lavey said the 12-point deficit put his team in unfamiliar territory.
“Spotting them a lead like that is not our style — we’re kind of a running football team if you will — we’re not a spread offense,” he said. “We had some breakdowns in the first eeight minutes of the game and we didn’t execute some things we needed to early.”
“I’ve been with this group since the seventh grade and to reach this point and watch this team grow is just amazing.”
Despite the lead, Mount Sinai head coach Michael Pappalardo said he warned his team that the Tornadoes weren’t going to run out of steam that easily.
“Harborfields, they’re aggressive,” he said. “We told the girls this is going to be close. You don’t think that team is going to let you walk out of here giving you the championship.”
Harborfields senior Grace Zagaja scored on a putback, and teammate Kate Tardo hit a long-distance shot in the third, but Mount Sinai’s defense swarmed.
With 10 seconds left in the quarter, Johnson went to the line and sank both to make it a 10-point game, but Harborfields senior Falyn Dwyer came through with a buzzer-beating triple that helped her team cut the deficit to 40-33.
With just over four minutes left in regulation, Venezia came up with another putback (she finished with a double-double on 12 points and 15 rebounds) to re-extend the Mustangs’ lead, 45-36.
“They’re definitely a challenge — they always have been the past years we’ve played them,” Venezia said of Harborfields. “But our defense was the key in getting stops and rebounding, and turning those into points.”
Tardo, who tied with Dwyer for eight points, drained her second triple of the contest to make it a six-point game. Two minutes later, eighth-grader Madison Brady (seven points) picked off an in-bounds pass, went straight to the rim for the score and made it a four-point game, 45-41, with 3:10 left to play.
After Harborfields missed its final five shots from the field, Johnson went 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final 31 seconds to put the win in the record book.
“It is ironic to win back-to-back titles against Harborfields — they’re a great team, but we worked really hard to be here.”
“We always talk about it in practice in every game — everyone’s going to have their ups and downs,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be prepared for both. We had to fight our way through adversity to get here.”
Also on the championship-winning soccer team besides Johnson, Sartori and junior Olivia Williams, was sophomore Brooke Cergol, who rounded out the scoring with eight points.
“It feels amazing — especially after soccer,” she said. “It is ironic to win back-to-back titles against Harborfields — they’re a great team, but we worked really hard to be here. It was crazy, it was a really tense situation, but we pulled together.”
Mount Sinai moves on to face Mattituck for the Small School champion title at Suffolk County Community College Brentwood Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. The winner will face off against the Class AA qualifier for the Section XI title. That game will be played at Suffolk’s Selden campus March 5 at 5 p.m.
Regardless of the outcome of those games, Mount Sinai has the opportunity for another first, when the Mustangs take on the Section VIII Class A champion March 11 at SUNY Old Westbury at noon for the Long Island title.