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Christiana de Borja

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.”

—Veronica Venezia

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.”

—Gabriella Sartori

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.”

—Brooke Cergol

“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.

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Kate Tardo passes the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Harborfields’ Kate Tardo is the core of her team’s defense, who according to head coach Glenn Lavey is always tasked with guarding the opponent’s leading scorer. True to form, the senior held her opponent to just one basket in Harborfields’ crushing defeat of Amityville, 73-32, on the road Feb. 7.

Christiana de Borja drives the lane. Photo by Bill Landon

“She’s probably the most unsung hero probably in the county,” Lavey said of Tardo. “She has an assignment to guard really good players — [La’Niya Clark] is a 1,000-point scorer and Kate held her.”

Clark went on to score 13 points.

Lavey added that his All-County player does things behind the scenes that are an integral part of the team’s success.

“It’s like noticing an offensive lineman — no one notices the right tackle, they notice Tom Brady, so she’s the one that protects Brady, but all they write about is Tom Brady.”

Harborfields led 19-5 after eight minutes of play, and jumped ahead 41-21 by the halftime break.

“Our energy — we just kept pushing the ball,” Tardo said. “We were tiring them out and getting them frustrated. We kept up our pace and our intensity the entire game. We played a full 32 minutes.”

The defense held the Warriors at bay at every turn, as the shot clock worked against the home team. This is a tactic Lavey said his team has employed effectively all season.

Falyn Dwyer scores. Photo by Bill Landon

“We haven’t given up more than 37 points in a game all season,” he said. “That’s why we know we have a chance to go all the way — it’s because of our defense.”

Even after swapping his starters for bench players, Amityville couldn’t close the gap.

Senior Christiana de Borja led all scorers with 16 points and had seven assists. Eighth-grader Madison Brady, who hit a pair of 3-pointers, six free-throws and a field goal was close behind with 14 points, and senior Grace Zagaja finished with a double-double on 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“We kept our composure throughout the game,” Zagaja said. “We kept our energy up and that frustrated them. We kept picking at them until they [made mistakes], and then we started to make baskets, and that’s kinda how we do it.”

With the win, Harborfields, at 15-1 overall and 12-1 in League V, secured at least a share of the league title. Sayville currently sits at 11-2, so if Harborfields doesn’t win its final game of the regular season, a home game against Islip on Feb. 9, and Sayville wins its matchup, the two would share the top spot. Weather permitting, tip-off for the game against Islip is scheduled for
6 p.m.

Grace Zagaja looks for the rim inside the paint. Photo by Bill Landon

Lavey said although he’s not looking past Islip at home, his team needs to transition into playoff mode.

“What we want to get better at is running the floor and getting easier baskets,” he said. “We attack the rim, but we want to get the ball up the court, reverse and attack and not let our opponent set up its defense.”

Floor general de Borja, who is good at controlling the tempo this way, said she believes if the team keeps doing what it’s been doing, it’ll be successful.

“We definitely have the will to win, we just need the will to prepare in this home stretch,” she said. “And if we do that, I think we’ll have a good playoff run.”

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Falyn Dwyer reaches for the rim in Harborfields' 52-41 loss to Islip in the Suffolk County Class A championship game. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Harborfields led by 10 points early in the third quarter, but fouls troubled the Tornadoes’ defense, as Islip rallied back, capping off the quarter with a 3-pointer to retake the lead, 35-34. The Buccaneers slowly creeped ahead as a result of opportunities at the foul line, and put the game away 52-41 to win the Suffolk County Class A championship at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, Friday night.

Angela Deren nails a jump-shot on here way to eight points on the night. Photo by Bill Landon
Angela Deren nails a jump-shot on here way to eight points on the night. Photo by Bill Landon

Harborfields only mustered five points in the first quarter, and with just over six minutes left in the hald, with Islip ahead 11-10, Harborfields senior guard Angela Deren picked off an Islip in-bounds pass and cashed in to put the Tornadoes out front, 12-11. Deren, with the hot hand in the second quarter, nailed her second trey of the period to give her team a 19-13 lead with just over three minutes remaining until the break.

Harborfields sophomore guard Erin Tucker went to the line shooting two and split her appearance, but teammate Grace Zagaja, a junior center, swished both of hers, to give the Tornadoes a 24-16 lead at the end of the eight minutes.

Harborfields junior guard Christiana de Borja hit her first trifecta of the game two minutes into the third period — something she’s done all season long — but the powerhouse point guard found herself in foul trouble as the quarter wore on.

With de Borja committing her fourth personal foul, Harborfields head coach Glenn Lavey benched his starter with two minutes left in the third, to save her for the fourth.

The Tornadoes squandered many opportunities at the free-throw line, and Islip, trailing by two, hit a game-changing 3-pointer to retake the lead, 35-34. Despite Harborfields’ crowd chanting during Islip’s next chance at the charity stripe, the Buccaneers swished both attempts to take a three-point lead into the final quarter.

The momentum shifted Islip’s way as the Buccaneers surged ahead 43-34 with 4:51 left in regulation.

Back in action, de Borja banked her second trey of the game to help her team draw with six points, but her defensive pressure was muted, as her next foul would be her last.

Christiana de Borja battles in the paint. Photo by Bill Landon
Christiana de Borja battles in the paint. Photo by Bill Landon

Zagaja and teammate Kate Tardo, a junior forward, also fouled out.

Leading 45-37 with just over three minutes remaining, Islip slowed the pace and let the shot clock wind down. Desperate to stop the clock, the Tornadoes that remained in the game, fouled their opponent, but the strategy failed, as Islip was deadly from the free-throw line.

“They played better than us — they settled in and we needed to make a few shots just to keep the momentum going, but then they got hot and we went cold at the wrong time,”.Lavey said.

de Borja finished with a team-high 11 points, while Deren and junior forward Falyn Dwyer added eight points apiece, and Tucker followed close behind them with seven. With only one senior graduating off the roster, Harborfields can be confident knowing how far the team has come, and know what another year of experience can bring to those returning, to push them further through the bracket next season.

“We couldn’t press as hard as we did earlier in the game,” Lavey said.” We were being the aggressor and then we got tentative on defense because of foul trouble, so that was a problem for us.”

Mount Sinai junior Victoria Johnson scores her 1,000th career point in loss

Mount Sinai's Victoria Johnson scored her 1,000th point in the Mustangs' first-round Class A playoff loss to Harborfields on Feb. 13. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Harborfields enjoyed a 22-point lead midway through the third quarter, and despite Mount Sinai rallying to close within seven points with just over two minutes left in the game, the Tornadoes’ girls’ basketball team closed with a late surge of its own, to claim a 58-47 victory in the opening round of the Class A playoffs Saturday morning.

Mount Sinai led 13-12 after eight minutes, but managed just four points to Harborfields’ 19 in the second.

Harborfields' Christiana de Borja gets fouled by Mount Sinai's Olivia Williams during the Tornadoes' 58-47 win over the Mustangs in the opening round of the Class A playoffs on Feb. 13. Photo by Bill Landon
Harborfields’ Christiana de Borja gets fouled by Mount Sinai’s Olivia Williams. Photo by Bill Landon

Harborfields point guard Christiana de Borja had the hot hand through the first half, as she drove the lane and muscled her way to the rim, drawing fouls along the way. The five-foot, two-inch junior tallied 13 points over the two quarters.

As Mount Sinai double-teamed de Borja, the Mustangs left the lane opened for Harborfields sophomore guard Erin Tucker, who netted four field goals and a free-throw to add nine more points to the Tornadoes’ 31-17 halftime advantage.

“We always play Mount Sinai in other sports, so we know not to underestimate them, and they came out very strong in the first quarter,” Tucker said. “It’s what we expected. They had a tough second quarter, but we knew they’d come back.”

Three-pointers were flying to open the third quarter, as de Borja banked a pair and Mount Sinai junior guard Victoria Johnson swished her second and third of the game, but still, the Tornadoes edged ahead 43-28 to begin the final quarter.

Harborfields' Falyn Dwyer attempts a jumper. Photo by Bill Landon
Harborfields’ Falyn Dwyer attempts a jumper. Photo by Bill Landon

The Mustangs opened the last eight minutes with two fast breaks that paid dividends for Johnson, who was fouled while shooting, and calmly swished both. The back end marked her 1,000th point of her varsity career.

“They’re really tough on defense,” Johnson said of Harborfields. “We ran on them because they’re a very fast team and they were going to try to stop us in the middle. We had one rough quarter, but we gave it our best. We’re a young team so we’ll make a run next year.”

She’s the first basketball player to score 1,000 points as a Mustang.

“That is truly an amazing accomplishment,” Mount Sinai head coach Michael Pappalardo said. “We are so proud of her.”

Tucker netted two more points at the free-throw line for the Tornadoes, to again make it an 11-point game.

Mount Sinai inbounded the ball, throwing it the length of the court, where freshman guard Margaret Kopcienski gained possession and, with a spin move, found the rim to trim the deficit back to nine points.

Mount Sinai junior center Veronica Venezia made here presence known down low as the she muscled her way to the rim on a put-back to help her team trail by seven with 1:41 left in the game, but the Mustangs would not come any closer.

“The second quarter is where we got hurt, but we’re graduating two seniors and we’re returning 12 — including all five starters — so we’re looking forward to the off-season,” Pappalardo said. “[Harborfields has] great players, and to be with them in the final minutes makes me proud of our team.”

Mount Sinai's Gabby Sartori drives the lane. Photo by Bill Landon
Mount Sinai’s Gabby Sartori drives the lane. Photo by Bill Landon

In a foul-riddled final minute, both teams traded points at the charity stripe. Mount Sinai’s Gabby Sartori went to the line shooting three, and the ninth-grade guard swished all of her opportunities.

“They were very good, and we knew they were going to come up strong on defense,” Sartori said. “I was getting face-guarded the whole time, but my team knew what to do. We gave it all we had; we rose the challenge — last year we came here and lost by 30.”

With six seconds left, de Borja, who led her team in scoring with 23 points, put the final points on the scoreboard off of free throws. Tucker finished the game with 12 points.

Atop the leaderboard for Mount Sinai was Johnson with 16 points, followed by Sartori, who sank 13.

“They spotted us 22 points, and we knew they would come back because they have a lot of talented players, but I thought our kids had the resolve to make the big plays to stop those runs,” Harborfields head coach Glenn Lavey said. “Any time we see trouble we get the ball to Christiana de Borja, and having her on the floor is like a security blanket. As much as they were cutting into our lead, I knew we had Chris de Borja on the court.”

Mount Sinai's Veronica Venezia shoots from the top of the key. Photo by Bill Landon
Mount Sinai’s Veronica Venezia shoots from the top of the key. Photo by Bill Landon

With the win, Harborfields advances to the next round, where the Tornadoes take on Elwood-John Glenn on the road Tuesday. Tipoff scheduled for 2 p.m.

The girls from Elwood-John Glenn were in the stands throughout most of the game, sitting quietly together as they scouted their next opponent. The squad left midway through the fourth to get ready for their 2 p.m. game.

“It was really a motivator for us having them watching, because we wanted to show them that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” de Borja said. “We’re excited about playing John Glenn. They’ve always been a rival, so we’re excited about that game.”