BURNT HILLS — A couple close calls here and there notwithstanding, through their first 14 games this season, the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake boys’ lacrosse team looked — and was — unbeatable.
Then, at the tail end of the regular season, the Spartans got a little wake-up call, with back-to-back losses to Shenendehowa and Niskayuna sending them into the postseason on a little bit of a sour note.
“It was kind of like a gut check,” Burnt Hills senior midfielder Rocco Mareno said Monday. “It brought us back down to earth … after those two games, that kind of brought back the energy that we needed.”
“It definitely made us realize that we weren’t unbeatable,” senior midfielder Jack Scalise added.
Well, they’ve looked pretty unbeatable ever since.
That “gut check” helped the Spartans zero in on their goals, and the team has responded with three straight dominant wins — two in the Section II Class C tournament, then Saturday’s 12-5 win over Pelham Memorial in a NYSPHSAA regional final — to set up a state semifinal against Section VIII representative Manhasset on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at UAlbany’s Tom & Mary Casey Stadium.
“We didn’t need that,” Burnt Hills coach Tom Schwan said of his team’s two losses in mid-May, “but it really worked out well for us.”
Saturday’s win over Pelham Memorial was a history-maker.
Prior to that game, only two Section II boys’ lacrosse programs — Shenendehowa and Niskayuna — had won a regional championship since the area started sending teams into the NYSPHSAA tournament in 1982.
“There’s a new kid on the block, as we like to say,” Schwan said, “and it’s the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Spartans.”
The Spartans (17-2) will be the area’s lone representative in Wednesday’s four state semifinals at UAlbany, which will be split between Casey Stadium and John Fallon Field.
In Manhasset (15-4), Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake will face what is likely the most talented roster the Spartans have encountered this season.
Manhasset, which beat Mount Sinai to win the Long Island Class C regional title on Saturday, has 10 players on its roster who have committed to Division I collegiate programs, according to Inside Lacrosse’s recruiting database.
For their part, the Spartans have three players — Mareno (Towson), Kevin Carney (Canisius) and Colden Swisher (Hobart) — who have made Division I commitments.
Schwan preferred to keep the focus on the present, rather than the future.
“The reality of it is, they are not college lacrosse players [yet]. These are 15- to 18-year-old high school student-athletes that are competing, and sometimes I think we forget that,” he said. “We think, ‘Oh, he’s going to Duke, he’s going to Denver,’ and so therefore, that makes them better. And, while they’ve earned that, the bottom line is they’re still high school athletes and that’s how we will approach it.”
Wednesday’s key matchup, however, will be the battle between two future Division I players. Mareno was Section II’s top faceoff specialist throughout the season, and his head-to-head duel for possession with Manhasset junior Cal Girard, a Duke commit, will go a long way to deciding Burnt Hills’ chances to reach Saturday’s state final at Hofstra University against either Lake Shore or Westhill.
“Time of possession will be crucial. [Mareno] will face off against an outstanding faceoff man himself, and so that battle within the battle will be huge,” Schwan said. “The wing guys are going to have to be even better for us to make sure we win a few more [faceoffs] than they do.”
For Mareno, the key will be keeping things in perspective. The Spartans played a challenging series of preseason scrimmages against tough teams and faced difficult games in the Suburban Council and in non-league play this spring to get ready for stages like the one they’ll be on Wednesday.
“We’ve been preparing for games like this throughout the whole year,” Mareno said. “We’re just taking it like it’s another game and not overhyping anything.”