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Bears outplay Granby in stretch run

STRATFORD, Conn. — It was an uphill battle for Stonington High’s girls’ lacrosse team against Granby Memorial in the Class S championship game at Bunnell High on Saturday. But Stonington reached the summit as Queens of the Hill.

Trailing 10-8 with just under 19 minutes left in the 25-minute second half, the Stonington Bears put on the defensive breaks and scored five straight goals in the final 11-plus minutes to beat the Granby Bears 13-10 and bring home the championship trophy.

The win was historic. It was the first state-level girls’ lacrosse championship for Stonington and its best record (21-1) in its 14-year history. It also was only the third time a team from other than southwest Connecticut had won a state girls’ lacrosse championship. In a span of 11 years and 26 championships, only East Lyme (2006), Northwest Catholic (2012) and now Stonington are the interlopers. The other champions have been from either the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference (17 winners) or the South West Conference (six times).

Although the sky was blue and the sun was bright throughout Saturday’s game, things looked dim for Stonington when Granby led 8-7 at halftime and increased its lead to 10-8 with 18 minutes, 54 seconds left. Fourth-seeded Granby (17-5) was outplaying second-seeded Stonington in every phase of the game — better draws, better passing, better movement, and better scoring.

“Our plan for the first half was to mark their leading scorer (Olivia Johnson) with our Megan Roberts,” Stonington coach Jeff Medeiros said. “But their other big scorer (Krista Iwanicki) got three goals in the first half. So we changed our plan at halftime to have Lauren Turner mark her.

“We shut her down and soon shut them out. That changed the momentum. It’s a momentum game. That was the difference.”

The momentum then began to shift Stonington’s way, as their Bears came out of hibernation. The defense stiffened, including two spectacular saves by goalkeeper Lexi Bucko in the next eight minutes. One was a block of a shot after a Granby interception. The other may have been the game-changer, when a Granby shot that looked like a sure goal bounced off Bucko’s head to prevent a three-goal deficit.

The Stonington offense then went into high gear. Emily Cassata lined a shot into upper left corner of the Granby net to reduce the deficit to one with 11:15 left. Valerie Muller tied the score on another line shot with 9:46 left. And Muller scored what proved to be the game winner with just over seven minutes left. The Stonington fans were screaming with delight (and relief) and that continued to the end.

“I had a burst of energy to tie the score,” Muller said. “I was nervous when I shot it. I knew our defense would get us the ball. It was up to me to score.

“But one was not enough. We still needed more. It only takes seven-to-eight seconds to score. It all came down to positioning and teamwork — they are everything. What a way to end the year.”

Granby’s Johnson almost tied the game with a line shot at the 5:23 mark, but the apparent goal was not counted on a called foul just before the shot. She also missed wide right on another attempt shortly after.

Cassata then provided Stonington with the insurance it needed to win going away. She serpentined through a few defenders and rammed home a goal with 3:48 left to put her team up two. And after a successful draw by teammate Elizabeth Morrison, Cassata snuck around the Granby net and arched an overhead shot at just under two minutes for the final goal of the game.

“I had a lot of opportunities behind the net today,” Cassata said. “Whoever’s open can score. I was open to score today. It was a great way to end my senior year.

“It was an amazing comeback. We were a second-half team last year and have been again in the playoffs. We kicked in (to gear) in the second half and went full force to win.”

Morrison again won the draw and Stonington maintained possession until the horn sounded the end of the game. The Stonington girls ran from the field and bench to celebrate with their goalkeeper Bucko and there was pandemonium in the Stonington half of the stands.

In the postgame ceremonies, the victors were declared “The Class S Championship Stonington Bears.” As the individual medals were awarded, the biggest roars from the Stonington crowd were for Morrison (for her all-around play), Bucko (for her key saves), Muller and Cassata (for their catchup and game-clinching goals) and Medeiros (for his coaching).

Seniors Cassata and Morrison each had four goals for the game. Seniors Muller and Emily Grey had two goals apiece. And junior Jenny Sieczkiewicz scored once.

Granby outshot Stonington 29-23. Sophomore goalkeeper Bucko had eight saves.

For the four-game Class S tournament, Morrison and Sieczkiewicz led Stonington with nine goals each. Cassata and Grey each scored eight. Muller and Hannah Johnson had five goals apiece.

In Saturday’s other title games, No. 3 Wilton (17-3) beat No. 5 New Canaan (14-5) in overtime, 8-5 for the Class M title, and No. 3 Darien (18-2) defended its Calss L title by defeating top-seeded and previously unbeaten Glastonbury (19-1) by a 13-9 score. Both winners are from the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference.

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