A Championship Worth Waiting For

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Sunday was, without a doubt, the best day at work I’ve ever had.Not only did I get to cover a state championship team for the first time in my decade working at The Press, but it was the team I will unabashedly admit is closest to my heart.

When I covered Pierson High School’s field hockey team at the state tournament in 2010, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears after watching them lose in overtime in the final game to Cazenovia. I knew all too well what that felt like—because the same exact thing happened to me, more than 10 years ago, in the same town, in a scarlet-and-black uniform.

My own field hockey career came to a tearful and bitterly disappointing end on a cold turf field in Syracuse in 1998, one win shy of a state championship. We’d made it to states all three years when I was a defender for the Lady Whalers, losing in the semis in 1996, and in the title game in both 1997 and 1998.

And after covering the 2010 loss as the sports editor for The Press, I wondered if it was simply Pierson’s destiny to always be the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Turns out, it wasn’t.

A special group of girls gave the tight-knit Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton communities a reason to cheer this past weekend in Syracuse, a reason to blow up social media, a reason to wake up the entire town with sirens and fire engines blaring down Main Street late on Sunday night. By winning two of the most pressure-packed, intense games I’ve ever witnessed in any sport, the Lady Whalers can now call themselves champions.

After an unbelievable 10th trip to the state final four for the program, Pierson finally took home the big prize on Sunday with a double-overtime win over Cazenovia, the team that ended its run in 2010.

Fittingly, the player who I believe now has to be considered the best to ever don a Lady Whalers hockey uniform—senior Kasey Gilbride—scored the winning goal, with just 32 seconds left in double overtime. Gilbride, as she has done countless times this season, used her incredible athleticism and razor-sharp stick skills to dodge two Cazenovia defenders at close range in the circle before blasting a shot into the left corner of the net.

And then the celebration began—hugs, fist pumps, tears of joy and screams of victory were unleashed, as the Lady Whalers savored their win.

It wasn’t just the players and fans who made the seven-hour trek to Syracuse who joined in the joy. In the week leading up to the tournament, Pierson alum Abby Gawronski created a special Facebook page for all former Pierson field hockey players, specifically to support the 2013 team. Days before the players boarded the bus to Syracuse—and unbeknownst to them—an avalanche of well-wishes, inspirational quotes, photos of past teams and players, and old newspaper clippings pulled out of scrapbooks (including a photo of me, Jaime Mott and Katy Lowe sobbing after our state championship loss in 1998). It created a groundswell of support for the team, from players who had been members of the 2010 squad all the way back to the 1980s, when plaid polyester kilts, wooden sticks and big hair were the norm. Gawronski, with the help of other former teammates, compiled the quotes and photos and made individual scrapbooks for each player, handing them out to the players before their first game on Saturday.

After the game, the Pierson seniors—Kirra McGowin, Kasey Gilbride, Katherine Matthers, India Hemby, Emma Romeo and Emme Luck—spoke about what that meant to them.

“Obviously, you know your parents and teammates are behind you, but seeing a whole package of alumni and fans and everything just coming together, and really seeing how many people were behind us in the community, it was just a great feeling and gives us 10 times more confidence,” Gilbride said. “I think we made them proud.”

“It was totally a motivation to keep us going,” Matthers added.

I often tell my parents how much I appreciate the fact that they moved our family out to Sag Harbor from western Suffolk County when I was just 5 years old. Stories like that are the reason why. I feel beyond lucky that I grew up in Sag Harbor, and I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t.

I was not an “athlete” in high school—I was far from the best player on our team, and if I’d gone to a big high school, I’m sure that I not only wouldn’t have made the team, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to even try out. But going to a school like Pierson gave me the chance to be part of a sports team and find out the countless ways it enriches your life.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the euphoria of winning, the devastation of defeat, and the way it feels when you and your closest friends get to be the pride of the town. Field hockey, a sport just for girls, a sport that’s far from the mainstream, was never in danger of being overshadowed by football, or something bigger or “more important.” Not in Sag Harbor.

It’s also why I decided early on that pursuing a flashy career at ESPN—my first goal out of college—wasn’t for me. Nothing beats the purity of high school sports, where money, contracts and greed are never part of the equation. Where it’s just kids, 99 percent of whom will never play organized sports again, working together to achieve something greater than they could ever achieve on their own.

Capturing that joy and emotion this past weekend was an honor for me, for so many reasons.

And it’s why I’ll take the Lady Whalers over the Knicks, Yankees or Giants, any day of the week.

Cailin Riley is sports editor for the Press News Group.

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