BENNINGTON -- Mount Anthony Union High School girls lacrosse coach Tom Otero knows that, with a win today, his Patriots will advance to the Division I finals.
But to him, and his team, today's game against No. 1 BBA is the state championship.
"This is our state championship," Otero said at practice on Monday. "Regardless of what happens next Friday or Saturday, this is a big game. It's nice to win the championship, don't get me wrong, it means a lot. But, the rivalry both teams bring, that they are both coached well, they both have good players, high-intense players that want to win, [that's what separates the games]."
It might sound strange at first when Otero puts the game under such a microscope. Yet senior Emily Cross, when Otero proposed the idea during his pre-practice talk, couldn't help but agree.
"I agree with [Otero], I've never thought about it that way but now that he said it, it is like a state championship game," Cross said. "I'd rather lose to any other team than lose to BBA."
The Patriots have lost to BBA this season, though -- twice.
MAU fell 13-8 in the first game the teams played back on April 24, then on May 6 the Patriots lost 14-11 at the site of today's semifinal, BBA. Those results matter little, though, according to junior defenseman Catie Lyons.
"Especially after coming in after losing twice, we are coming in with the upper hand," Lyons said. "It's kind of hard to beat someone three times. We are coming in with that momentum and I think they know that and are a little bit cautious of that."
Otero, who has had the weekend to gameplan for the semifinal, also likes that his team is familiar with what BBA does as opposed to facing a team from the northern part of the state for the first time.
"The good part is we know BBA. We know their players, we know their offense, we know their defense, and we know their style of play," Otero said. "I think we can prepare for their style better. I think it helps our team to have something similar that we have seen ... before."
The key for the Patriots now is to find the right balance in their approach. In both of the previous contests, MAU has hung with, if not outplayed, BBA over stretches. The issue, though, comes in the moments when BBA outworks MAU.
In the first game, BBA roared out to a 9-0 lead at halftime. Even though MAU outscored BBA in the second half, the deficit was too large to fully overcome. In the second game, MAU and BBA played even ball for 48 minutes. It was a two-minute stretch at the start of the second half, when Cross was in the box with a yellow card, that BBA scored the three goals that made up the difference in the final score.
Otero laid out what he saw as the keys between the two sides, and how those will play into today's contest.
"We [came back] by controlling the midfield and controlling the draws and maintaining possession. In this game, both teams need to do that. Get the draw, maintain possession, take quality shots and not have the frivolous pass or the unchallenged turnover occur."
The Patriots also have to keep their defensive focus throughout the contest, as BBA possesses a trio of potent goalscorers.
Junior Hayley Sabol leads the Bulldogs with 58 goals this season while senior Morgan Bazyk is right behind her with 56 and another senior, Katy Jones, has 42 strikes for the Bulldogs this season.
Sam Cross, a junior defenseman for the Patriots, said that communication is key to slowing down BBA.
"Mostly talk, just be aware where all the players are, that's what we've had drilled in our heads the entire season," Sam Cross said. "Just always talk and know where the biggest threat is and make sure someone is always on the bigger threats."
Otero recognizes the threat that Bazyk, in particular, brings to the table.
"The big thing is matchups. You have to put the right player on the right player," Otero said. "You don't want to mismatch with Morgan. She is a streak-type player. When she is hot, you just want to give her the ball. We have to counter that by putting a quality defender, or defenders, on her to limit that opportunity. We have to learn to play a really tenacious man defense and a denying defense. Not just her, there are some other weapons on that team, too, that you have to deny."
Lyons and Cross will be two big pieces of the defensive puzzle, but the role of sophomore Claire Taub will also be important. In MAU's thrilling win over Essex in the quarterfinals, it was Taub who drew the assignment of face-guarding Charlotte Stuart, the girl Otero identified as key.
MAU has shown throughout the season, however, that the team can score with anyone.
The Patriots are led by the Em & Em show, with Emily Cross striking for 70 goals this season while freshman Emily Altland has scored 55. Sophomore Erica Hale has 33 goals, and the trio of Meghan Bishop, Anne Peck and Taylor Palmer all have 12 goals on the season. Altland, Cross and Hale all have double-digit assist numbers, as well.
"I think that our offense just needs to be confident," Emily Cross said. "Catching and throwing will get us the win. Just passing the ball around and getting good shots. They've face-guarded me both games, so I'm expecting that. It just takes a good defender out of the game. Our team has grown a lot. We just need to catch and throw and pass it around and not be afraid to shoot when we have it."
The Patriots also have an extra sense of motivation because of their coach. Today could be Otero's final game as an MAU coach, as Otero will leave for the head spot at Southern Vermont College after the season ends.
"We get really fired up [about this game], we just really want to beat them and win the state championship," Sam Cross said. "It's [coach's] last year and it's a goal for him, plus all the other assistant coaches and Emily [Cross] and all the seniors. We really want this."
If the Patriots really want it, they are going to have to believe in themselves. Lyons said that Otero has coached them up all year for this moment, and now they have to just go out and execute.
"[Coach] tells us all the time that no one is unbeatable. If we show up and play our game, we know we can do it. No team is unbeatable, and I think we have a really good chance."