MANCHESTER -- At first, the goal for the Burr and Burton Academy boys lacrosse team looks simple -- win the state championship.
As the No. 7 Bulldogs head into today's Division II final against No. 1 Green Mountain Valley School, winning a Division II title -- the first for BBA since 2009 -- is at the forefront of everyone's mind in Manchester.
But there is a deeper goal hidden in the hype around today's game -- chemistry. The Bulldogs have spent all season trying to build a brand-new culture for the program, one founded in team chemistry and selflessness. So far, the product of their labor has shown in their playoff run.
"The seniors, we have been playing together since grade school," senior Ben Alexopoulos said. "Now that we are seniors going into college, we have a lot to leave behind. We just want to leave a good reputation for BBA. In the past years, we haven't made it to the finals and now, it's like we have a lot of weight on our shoulders not just for this final game, but for the future. I think our class is just trying to leave that reputation."
It's an idea rooted in first-year head coach Jason Pergament's philosophy towards the game. He doesn't want a group of talented individuals, he wants one cohesive team. It's a message that the seniors on the squad have taken to heart.
"Chemistry and teamwork, those are the two fundamental things we have based our season on, and it has gotten us this far," Alexopoulos said.
Pergament has also involved his players, especially his older ones, in helping shape how the team operates. Coming to Vermont from Wantagh, Long Island, Pergament had no clue what the landscape of lacrosse in the state was like.
"I mean, they have been through it all," Pergament said. "They know the history of this state. I've really relied on them to have a good knowledge of who the other teams are, who are the players on the other teams, who are the coaches. I really trust them and their experience with this area and this local environment."
Committed to this approach, junior goalie Mike Sztorc, one of the unquestioned leaders for the Bulldogs, said that he noticed a difference in the attitude of the team this year.
"I believe that, in the past, it's been more about an individual than the team," Sztorc said. "I believe this year we've really started using the aspect of being a team and using chemistry and really using the team to our advantage. Everyone is a weapon, as opposed to giving it to one guy and telling him to go."
The increased chemistry has led to increased communication. For players the seniors, the underclassmen have been responsive to their advice this season, and with the freshman and sophomores listening the team has gotten production from whoever hits the field.
"They listen really well," Alexopoulos said of the underclassmen. "Coaches, players, anything that we say to them I know that they take it to heart. Especially with a lot of our middies that are running and attackmen like Max [Pagnucco] and Carter [Vickers], along with listening they execute. If you tell them to do something, they do it."
Will Helmetag, another senior for BBA, also added that the younger members "will back up our leadership," leading them to "just add to the chemistry that we have."
The results have been hard to argue with. After navigating a tough regular season that left the Bulldogs at 8-7 going into the playoffs, BBA has now taken down No. 10 Harwood, No. 2 Stowe and No. 3 Burlington.
Pergament has a story that he likes to tell to illustrate his desire to build team chemistry. Taking Alexopoulos out to breakfast before the season started, Pergament told his senior captain that they were going to win a state title.
"I bring up that breakfast all the time because it's an important moment for us to realize that, as a coach, I can't get to the state championship, I need my players to get there," Pergament said. "And as a player, he needs my leadership and my focus to drive us where we need to go."
That drive has taken BBA all the way to a doorstep of a state championship. Alexopoulos is grateful that his team has gotten to this point, but he is determined to get one step further. With BBA graduation set for Friday night, Alexopoulos touched on the fact that his class can go out with a real bang.
"After three years of losses in the playoffs [to GMVS], just graduating with that relief and bringing back the lacrosse program as a state champion, it would mean a lot," Alexopoulos said. "It would definitely be an epic end."
One way or the other, the game against GMVS will be the final game this crop of seniors play in green0 and yellow. Helmetag touched on the pressure that comes with a season finale.
"I think there is definitely pressure, but I think our team works well under pressure. We are all in."
Geoff Smith is the assistant sports editor at the Bennington Banner. To contact him, call 802-447-7567 ext. 120, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @GSmith_Banner.