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MX News Update 2024

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The Saint Stephen’s girls lacrosse team is gearing up for the Class 1A state Final Four

BRADENTON – The Saint Stephen’s Episcopal girls lacrosse team had two takeaways from last year’s first trip to the Final Four: the opposition had more speed and played more aggressively.

The Falcons have been preparing for these two aspects this season, especially during practices.

After winning a second straight regional championship, Saint Stephen’s coach Patrick Cassella believes his team is better prepared for the challenge.

High School Overview: Saint Stephen’s girls lacrosse team wins back-to-back Class A Region title

“We’ve been working on speed and getting faster and playing more aggressively, both on offense and defense,” Cassella said.

The winners of 12 straight games, the Falcons (18-1), will play nationally ranked Lake Highland Prep in the Class 1A state semifinals Friday at noon at the Paradise Coast Sports Complex in Naples.

Last year, Saint Stephen’s advanced to the Final Four undefeated in 17 games, but as the fourth seed it faced top seed American Heritage.

The two-time state champions from Delray Beach rolled out to a 15-2 lead en route to a 22-5 decision over the Falcons.

“The play is different. It’s a little more aggressive,” said Cassella, an assistant coach on last year’s Saint Stephen’s team, who took over the lead and replaced Tod Creneti. “And the speed is faster and the talent is much better than we’ve played before.

“We knew this year that when we came back, we had to get used to the speed. Coming back with a year under our belt was a big learning experience for a team that has never been this far before.”

For a Falcons team that posted the most lopsided wins this season, a 10-9 nail-biter over Community School of Naples in the regional final Friday in Bradenton was just what Saint Stephen’s needed.

“That was huge,” Cassella said. “Community School of Naples had the most speed we have played against all year. Not only was that team talented, but they also had a lot of speed. That was the best test we could have going into the states. I was so happy with how the girls responded and how they did against the aggressive play and how they matched their speed.”

The Falcons (18-1) are coming off their lone loss in double overtime against Manatee High on March 7 and will have their hands full against the Highlanders, who won the 2019 state champions and were the runner-up in Class 1A last year.

Lake Highlands Prep, which is ranked second in the nation and second in the state by MaxPreps, is coming off a 14-game winning streak and features 13 players who have scored double figures in goals, led by the 44 goals by senior Sophia Grace Mazariegos.

Saint Stephen’s will plan to defend the Highlanders’ diverse attack this week.

“We’re going to put some defensive plans in place,” Cassella said. “They are a powerhouse. They are very talented. Community School of Naples is just as talented. It will be a very tough test for us.”

In rebuilding a defense that lost three players to graduation last year, Saint Stephen’s has a weapon in junior goalkeeper Annesley Flint, who is allowing an average of five goals per game.

“She was great,” Cassella said of Flint. “From last year to this year, she was one of our top performers on our team. She made incredible saves. That’s huge when you go to states with a goalie like us. Every team there has a great goalkeeper. It could be a difference maker for us.”

Many of the goals Flint allowed in last year’s state semifinal were not her fault.

“If you haven’t been there before, you have nervousness and jitters,” Cassella said. “And then you get overwhelmed, they could never settle down. It looked like an avalanche.”

The Falcons’ preparation process wasn’t just physical.

“This year we understand that the talent is a lot better. We are going to be much better prepared, not only physically, but also mentally,” said Cassella.

Saint Stephen’s has some firepower of its own in senior Sienna Cassella, Patrick’s daughter who will be attending Rutgers University to further her education and lacrosse career. Sienna scored 93 goals and 41 assists this season.

Right behind them is junior Haley Rosa with 91 goals and 33 assists and Ashling Marshall with 70 goals and 49 assists.

Marshall was named a USA Lacrosse All-American for the second time. Cassella has been named a USA Lacrosse All-American three times, a USA Lacrosse All-Academic and the winner of the USA Lacrosse Jackie Pitts Award for high school students who go above and beyond in service to their team, school and community.

“Look how great Haley played,” Coach Cassella said. “Haley is being overlooked. She is persistent, really goes the extra mile.”

But the players who made a difference for the Falcons were the ones who received little or no playing time a year ago.

Senior Kiera Milburn has made some big contributions on defense. Isabella Sanchez, who was injured for most of last season, has spearheaded Saint Stephen’s offense. Eighth-grader Ava Varga contributed 32 goals. In her second year of lacrosse, junior Ava Rogers emerged as a starter on defense.

Coach Cassella even recruited a few players from the Falcons’ football team on defense: junior Ava Foy and freshman Alexa Pymm.

“A lot of the role players we didn’t have last year just came on and were incredible for us,” Coach Cassella said.

Coach Cassella has compiled a 35-2 record over the past two seasons and has advanced to the Final 4 for the second year in a row after starting as a club lacrosse team in 2009 and becoming a varsity sport in 2013. He looks at the entire oeuvre of the program.

“Our school graduates 55 children. To reach states two years in a row, I don’t think people understand how difficult that is,” he said.

The winner of Saint Stephen’s-Lake Highland Prep will play the winner of the game between top-seeded 20-1 defending champion American Heritage, the No. 1 team in the country according to MaxPreps, and fourth-seeded 13-7 Episcopal School of Jacksonville . The Class 1A State Championship game is Saturday afternoon at the Paradise Coast Sports Complex.