In truth, the Messalonskee girls lacrosse team had been building toward Saturday’s Class A state championship victory over Massabesic for years. This wasn’t a team catching fire, rallying around a single play or moment in the regular season and riding the surprise momentum all the way to the end.

The Eagles’ march to the state title began five years ago, when Ashley Pullen took the program’s head coaching job and led the team to an upset win over the No. 2 seed in the regional quarterfinals in the spring 2012.

Messalonskee would go on to lose in the semis, bouncing back the next year to earn the top seed with a group that included this season’s seniors. An early exit from the playoffs followed, but the Eagles advanced all the way to the regional finals a year later.

Last season, they won that regional championship for the first time but lost to eventual state champion Marshwood in the state final.

All any of those losses, heartbreaks and bitter disappointments did was set the stage for Nathalie St. Pierre’s overtime goal in a 6-5, come-from-behind win over Massabesic at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium on Saturday morning.

“You look back, and it is totally what you’ve been working for all these years,” said defender Riley Field, one of eight seniors on the team. “You know, I have so many silver medals (from lacrosse and field hockey). This is a long time coming.

“I think it’s well-deserved for a team like Messalonskee. We’ve always been strong in sports and I think everybody kind of feels that way. But I also think we were kind of being known a little bit as that team that can’t finish the job. To (win the state championship), it honestly feels like a dream still.”

Perhaps no player better exemplifies the building process at Messalonskee more than St. Pierre, a four-year starter who developed into the team’s goal-scoring leader as a junior before moving into more of a playmaking role this season.

“I’m just very happy I was able to finish it for my team,” St. Pierre said. “Especially because I’ve been the playmaker this whole time. It’s really special. Being only person who started for four years, being a big part of the team, it feels really good to have done that for them.”

In the buildup to the meeting with Massabesic, the Eagles (16-1) talked about setting their sights on winning a state championship as soon as they were convincingly beaten by Marshwood in the 2015 finals.

It was a process that saw the team learn valuable lessons, no matter how cliche, with each stinging defeat.

“They learned the value of the intangibles,” Pullen said. “Trusting each other, showing up and working hard every day in practice, wanting something and playing with heart. There’s a difference — you can go through the motions, you can practice stick work and other fundamentals, but you can’t just go through the motions.”

Pullen recalled the story of a coaching mentor asking a group of players to raise their arms as high as they possibly could. They were then asked to reach a little higher.

“Inevitably, you can reach higher,” Pullen said. “That’s the lesson they learned. We decided as a group, ‘We’re going to reach higher.'”

Field, a co-captain, pointed to two things that were different this season. The first, perhaps most obviously, was a belief on the part of all involved that the Eagles had the ability to play with the best teams in the state. The second, she said, was that the team stopped pressuring itself.

“I think one of the biggest changes has been that throughout the years there was so much hype about the (regional) championships,” Field said. “It was always, ‘We have to win, we have to win, we have to win.’ Slowly we just relaxed. We realized we didn’t have to win, we just had to play lacrosse. That’s when it really fell into place for us. We went out and played the game and had fun.”

Certainly, it wasn’t that easy to just “relax” when Massabesic buzzed out to a 4-0 lead midway through the first half Saturday.

Pullen liked what she was seeing despite the score; Field liked the mentality of her teammates in those difficult minutes.

“I did feel like for a while there nothing was going our way. But I knew it was uncharacteristic of them,” Pullen said. “I knew we weren’t playing to our potential, but I had all the faith that we would.

“It’s rare that you have an entire game where those little things don’t go your way. We just had to wait it out, and we did.”

While Pullen deserves plenty of credit for leading Messalonskee through the steps of maturation, Saturday was her last day as coach of the Eagles. She is leaving the area for a job in the Falmouth school district.

While stepping down has been difficult for her, Pullen knows the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

“I knew this was a special group,” Pullen said. “When it became clear we really had a chance to (win the state title), it seemed OK and it seemed fitting. I knew it could be an incredible time to walk away.”

“I think it’s awesome she gets to go out like this,” St. Pierre said. “She’s helped us all so much, and I’m glad we could do that for her. I think it’s awesome she gets to finish here as a coach the same way we finished as (senior) players.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC


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