UNION, N.J. — Most of the game was like the season in a nutshell for the Clearview girls' lacrosse team.
That is, the Pioneers had some ups and downs early, didn't give up, kept fighting and, in the end, left most in attendance shocked by just how good they actually were.
"It was a season-long challenge — we've had our highs and lows all season, but I'm just so proud of this team," Pioneers coach Megan Conklin said after her team fell, 12-9, to Ridgewood in Saturday's Group 4 state championship at Kean University.
Entering the game, Clearview was a heavy underdog against a Ridgewood team that many regarded as the best in the state.
Conversely, Clearview wasn't even the favorite to win South Jersey. But the players' chemistry peaked late in the season, and, thanks to a nucleus made up of strong veteran leaders and a few young stars, the year ended up being one of Clearview's best ever.
This was only the Pioneers' second trip ever to the state finals.
"We knew coming in it was going to be a very difficult game; Ridgewood is obviously an amazing team," said senior Dani Paterno. "We really changed our game plan, because of how good they are. But I thought we stepped up to the plate and I'm proud of how we played."
Maybe the most impressive feat of the day for the Pioneers (15-7) was that they were able to put a legitimate scare into Ridgewood — winner of three of the past four state titles — despite falling behind, 5-0, in the first 12 minutes, 2 seconds of the game.
Ridgewood (21-3) was actually ahead, 8-1, with 7:37 left in the first half, before the Clearview offense found its footing, led by freshman phenom Hailey Russo, who topped all scorers with five goals.
Russo, who finished her freshman season with a remarkable 85 goals, netted a free position shot with 15:15 left in the game to make the score 9-6. From that point, the teams went toe-to-toe, and Clearview held its own as each team scored three goals in the final 15 minutes.
"We really worked hard to get back in the game," Russo said. "We got stunned in the beginning, but we just kept working hard."
Despite graduating a strong senior class — including 10 players, all of whom were contributors — Russo is a glaring sign that the future is still bright for Clearview.
"We definitely have very talented underclassmen," Conklin said. "And of course the goal is always to get back here. So we're excited about the future."
Clearview 4 5 — 9
Ridgewood 8 4 — 12
Goals: C- Camryn Pennypacker, Dani Paterno, Julie Rothstein, Hailey Russo 5, Alyssa DeAngelo; R- Jackie Wolak 2, Nicole Macolino 3, Marley Scala 4, Lillie Kloak 3.