SKANEATELES — Mitch Major is very familiar with the difference between winning a state title and falling short.
As a player, Major was on the Skaneateles team that shared a state title with Salmon River in 1989 when the two teams went scoreless through four overtimes. As a coach, Major led the Lakers to the state title in 2015 and was behind the bench again the following year when Skaneateles lost to Kenmore East in overtime in the state championship.
Now he'll oversee the Lakers as they take on Section V champion Webster Thomas in the NYSPHSAA Division II semifinal Saturday at the HarborCenter in Buffalo, where a win would push Skaneateles into the state championship game for the third time in five years.
To advance to this point, the road often includes some timely goals, big saves and a little luck, but to be a champion, even more than that is required.
Major knows from first-hand experience.
"Teams that make it this far aren't always the most talented, but they're the ones that come together as a group," Major said. "There's a culture and there's an attitude every time you come to practice of light-heartedness and having fun, but at the same time can be very serious and competitive.
"I think each team that makes it this far has combined having a good time on the ice every day and enjoying each other's company, and being able to work hard at the same time."
The longtime Skaneateles coach is also wary of the amount of hype that surrounds these games, but cautioned against telling his players to embrace the moment and the opportunity. At the end of the day, it's all about having fun and enjoying the experience.
"You've got to be careful not to make it too big of a deal because they're loose right now," Major said. "I think they understand growing up here in Skaneateles what the big deal is. They were sitting in the stands when those other teams did it and now it's their turn. I really don't need to say much."
Like Skaneateles, the Titans from Webster Thomas feature three capable scoring lines, solid defense and steady goaltending. Defensive zone coverage in particular will be key.
"They like to keep a guy high and like to move the puck," said forward Owen Van Holtz. "They go high to low, get a guy to the slot and shoot it all they can. If we take away passing lanes and play physical we should be good."
The Lakers depart for Buffalo Friday morning and will skate once more in the afternoon as a last tune-up for their meeting with Webster Thomas. Later Friday night the NYSPHSAA hosts a banquet to celebrate the remaining teams in Division I and Division II.
Then the games begin.
"We feel pretty confident," Van Holtz said. "This team we're going up against has been second in the state and we've been first. It's going to be an intense game for sure and probably the fastest pace we've played all season. We're looking forward to it."
If the Lakers manage to slip by Webster Thomas in the semifinal and then defeat either Section I's John Jay or Section II's Queensbury in the final, they'll become the seventh program to capture four titles since the New York state tournament's inception in 1980.
At the moment, Section X's Massena and Salmon River each have six state titles, Section VI's Williamsville North and Section IV's Ithaca both have five, and Section III's Clinton and Section X's Canton have four apiece.
The Lakers currently sit at three with titles in 1983, 1989 and 2015.
Skaneateles can also extend Section III's lead for the most state titles; at the moment, Section III is home to 21 previous state champions, while Section X is next up with 17. With the Lakers still alive in Division II and Syracuse in the hunt in Division I, Section III can widen its gap this weekend.
Clearly hockey in central New York is thriving and has been dating back a few decades. The stiff competition within its own section is a major reason why Skaneateles is a top contender.
"There's a lot of teams obviously and there are a lot of passionate hockey people here in central New York. It's always been that way," Major said. "We've been very blessed to have a lot of good teams come out of Section III and win state titles. We always say it's just as hard to win Section III as it is to win a state championship. There's not much difference between the two and we see it every year.
"We don't see it as getting harder once you leave the section, it's just our next goal."
Skaneateles and Webster are separated by 65 miles and the two towns' hockey teams play in different sections, but a handful of Lakers players will look across the benches Saturday and see some old friends.
When high school season isn't in session, some of Skaneateles' players play their travel hockey for the Rochester Coalition, a program shared with some of the Titans. The Lakers' Adam Casper, Garrett Krieger, Cam Lowe and Charlie Russell all play in the Coalition's 15-U team with Webster Thomas' Cullen Hennessy, Zack Wolfe, Cade Spencer and Connelly Springer; on the 16-U team, Skaneateles' Bauer Morrissey and Cole Heintz skate with the Titans' Reed Currie.
That should mean Skaneateles is even more cognizant of the talent Webster Thomas possesses — Wolfe was the Titans' leading scorer during the regular season with 31 points, Hennessy was next with 30, and Currie was fourth on the team with 22.
Wolfe also scored two goals and an assist in Webster Thomas' state quarterfinal win over Northwood-Norfolk.
Bragging rights, anyone?
"It's funny because they play with each other on the weekends sometimes and now they're going to be playing against each other," Major said. "It's kind of neat."
Added Van Holtz, "There's a lot of youngsters on the other team that are supposed to be really good. I know a few of the players that I've skated with during Skate and Shoot and open hockey. We definitely know a lot of the guys and it's going to be a fun battle between the boys."