BY MICHAEL KELLY
VESTAL — Each year, the makeup of the Niskayuna boys’ lacrosse team changes. New players come and old players go. That’s how high school sports work.
The 26 Win program, though, only grows.
“This is a family,” said Niskayuna senior Aidan O’Brien, who scored five goals in his team’s first-ever state championship win, a 13-10 decision over West Genesee Saturday.
“When you play for this program, you’re a member of this family forever,” O’Brien continued. “It doesn’t end.”
“That’s without a doubt,” said Mike D’Amario, a 2014 alumnus of the program now playing for the University of Virginia. “You never really graduate from this program.”
That’s been true for the Niskayuna program since its first varsity season in 1994. That year, senior Eric Klosterman passed away and the program’s ethos was created. The first time the team huddled after Klosterman’s death, head coach Mike Vorgang — who has coached the team since its inception — had his players break with a call of “26 Win,” referencing Klosterman’s number.
Ever since that day, the rallying cry has been used before games, at halftimes and during timeouts. The slogan is on T-shirts and @26_win serves as the team’s Twitter handle.
The phrase is meant to remind members of the Niskayuna program that they are playing for something bigger than themselves in each game. They are playing for their predecessors, their program brothers who paved the way for their success.
“The 26 Win is special,” said Matt Panneton, a 2004 alumnus of the program. “That’s a tagline that symbolizes that once you’re a part of Niskayuna lacrosse, you’re always a part of it. We’re a true family.”
Panneton was one of countless Niskayuna lacrosse alumni who made the trip Saturday to see the Silver Warriors win their first state title. It was about 15 minutes after Niskayuna won its state semifinal game that Panneton was texting buddies to see who was in for a road trip to Vestal. That’s how he ended up tailgating before the game with Vince Cassella (2010), Nolan Connors (2009) and Mark Bryan (2005) after the two-hours-plus drive from Niskayuna.
Basil Daratsos, a 2005 alumnus, could not make it to the game, but he figured out a way to be a part of the experience. From San Diego, Daratsos called in to Panneton and his group using the FaceTime feature on his cellphone, and took part in the car ride and tailgate that way.
Phones are big for the 26 Win family. Minutes after Niskayuna won its state semifinal game, Vorgang opened his cellphone to see he had 85 text messages from former players congratulating the team. The next morning, he woke up to several dozen more.
If 26 Win is a family, then Vorgang is its father. His relationship with players does not end when they graduate, and his lacrosse program has helped provide college scholarship money for many of its alums. Panneton said the commitment Vorgang and his assistants show to the program’s athletes is what keeps 26 Win alive.
“This is not something you can force or teach,” Panneton said. “It’s just a feeling you get. It starts with Vorgang and it has a lot to do with the way he’s devoted his life to us, to seeing us succeed.”
Brian Schlansker was at Saturday’s game, after recently graduating from Bryant University. He wrapped up a four-year career there and has a job lined up with General Electric. He said he knows who to credit for his bright future.
“I don’t get to Bryant without the Niskayuna coaching staff,” Schlansker said. “So, I’m here to support them for all the times they’ve supported all of us.”
Niskayuna’s title celebration quickly moved off the turf Saturday to a nearby open space, where hundreds of supporters gathered with the team and its alumni. In the middle of it all was Vorgang, his players — past and present — swarming him for hugs. While everyone was celebrating this year’s accomplishment, Vorgang made sure to thank his former players for making Saturday’s win possible.
“They’re the reason why these guys were able to win,” Vorgang said. “Our alumni is why we won a state championship. Without them, we don’t win.”