HERKIMER — A few years ago, Little Falls girls soccer coach Sal Marchese wasn't as easygoing.

The Mounties, entering their second state final four in three years, are a lively, animated bunch that rarely has a dull moment, whether it's a pep talk from their teammates' alter ego or befriending an insect at the beach.

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"This is how the group has handled the entire season," Marchese said. "I've had to adjust my coaching style. Seven years ago, I would've said 'Where's the focus?' But by game time, they're ready. This is how they deal with pressure.

"Every team is different. You can see that this team is very loose, they get along, and as long as they're ready for game time ... I let more go than I would have in the past, per se."

Little Falls (19-2), ranked No. 2 in the state, will have to be more than ready at 5:30 p.m. Saturday when the Mounties meet Section V's Wheatland-Chili (21-2) in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association's Class C semifinals at Cortland High School.

The teams first met on Sept. 8, when Wheatland-Chili — the two-time Class D state champion making its fourth straight final four appearance — defeated the Mounties 3-1.

Since then, Little Falls has won 17 straight games.

"That loss was defintely good for us," senior goalkeeper Kylie Miles said. "It definitely woke us up and taught us what we needed to work on."

Sophomore Gabby Sylstra often seems to be the center of attention, leading the team in scoring as well as comic relief.

When the Mounties traveled to Glimmerglass State Park for a team-bonding trip in August, when Sylstra wasn't busy picking at her friends' feet underwater, she was getting lost on a hike with freshman Olivia Lindsay, infamously befriending a fat, green caterpillar she'd name Eileen.

"It looked like it could've been poisonous," senior forward Nicole Failing said, laughing.

"It took a lot of effort for Gabby to not bring it in the car," senior midfielder Olivia Langdon said.

Sylstra also amuses the team with alter egos, using different voices for her characters Corndog, Goatdog, Goatbear and an announcer, grunting out phrases like "I like corn and I got a dog!"

"She definitely takes the stress out of things," Miles said.

As for the rest of that August beach day, created to acquaint the freshmen by pairing them with seniors for the half-hour drive, the girls ate dinner and had an intense volleyball game where kicking was allowed.

Team sleepovers, which are usually paired with food from Vinny's — Marchese's family-owned restaurant in Herkimer — are also team-bonding highlights from throughout the season.

"The freshmen opened up more and they were talking to us, saying 'Hi' in the hallways at school, and not being as shy," Failing said, "and I think that definitely shows on the field, too, as well as off of it."

Little Falls planned to have at least one more laugh at the state tournament banquet Friday night, where the semifinalists present skits. Two years ago, Little Falls winged it and danced to Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall's popular 2016 dance craze "Juju on that Beat."

Being close-knit has contributed to the Mounties' success. They've won three straight Section III Class C titles, and eight seniors — Failing, Langdon, Miles, Geena Morotti, Makenna Peruzzi, Camber Barnett, Jessie Lynn Mitchell and Carmela Cancelmo — remain from the group that reached the 2016 state semifinals.

Not to mention, Langdon, Morotti, Failing, and sophomore Karlee Gullis all neighbor each other in a cul-de-sac.

"This was our main goal this year," Morotti said. "We wanted this really bad."

Having a stable coaching staff through all levels has helped make Little Falls a state title contender. Modified coach Krysta Estey, junior varsity coach Denise Scaparo and varsity assistant coach Tim Failing have been around about eight years, Marchese said.

"We've given them structure and a foundation to build on," said Marchese, who has 108 career wins alongside coach Failing.

It'll be tough to keep Little Falls out of the net this weekend. Sylstra, who plays a hybrid midfielder-forward role, has 31 goals and 21 assists, leading the team in both categories. Nicole Failing, the program's all-time leading scorer with 178 points, has 28 goals and 19 assists. Lindsay — who scored the game-winner in the central region final — has 21 goals and six assists at forward.

"We encourage creativity," Marchese said. "We have a lot of skilled players, and I encourage that. It's fun to watch."

Midfielders Morotti (9 goals-11 assists), Langdon (5-6), Stella Rowley (4-7), Riley Dunn and Karlee Gullis rotate while controlling the middle-third of pitch. Defensively, Makenna Peruzzi, Emma Rasch, Gianna Altieri has helped Miles compile 10 shutouts.

The Mounties won only three games in 2011. They doubled that total in 2012 before gathering 14 wins en route to their first-ever section title in 2013. Since 2015, Little Falls has a 71-9-2 record.

Since playing in the 2016 state final four, alumni Kharla Gullis (SUNY Poly), Kailee Jasewicz (Bryant & Stratton), Maria Morotti (Le Moyne) and Caira Miles (HCCC) have all played in college.

"I think that we've set an example to follow," Langdon said. "All of the younger girls strive to meet that, too. I know the group above us, they did some great things. We saw what they did, wanted to accomplish the same things, and we did that. ... Hopefully, the girls below us will realize the same."

As for Wheatland-Chili, the No. 3-ranked Wildcats began the season 2-2 — last losing to a Watertown IHC team that Little Falls shut out 3-0 in the Section III Class C final — before winning 19 straight.

Sophomore Niyah Rosado has 33 goals and 15 assists. Junior Lindsey Clar has 12 goals and 19 assists. Little Falls hopes to pressure them while staying cautious of counter attacks.

Wheatland-Chili's 37-year coach Gary Ward is currently the state's all-time leader in wins with a 523-168-62 mark — one win ahead of active Addison (Section V) coach Kay Peters.

"At this point, they're all good teams," Marchese said. "I think we'll just play our game, adjust during the game, and see how things are going."

Contact reporter Marquel Slaughter at 315-792-4963 or follow him on Twitter @OD_Slaughter.