This time last year, the Pilgrim girls’ lacrosse team was focused on picking up its first-ever victory.
It’s safe to say the expectations are much higher this season.
The Pats got that win last year, and then six more, narrowly missing out on a playoff berth in just their second year as a program. With a host of contributors back in the fold, year three is shaping up as the best yet.
“Last year was ‘Let’s get a win,’” said head coach Tom Flanders. “This year, I think we’re in position to get some more wins and hopefully make the playoffs. That’s our goal and our first objective.”
In 2011, the program’s first year, Pilgrim went 0-14. Last year, the Pats finished 7-7 and would have made the playoffs if not for a tiebreaker that was out of their hands.
“We had a rough start last year,” Flanders said. “We lost a lot of close games. But we started to put it together. By the end of the season, nobody wanted to play us.”
The Pats want that to be the case again this year, and they have the pieces in place to make it happen. When Flanders and assistant coach Charlie Benson started the program in 2011, they had a huge turnout of underclassmen and knew that in a few years, they’d be in very good shape.
That time is now.
Four starters were lost to graduation, but a dozen contributors are back in the fold, including leading scorer Haley McCusker, standout midfielders Betsey Heidel and Ami Marks, and goalie Kayleen Murphy. And now, with two years under their belts, girls who were once athletes with lacrosse sticks have turned into lacrosse players. There’s so much experience and dedication to the program that the Pats picked six captains – Heidel, Marks, Murphy, McCusker, Kelly Vatter and Erica Hammond. They have 10 seniors ready to contribute.
“I think the kids know what to expect,” Flanders said. “They’ve been there before. It’s awesome in a few short years, to see the kids put the time in and make themselves lacrosse players.”
Murphy will anchor the defense from her spot in net. She played in the field during the early part of last season, but her return to the goalie position helped spark Pilgrim’s surge. She earned all-division honors.
Joining Murphy in the back will be seniors Vatter, Megan Sullivan and Britney Howland, all of whom saw a lot of time last season.
“That’s a very strong area for us,” Flanders said.
Heidel, another senior, will be back at the center position after emerging last year as one of the top players in the division.
“She’s a tremendous player,” Flanders said. “Extremely strong and athletic, and she’s a great leader.”
Seniors Cara Beneduce and Julianna Mollo will team with junior Kelsey Martin at the defensive midfield positions. All have seen plenty of action. The attack midfielders are Marks, a senior, and sophomore Michaela Giuttari, both of who shined last season.
“Ami Marks is one of the players who started the program with us,” Flanders said. “She’s been a captain for three years. She’s one of the few who came to us with lacrosse experience and she taught a lot of these kids.”
Up front, McCusker will once again lead the charge. Last year, as just a sophomore, she scored 62 goals, good for fourth in the division.
“She’s coming off a great year,” Flanders said. “She’s going to be our go-to player for goals.”
Seniors Hammond and Ashley Hager will join McCusker on the attack.
The Pats may also get contributions from newcomers like junior Clare Birney and sophomores Madison Almonte, Chrissy Cavanagh, Emily Fluette and Emma Reilly. Freshman Makenzie Driscoll is slated to be the backup goalie.
So far, things are coming together nicely.
“Everything is going as planned right now,” Flanders said. “We’re healthy and we’re having fun. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
And the Pats have gotten an idea of what they need to do to be successful. In a scrimmage against Division II Cranston East, they fell behind 3-0 but regrouped and scored eight consecutive goals on their way to a victory.
“We were happy,” Flanders said. “I think we had some jitters early on, but then we started to play with more and more confidence.”
That’s just what Flanders wants to see as the season gets underway.
“I think in some of our games this year, we’re going to be the team that holds a lot of the possession,” Flanders said. “I want them to play with confidence and keep thinking in every situation.”
The Pats aren’t sure what to expect from their competition. After two seasons of a two-division format, girls’ lacrosse is moving back to a three-division setup this year. Pilgrim will be in Division III along with eight other teams.
However it shakes out, the Pats are poised to make their move.
“We want to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs, and we’re not going to look past that,” Flanders said. “That’s the next step we need to take.”
The Pats will open the season today when they host Westerly at 5:45 p.m.