Haley McCusker made girls’ lacrosse history on Friday night. Just over a minute into a 19-6 victory over Johnston, the Pilgrim senior scored the 200th goal of her career. It’s a milestone that no girls’ lacrosse player had ever reached in Warwick’s 10-year history with the sport.
For McCusker, it was another number that really made the milestone special. She was close friends with Elanna Zuller, one of two Pilgrim students who died in a car wreck in 2011. They had played lacrosse together, and McCusker wanted to share her big moment. She wore Zuller’s old No. 20.
“I had Elanna’s number on my back so that was the only thing that really mattered to me,” McCusker said. “I wasn’t really doing it for myself. I was doing it more for her. I was happy I was able to score it and that the Zullers were here to watch it. It meant a lot.”
The big moment happened quickly. A minute in, McCusker caught a pass at midfield and took off. She beat Johnston goalie Alex DiRaimo for the goal, just 1:12 into the game.
“I was nervous,” McCusker said. “I just really wanted to score it.”
McCusker celebrated with teammates, and head coach Tom Flanders helped her put the game ball into a commemorative holder. McCusker then posed for photos next to a No. 20 flag that flies at Pilgrim games.
“It’s just unbelievable that she’s hit 200 goals,” Flanders said. “It’s just an amazing thing. We were thrilled.”
McCusker is the first four-year varsity player to come through the Pilgrim girls’ lacrosse program, which started in 2011. As a potent goal-scorer in a young program, she was bound to leave with a scoring record, but this one may stand for a long time. Flanders and former assistant Charlie Benson coached Warwick Vets – the city’s first girls’ lacrosse team – from its inception as a club team in 2003 to its run to the D-III championship game in 2009.
They never had a player even approach 200 goals, and Vets and Pilgrim haven’t had one since.
McCusker is at the top of the list.
“It’s a big, big number,” Flanders said. “She’s the best goal scorer ever in Warwick. It’s a big accomplishment. It’s one that we’re really proud of. We’re proud of the fact that there’s girls’ lacrosse in Warwick. These girls never would have played if not for the help Charlie Benson provided in getting these programs off the ground.”
McCusker’s journey started in an unlikely place – defense.
She was one of the few players who’d picked up a lacrosse stick back in 2011, the program’s first year. Flanders and Benson thought they needed her skill on the back line.
Once she started scoring, she never stopped. Her coaches needed the 200 goals a little more.
“Honestly, I would have never have thought I’d get 200 goals,” McCusker said. “My freshman year, I played defense. I had no idea I was going to go up to attack. It’s so surreal. I’m so happy.”
When McCusker learned she was close to the milestone, she approached Flanders about making it a tribute to Zuller. She scored nine goals in the season-opener against Westerly, putting her one away and setting up a perfect stage. Friday’s game would be at home, and the Zullers would be in attendance.
“She came to us and said, ‘I’d really like to do something to remember Elanna Zuller,’” Flanders said. “Elanna’s dad and her brother and sister were in the stands, so they got to share in it. It was a good thing – Elanna and Haley were great friends.”
McCusker ended up scoring eight more goals as Pilgrim cruised to the 19-6 victory. She’s now scored nine in each of Pilgrim’s two games this season.
The Pats are 2-0 as they try to break in a whole new squad around McCusker, one of the few holdovers from last year’s Division III runner-up team.
Kelsey Martin, Hannah Johnson and Paula Cavanagh added two goals each for the Pats, while Sophia DeLuca, Madison Almonte, Jessica Pope and Sara Baribault scored one each.
“We’re trying to fill in gaps from last year’s team, but these kids are stepping in,” Flanders said. “They’re working hard in practice, they’re doing the right things. As long as they keep their feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars, they’ll be fine.”
They’re certainly off to a strong start.
A milestone – and a special moment – just made it better.
“It was just such a great feeling to be able to do this while wearing Elanna’s jersey,” McCusker said. “I’m kind of the last one through here that was really friends with her. It was nice to be able to do one last thing that’s going to bring a smile to her family’s face.”