NORTH ANDOVER — Her helmet still strapped on her head, Lauren Hiller was sitting in the corner of the field with the rest of her North Andover teammates, quietly waiting for the postgame chat from coach Karen Murdoch-Lahey after an 18-8 win over Chelmsford.
After the Scarlet Knights broke their huddle, Hiller was a bit surprised when a reporter asked to speak to her. The freshman goalie began answering questions, a bit nervous at first, a contrast to her poised play in the cage for 45 minutes before exiting in the second half with a 10-goal cushion.
But as soon as the conversation turned from small talk to lacrosse, her head popped up, her eyes opened wide, and she relaxed.
It was fitting. With the first-year goalie proving to be an anchor in the back, North Andover is quietly letting foes know that it is here to stay.
“I was excited, but cautiously optimistic coming into the season,” said Murdoch-Lahey.
The Scarlet Knights were 16-6 a year ago, advancing to the Division 1 North quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Lincoln-Sudbury, 15-11.
NA won the Cape Ann League last spring, led by league MVP Olivia Boudreau. But Boudreau is now thriving as a freshman at George Washington University and North Andover is competing in the rugged Merrimack Valley Conference.
Fast-forward a month into the season.
The Scarlet Knights won nine of their first 10 games, the only blemish a heartbreaking 9-8 loss to unbeaten Westford Academy (12-0). In the second game of the year, they beat Andover, 7-4, for the first time in 10 years. Ten days later, NA toppled Winchester for the first time since 2009.
Everything is clicking on the field, because everyone is clicking off of the turf.
A few of the girls were on the varsity soccer squad last fall, and then again on the basketball team this winter.
Senior captains Pam Coufos and Audrey Samuelman were also captains on the soccer pitch, and Coufos joined defenseman Michaela Mello as a captain on the basketball team. Now, the trio share the leadership mantle with senior defenseman Kaileigh Rogato .
Coufos will be playing soccer at Fairfield this fall, while Samuelman will join her older sister Emily, a former captain at North Andover, on the lacrosse field at Division 1 Quinnipiac.
And there are the four dynamic freshmen: Hiller, middies Abby Karalis and Michelle Poirier — who both scored in the 18-8 win — and Emma Johns , a key cog on a defense that, along with Mello and Rogato, is yielding just six goals per game.
Add in other talents like sophomore midfielder Leah Chittick — who scored 4 goals against Chelmsford — and the result is “a really fun, unexpected surprise,” said Murdoch-Lahey.
“We work really well as a team,” Chittick replied when asked what made the team so good.
“I think it’s awesome,” added Mello about the team dynamic. “The freshmen are not shy at all; they’re very good and very talented. The team chemistry is just great.”
In her postgame wrap, Murdoch-Lahey praised her squad for sharing the ball and having three girls score four goals instead of one going off for seven or eight.
That type of attitude has allowed Hiller and the other freshmen to thrive.
Hiller, who edged out Emma Nogga for the starting position earlier in the season, has quietly silenced any doubters, saving some of her best performances — 11 saves vs. Winchester, followed by 12 against Westford Academy — for her biggest games this season.
“Quietly” silencing doubters is not a figure of speech, either.
Uncharacteristically for a goalie, Hiller — whose older brother Austin, 17, plays for the boys’ team — is one of the least vocal players on her team.
To help her come of her shell, Murdoch-Lahey asks Hiller to lead team cheers in practice. And on occasion, the team will have to run laps if Hiller forgets to speak up.
“I was really nervous at first,” admitted Hiller, “but once I got to know everyone, it got easier. And then the Andover game [a 7-4 victory] was a huge confidence boost and everyone was so happy. I knew I needed to step it up, and my teammates have helped me.”
Even without the loudest voice, Murdoch-Lahey says Hiller is a “presence” on the field who “doesn’t play like a freshman.”
“We really emphasize defense, and Lauren fuels that. If someone is coming in one-on-one, they’re really coming in one-vs-two because our goalie is with them. Lauren is clear, focused, very determined, and she’s a tough kid. Ultimately, I’ve had goalies who were very loud and vocal but have not been very strong with their stick skill, so if I had to pick, I’d pick the strong-sticked, aggressive player,” added Murdoch-Lahey, in her 10th season coaching North Andover after starting the women’s collegiate lacrosse program at Merrimack College down the street.
Ultimately, it seems the more fun they have as a team, the further they will advance as a team.
“I always tell them you have to be in school till 2:15, you have to do what you’re told, but after that you get to pick what you want to do,” said Murdoch-Lahey.
After losing a 14-7 decision to EMass lacrosse heavyweight Acton-Boxborough to open their season, the Marblehead girls have flipped the switch. The team has not lost since its opening game, rattling off nine straight victories for a 9-1-0 start, and 4-0 in the Northeastern Conference, good for first place. The team has not faced easy competition, either.
With quality wins over 6-2 Masconomet (11-10 victory), 5-2 Manchester Essex (12-11 victory), and 5-2 Peabody (a 17-8 victory), the team has proved that it can win close games. During their nine-game streak, the Magicians have dazzled opponents by scoring over 15 goals per game, while only allowing 7.8.
The North Andover girls are not the only ones winning on the lacrosse field, as the Scarlet Knight boys have run out to a 7-2 start to their season and a tie atop the Merrimack Valley Conference standings. . . . The Wilmington boys are off to a 9-0 start after losing only one starter from last season.Pat Bradley can be reached at email@example.com.