At Westford Academy, the theme is positivity.
Coach Julie Devlin Olivier does not allow the players on her girls’ lacrosse team to even use words such as “lose” or “bad.” Even when the Grey Ghosts do lose — and that’s not very often — the focus instead is on what the team did well that day.
The strategy, seemingly, has been successful: Westford squared off against Notre Dame of Hingham in the Division 1 state semifinals Tuesday night.
But a closer look at the Grey Ghosts reveals that there were a few issues along the way that were not so positive.
This season was their first without their revered bus driver, Victor Neal Sr., affectionately known as Cheerio, who lost his battle with lung cancer last fall. He was the ultimate cheerleader for everyone.
“We really had to become each other’s cheerleaders,” said senior captain Bailey Mongillo . “It really brought us closer together.”
The Grey Ghosts dedicated their season, and specifically their Division 1 North quarterfinal against Andover, to Cheerio. Westford, 19-1 during the regular season, rolled over Andover, 14-4.
The team’s lone regular-season loss did not come without a bit of drama, either.
The Grey Ghosts ripped off 19 straight wins before taking on a 17-2 Needham squad in the final game.
However, because of the rescheduling of the senior class trip to Walt Disney World — the plane took flight the same day as the game — Westford did not field its full varsity team. Half of the seniors decided to go. Half stayed.
Needham won, 13-5, only the third time all season the Grey Ghosts failed to score 11 goals.
“It was the one game I could not get anyone to respond,” recalled Olivier, the third-year head coach who played at Westford’s Dual County League rival Lincoln-Sudbury Regional and at Boston College.
The pressure of finishing off an unbeaten season, coupled with the difficult decision to stay or go, had broken her team’s spirit, it seemed. But again, positivity won out.
The day after the loss to Needham, Olivier had planned to take her underclassmen to a nearby bridge and throw rocks, as a literal and metaphorical release of their frustration. But a last-minute downpour forced a cancellation. A day later, the Grey Ghosts did not practice in the traditional sense; instead it was a “field day” for bonding, with relay races and games of ultimate Frisbee. Five days later, when the seniors returned — just four days prior to the state tournament opener — the Grey Ghosts welcomed them back with a second field day.
Westford throttled its first three tourney foes by a cumulative score of 53-14. Just hours before the North final against North Andover, however, a student was reported missing and the high school was put into lockdown.
When students were eventually allowed to leave campus at 1:30 p.m., the Ghosts gathered at Olivier’s house for stress relief in the form of yoga. Before they took the field, Olivier had a final piece of advice for her captains:
“This is where you, as strong women, are going to be leaders some day, and you have got to get over whatever it is, because you’ve got a whole troop of people you’ve got to lead today,” she said.
Mongillo took the message to heart. Her four second-half goals lifted Westford out of a 6-6 tie to a 13-7 victory and the North sectional title.
“We had to find the good and highlight the positives,” she said of the team overcoming a number of hurdles this season. “Remember but don’t let it overwhelm. It’s easy to deal with problems when you have a team like this.”
Junior netminder Kalie Boyd made a couple incredible saves on the few shots that leaked through.
“Honestly it’s my team — every practice, every save you make they’re wicked excited and supportive of you and you enjoy going to practice,” Boyd said.
The 5-foot-3 goalie, the team’s biggest and brightest personality on the field, yells instructions to the attack on the other end of the field as she notices holes and patterns in opposing defenses.
“I definitely would not want to go against her,” said Mongillo. “She might be small physically but she’s huge in net. It’s deceiving to a taller attacker — you think you can just drive in and dunk over her, but I know firsthand it doesn’t work. Kalie pounds shots and is lights-out.”
In what started as anything but a positive season for Westford, Olivier decided to recognize the person who tied all of the good together.
After the North Andover game, Olivier delivered the game ball to Cheerio at his grave.
“We believe we can be the best,” Olivier said. “We just have to go out there and prove it.”
Murdoch-Lahey bows out at North Andover
Following her team’s 13-7 loss to Westford, 10-year North Andover High coach Karen Murdoch-Lahey resigned from her position.
A physical education and health teacher at North Andover, Murdoch-Lahey recently completed a masters’ program at Salem State University and hopes to land a position as a vice principal or principal.
Murdoch-Lahey started the women’s lacrosse programs at both Merrrimack College and North Andover.
“This program is going nowhere but up,” said an emotional Murdoch-Lahey after the loss. “I got into coaching and teaching looking to make an impact. Coaching all through the years but especially these kids, I thought I could make an impact, and instead, as you can see, I’ve been very impacted by them.”
Beverly boys looking to some rising stars
The Beverly High boys advanced to the Division 2 East semis before falling to Hingham, 8-4.
The Panthers will graduate their four top scorers, captains Ryan Schipp , Dom Abate , Conor Leahy , and Brendan Flaherty , but coach John Pynchon is excited about a handful of eighth-graders with familiar last names.
“Brendan’s younger brother is better than him, Dom’s younger brother is better than him, Conor Leahy’s younger brother is better than him, and they’re all in eighth grade,” Pynchon said.
“But all joking aside, we have some phenomenal eighth-graders coming up. Sam Leahy has been a water boy on the sideline the entire time I’ve coached here and now he’s coming up. Hunter Spencer is going to be a sophomore and he’s coming up.’’ Another sophomore attack, NickAlbano, “ is coming back, our defense will be back. It’ll be tough to replace those guys, but we can get guys to step up now. It’ll be tough for me personally,’’ Pynchon said. “Dom Abate has started every game on varsity for four years, but Sam Abate will make up for it.”
Pat Bradley can be reached at email@example.com.