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Needham girls’ lacrosse makes defense stick

Beth O'Brien, Needham High School girls’ lacrosse coach.

Beth O'Brien, Needham High School girls’ lacrosse coach.

Needham High School goalie Annee O’Connor was describing a few of her teammates, a group that collectively has formed the best girls' lacrosse defensive unit that the state has seen in years.

One’s tall, one’s short. One’s quick, one’s strong.

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“We have many different types of people,” O’Connor said. “Everyone has a different style.”

From 2010-2012, just two teams were able to hold opponents to under five goals per game: Central Catholic in 2011 and Franklin in 2010.

This season, there were four teams to beat the 5.00 goals-against average: Franklin (4.61), Longmeadow (4.60) and Westwood (4.35) made up three of them.

And then there’s Needham, which posted the first sub-4.00 mark in at least four years, allowing 79 goals in 20 regular season games for a 3.95 average.

“A big part of defense is being smart and making really good decisions,” said Needham junior Clara Nowlan. “We have really smart players.”

Playing as one unit

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It takes some brainpower to run the defense that coach Beth O’Brien is asking them to operate.

While the Rockets aren’t quite as outwardly aggressive as a Westwood or Notre Dame Academy team, they’re more focused on picking their spots and making them count.

The presence of Nowlan and junior midfielder Kira Oberle, two shutdown defenders in one-on-one coverage, allows more wiggle room for junior Lexi Quirk and freshman Ally Hickey to jump up the second they see a botched pass or loose ball.

“That’s the beauty of it — I think we’ve become so much more dynamic,” said O’Brien. “I can count on Kira to mark people and I can count on Clara to slow that transition down. I can count on Ally and Lexi to scoop up the junk and force turnovers.”

Nowlan is in just her second season as a defender, but she has learned from mentors such as senior captain Molly Strakosch while listening for the loud voice of O’Connor in the cage behind her.

“It was hard at the beginning of my sophomore year,” Nowlan said. “It was hard to get the slides at first, making the decisions when to commit and when not to. The big part of defense is experience.”

The importance of experience is what makes Hickey’s performance this season so much more impressive.

With no expectations, she stepped on the field and made an immediate impact, particularly on ground balls.

“I think it’s hard coming in as a freshman, especially at a program like Needham,” Nowlan said.

With O’Brien’s commanding voice at the helm, her players tend to know where they stand.

But that honesty has been appreciated by a group that wants to learn.

Against another prolific Westwood team, Needham allowed just 10 goals, marking one of two games all season that coach Leslie Frank saw her squad held to 10 or fewer scores. But even O’Connor, who is shining again this year and will play at Winthrop University in South Carolina next year, made a few rare mistakes.

“I told her it wasn’t her best game,” said O’Brien, “but she had some key spots that kept us in it.”

“It’s a good type of screaming,” O’Connor said of O’Brien’s coaching. “I like being yelled at if I’m not doing what I’m capable of doing.

“My freshman year I would get very mad at myself. Beth would have to calm me down. She would tell me it’s OK to get scored on. I just take a breath and don’t worry about it, and it’s helped me a lot.”

O’Brien will be the first to admit her passion tends to show, but she always apologizes if it comes out in a negative way.

“I’m smart enough to take a look back after every game and if I get crazy hard on them I have to retract and say, ‘I don’t like the way I handled this; this is why I reacted,’ ” she said. “It’s more about taking responsibility for all of us.”

Other top players are senior Maddie Stenberg, who set a school record with 256 goals and 168 assists for 424 career points, 90 of them this season, and junior midfielder Catherine Conley, already committed to Division 1 Fairfield.

It was little surprise that Needham finished the regular season at 18-2, earning a bye before playing Mansfield in a first-round tournament match Wednesday night.

Flyers back in
the thick of it

Winning seven sectional titles in a row, posting back-to-back undefeated seasons — these are achievements that can put some lofty expectations on a program.

So for Framingham High girls’ lacrosse coach Stacey Freda, sitting in the tournament seedings meeting and hearing the Flyers being discussed as one of the top teams again was a huge relief.

After posting back-to-back 12-win seasons, the Flyers finished the regular season 14-4 this spring.“A step forward — it absolutely does. It feels that way,” Freda said. “I felt like the kids were playing that way.”

It was a familiar feeling for the 12 seniors, who won a state title in 2010. They played hungry.

Emily Dautel, she’s given us a lot of surprise attacking prowess that we didn’t expect,” Freda said. “And Caroline Vonachen has such incredible midfield speed — that was unexpected.

“Some of these seniors showed their strength.”

Impressive turnarounds

Under new coach Kristin Igoe, a standout back at Framingham High and Boston College, Franklin High’s girls posted a 16-2 regular season that included 14 straight wins to finish the year..

Scott Biro led Acton-Boxborough Regional to a 13-win season for the first time since 2010. And Watertown High’s girls, behind legendary field hockey coach Eileen Donahue , finished the regular season at 17-0-1, a program record.

On the boys’ side, Wayland High put its name back on the lacrosse map.

After winning just five games a year ago, the Warriors, led by new coach Joel Bates , put together a 17-3 regular season that included wins over six Division 1 programs. It was the first time Wayland had won that many games since 2007.

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@yahoo.com.
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