Pictured: H-K’s Yumi Imai and Valley Regional’s Madison Nevaiser (left) pursue the ball during Tuesday’s Shoreline Conference girls lacrosse match in Deep River. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

By Danny Atkinson

DEEP RIVER – To be an elite team, you have to be able to take control of a match on a dime. Valley Regional’s girls lacrosse team started Thursday’s game out slow against Haddam-Killingworth and in it appeared the undefeated Warriors could be in for a huge fight. And then, everything changed.

With the match tied at 5 and six minutes remaining in the first period, Valley scored four goals in just over five minutes to take a 9-5 lead into halftime. The Warriors eventually scored 11 consecutive goals to turn the match into a blowout, ultimately beating the Cougars 19-6. It was their second win in four days against H-K.

Valley is now 10-0 and leads in both the Shoreline Conference standings and the CIAC Class S rankings. It is one of two remaining undefeated teams in the state. This is the sixth time the offense has scored at least 19 points.

H-K (5-5) has now lost three consecutive matches after a four-game win streak.

“In the first 20 minutes of the game, we struggled with ball control and getting out in transition,” Valley coach Randy Nesch said. “They are a really good defensive team. We just cleaned up our passing and ball control after that point and made better shot choices.”

Georgia Cancroft tied the game at 5 for H-K with 5:47 remaining in the first, with Ava Romino earning the assist. Rowan Pilon immediately scored on the next play to give the Warriors the lead for good.

Salmi Miller beat goalie Riana Phipps at the 4:13 mark, with Emi Bisson earning the assist. Leah Frantz quickly scored in front of the goal to give Valley a 3-goal lead and added a second goal with just 35 seconds remaining to make it 9-5 entering halftime.

After a few scoreless minutes to open the half, the Warriors scored five goals in less than four minutes to kill any chance of an H-K comeback. Olivia Cunningham kicked it off by beating Phipps low 6:39 in and freshman Lilly Lavigne scored a fastbreak goal 1:40 later to put Valley up six. Lavigne kept it up, making a great pass in traffic to Bison for a goal 29 seconds later to make it 12-5. The duo each again scored to make it a 9-goal advantage.

The Warriors moved the ball much more efficiently on offense in the final 30 minutes of the game as they communicated well and made accurate passes. They largely avoided turnovers, continuously won face-offs, and began winning a majority of ground balls as the game wore on (the Cougars still finished with 16 to the Warriors’ 12). Valley’s offensive efficiency was demonstrated by its 12 assists.

Nesch singled out Lavigne for her play on offense, saying she helped the transition offense be more efficient. Senior captain Grace Haskins went into more detail about the team’s offensive play in the second half.

“Our communication and ball movement were so much better in the second half,” she said. “A few attackers were being face guarded, so we just tried to run picks and cut faster to make sure people got open.”

H-K head coach Sheila Reilly reflected on why her defense struggled as the game went on.

“We were face-guarding Emi Bison (who finished with 6 points) and so they piled players up with her to successfully prevent us from getting that edge,” Reilly said. “The draws kept going to the area of the pile and we weren’t able to get possessions. It didn’t help that one of our midfielders got injured.”

In the opening minutes of the game the Cougars looked strong. They were winning ground balls and regularly had good scoring opportunities, converting on five shots. Grace Cassidy scored their first goal and Romano gave H-K its only lead of the game seven minutes in when she beat Maizy Libby low. Cancroft tied the score at 3, with Sammy Ruimerman earning the assist. After falling behind 5-3, Yumi Imai and Cancroft scored to tie it back up.

In the final minutes of the first the Valley defense got on track and dominated in the final 25 minutes. The Warriors used their size and strength to make it difficult for H-K to move the ball and continue getting quality shots. They regularly forced turnovers and did an especially good job of crowding the Cougars near the goal.

“Once we figured out the body size and speed of their players, we were able to body them and prevent players from attacking our defense. It’s just a matter of finding our matchups correctly,” Nesch said. He praised the defense of freshman Grace Lunz and Cunningham.

Reilly was pleased overall by the performance of the H-K offense but said players need to do a better job of converting on shots and finding open cutters.

Miller, Pilon, Frantz and midfielder Madison Nevaiser each scored in the final 8:50 for Valley. Cancroft scored the Cougars only goal of the half, with Imai assisting.

Frantz and Pilon each scored 4 goals to lead Valley, while Miller and Lavigne each had 3 and Bison scored twice. Bison had 4 assists to lead the team and Lavigne and Miller each earned 3. Cancroft scored 3 goals for H-K and Romino 2. Phipps made 8 saves and Libby 6.

It has already been a dream season for Valley, which went 4-10 last season and has not qualified for the state tournament since 2017. As excited as Nesch and Haskins are about the season so far, they also understand how important it is for the team to improve.

“I think the key is to just keep working for one another as a team, be consistent and keep making smart choices. That should keep the momentum going,” Nesch said.

“We can’t take teams for granted. We have to play every game like it’s a playoff game and not get too cocky,” Haskins said.

Meanwhile, Reilly and the Cougars will continue to follow the same plan for games as they attempt to turn things around in the next few weeks.

“We will just focus on one game at a time and having players do the best they can,” she said. “We’ll continue to reflect on and discuss each game afterwards and figure out what we did well and how we can improve for the next game.”

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