Girls lacrosse: St. Joseph defeats unbeaten Longwood (N.Y) in last test

The relevance of a pre-season scrimmage can be measured over the course of the entire contest, or it can be narrowed down to just a few seconds. 

That was the case for St. Joseph on Saturday afternoon as the Cadets, on Annie McNeil's penalty-shot goal with 14.3 seconds remaining, overtook and defeated Longwood (N.Y.). 

 "It was perfect for us," said St. Joe's coach Lee Gray, now entering his fourth season. "You always want your players to be put under some stress. We faced it today. You want to see how well your players are going to handle themselves in a pressure situation. You really can't get one better than that." 

McNeil, a senior attacker was fouled in close. She steadied herself and then fired a clean shot into the lower right-hand side of the net. 

"It's all about the anticipation," McNeil said of her free-position shot. "You try and focus on the goalie and basically out-think her. But you must wait for the referees' whistle. If you jump it, you could cost yourself a goal." 

McNeil scored five in the game, as the Cadets finished their final tune-up of the preseason before the team engages in its regular season on Tuesday with Fairfield Ludlowe. 

Senior goalie Erin Owens made 14 saves, including several late as Longwood came back from an 8-3 deficit. 

"I found myself getting slow," said Owens, who has already committed to Central Michigan University and will become the first Cadets' girls lacrosse player in seven years to play for the Division I school. "I missed a couple of shots that I should've stopped. We had to wake up. The game turned from being in our favor to 9-9. I needed to play harder so that we could get back in the game." 

Longwood head coach Randell Grossman was pleased with his teams' play. The comeback, gained on accurate passing and well-formed execution in the opponents' end, was something that he was hoping for. 

"We have several teams from Long Island, teams we need to beat during the regular season, that play the same style as St. Joe's does," Grossman said. "In this type of scrimmage, however, you're always faced with unknown factors. We had no idea how they would play us defensively. It turned out to be a good test for our offense. We tried to run what we run best and see how they would react. We made some big adjustments for the second half, and they worked." 

Longwood plays a Division I schedule on Long Island, which has always been one of the premier areas in the country, both for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. The team had already started its regular season, having won its first four games. 

Meanwhile, the Cadets will get theirs started on Tuesday. 

"We've got good chemistry, even though we had eleven girls graduate," said Jettke Gray, a senior and the coach's daughter. "We're starting to jell and our goal right from the start is to make states (the Cadets were moved up to Class M last year) and, hopefully, win it all. I know it's a big target to shoot for." 

Playing in the FCIAC, where every other girls’ lacrosse team is in the L division, is a big plus, according to Lee Gray. 

"We'll get beat up some during the regular season by schools like Darien, New Canaan and Ridgefield," he said. "What it does is get us well prepared, both mentally and physically, for the state tournament." 

The Cadets were knocked out in the first round of states last year by Daniel Hand, 19-9. The Tigers, who were the No. 1 seed (while St. Joe's was No. 16) went all the way to the final before losing to SCC rival Branford 11-8. 

The prior two seasons, St. Joe's reached the Class S semifinals. 

"When I came here four years ago, the program was down," Lee Gray said. "They had won three games the year before. Our goal since the start has been to reach a state final." 

The success of the team will hinge on how well they play from the back to the front. 

Gray and junior Ana Nogueira (a backer) will anchor the defense. 

"Ana protects Erin (Owens) and Erin will be called upon to make the saves," Lee Gray said. "We like to refer to them as our ‘Commanders-In-Chief of our defense’. Erin is an active goalie. She likes to move out of the crease area, and she has the ability to intercept passes." 

A little farther out front, coach Gray has senior Avery Malone positioned with fellow senior Tathianna Cortes, a defender as well on the soccer team. 

"She's aggressive," coach Gray said about Cortes. "She's like most soccer defenders. It's her territory and, if you come into it, she's going to play you hard." 

The loss of five attackers from the 2018 squad may have put a dent in the offense. 

Still, Gray is still confident in the five attackers that he's putting on the field. 

McNeil, tall and athletic, leads the group. There's also junior Lily Ivanovich (already committed to Monmouth University in New Jersey) along with Kylie Lucifora (junior), Bela Yoguez (junior) and Gray, who also handles all the face-offs. 

"Strength and balance are important in winning face-off," said Jettke Gray, who will head off to Ithaca College when the school year ends. "That's why I spend lots of time in the weight room." 

She also spends a fair number of hours with dad as well. 

"I can't remember when our last conversation was about anything but lacrosse," she said. 

In addition to their 10-game FCIAC schedule, the Cadets have games set against Rocky Hill, Bacon Academy, Amity Regional, Sacred Heart Academy and Kennedy Catholic of Somers, N.Y.