When first-year coach Melissa LaDez took over the Independence girls lacrosse team this season she had two goals – to be optimistic yet realistic and to have her team take more chances on the field.
The Patriots began their lacrosse program two seasons ago and, for that reason, expectedly struggled out of the gate with confidence and on-field results. With an inexperienced roster made mostly of players who had never played lacrosse before trying out, the team worked more on the fundamentals of the sport than the X’s and O’s their first year, leading to just one win.
Last year they were better. The Patriots started 2-0, but went 3-11 overall after dropping their last seven games, several in one-goal fashion.
When LaDez, a former defender at Long Island University, arrived she sensed the Patriots had potential, but wanted to make sure she kept the expectations reasonable while bringing some players out of their shell and raising their confidence level in the process
“I’m nothing if not realistic with them,” she said. “I told them going in my expectations were to win more games than we did last year and that was it. Our theme this season has been to take risks and look for and use different people. I told them you may think you can’t make that play, that pass or take that shot, but if we take risks you may be able to. That’s led to them becoming more confident, and you never know what you can do until you try.”
The results of LaDez’s simple instructions have paid off in a big way. Independence is 8-9 on the season and for the first time is playing in the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs as they’ll take on Cuthbertson in the first round on Wednesday, May 7, a monumental feat for a third-year team.
“We’re really proud,” said junior midfielder Natalie Barnett. “Coming from freshman year when I went to open house and knew they didn’t even have a team to now is exciting. I think we won two games my freshman year to a 8-9 record this season, I’m proud that we came together and worked so hard together.”
It wasn’t always easy, though. Independence began the season with consecutive wins over Providence and South Meck and were riding high.
“We started out with that win against Providence and that was huge, it fired us all up,” Barnett said.
But then came a tough stretch of four consecutive losses when the Patriots were outscored 65-28, dropping each game by at least eight goals. But with LaDez’s help, the team regrouped, rallying around each other, and the wins started piling up again as a result.
“We hit that tough stretch and those two weeks were really hard,” Barnett said. “We took one whole practice and kind of worked it out and after those two weeks we started winning again.”
That bad stretch turned out to be the turning point, making a startup program a contender in one of the toughest lacrosse conferences with usual powers Charlotte Catholic, Myers Park and Ardrey Kell occupying the top spots.
“I think we kept it pretty realistic for those couple of games,” LaDez added. “We had a really tough stretch, and we focused more on the individual and team goals than we did about the scoreboard and I think that helped us. It’s tough playing the Charlotte Catholic’s and Myers Park’s, but we kept our expectations where they needed to be and that helped.”
Whatever it was something clicked for the team. The Patriots went 7-4 down the stretch including two one-goal losses, and gained confidence with each victory.
“We’re growing as a team and every year at the start of practice we have to go over the basic fundamentals of the game,” said junior midfielder Kelsey Gonzalez. “I didn’t play at all until my freshman year and that was a big jump to even be out here and learn the game and I think that was a lot of us. We get new girls every year and they have to go through it, too.
“I think we’ve been pretty successful for having to do that every year – especially when you put us up against these really experienced teams with solid foundations.”
Even with their new-found swagger, the Patriots have struggled some against the traditional powers and as they left the field following a 15-1 loss to Charlotte Catholic on April 30, LeDez figured that was the end of the Patriots’ successful season.
She gathered the girls in the locker room, told them how proud she was of their year and said she’d see them soon after the state-mandated dead period had ended to start working toward next year.
But working toward next year came sooner than anyone expected, as LaDez soon got word the Patriots would be in the playoffs. She called the team back to practice the next day, and they got back after it, unaware who they’d be preparing to play but happy their season was able to continue.
“This has been great. We doubled our win total so far and we’re still going,” she said. “So, it’s been a huge success. The school is backing us up, Coach (Kelly) Lewis, the AD, got on the phone with me and said it was incredible and how proud he was of us, and said the school has our back 100 percent. It’s been really great for them – the more you win and improve and draw that crowd is huge for them and their confidence.”
And if nothing else, the Patriots are certainly a confident bunch.
“Our freshman year people didn’t really know what lacrosse was and would tell us how they hear that we’re losing all the time,” said junior attacker Hallie West. “Now we have people come up and tell us they heard we made it to states and are winning a lot more.
“I don’t think anyone would be disappointed if we lost (the playoff game) because we’ve come way further than we expected and done so well this year. It’s been really fun and rewarding.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Patriots’ success has been the core of the junior class that’s come up together as freshmen, but flourished this year, earning all-conference honors and helping turn the fortunes of the Program.
West leads the team with 36 goals but Gonzalez, who has added 30 goals, and Barnett, who has 28 goals this season, have all provided the offensive firepower needed to make this season a success.
With the three-headed offensive attack leading the way, the Patriots have a number of scoring options and are developing more. Together they’re teaming with players like Savannah Plondke, Jenny Belk, Kelsi Harris and Peyton Lindsay to help the offense run smoother and watching as goalkeeper Cecia Ventura spearheads the ever-improving defense.
So, while their first playoff appearance is a huge milestone for the up-and-coming program, this is just the beginning.
“We’re close as a team and we’re basically the same people who have been playing together each year,” Gonzalez said. “There are some new people who have joined us but we’re the core that’s come up together, so this is special to us, especially the
“We’re going to see what happens this year and go as far as we can, but next year we’ll know more of what to expect and make it even further. With it being our senior year, we’ll have 14 juniors who will all be seniors next year and hopefully we can use the experience of the playoffs to use throughout the whole season next year and do even better. This is great, but I think it’s just the beginning.”