Chelmsford’s banner year
Opening day rally set stage for championship season
Maybe it’s an overstatement to say that a historic season for the Chelmsford boys lacrosse team was unlocked by a single quarter. But there is definitely some truth to it.
AT LACROSSE ROADS
On opening night, the Lions trailed at Billerica by an 11-6 count through three quarters and appeared on their way to a disappointing start to the year. Instead, they roared back for a 13-12 overtime triumph, following that up with a 9-1 victory the next night to complete a sweep of the Indians.
“If we had lost to Billerica by seven or eight, especially given how young our team was, who knows what happens from there,” said Chelmsford senior captain Joe Conley. “It was really important we came back in that game to show the whole team the talent we have and that we belong in those games.”
A little more than a month later, Chelmsford has yet to lose and recently wrapped up the Merrimack Valley League championship, its first in 16 years.
“The coaching staff, once we won that game, we all looked at each other, we couldn’t believe the comeback as it happened,” said Chelmsford coach Sean Wright. “A lot of things had to go right, and they kind of took that momentum into the next game and we have really been riding that momentum and working on getting better through success every game since.”
If that success is a surprise, it stems from the fact that just a handful of players had any sort of varsity experience entering the season, even with nine seniors on the squad. With last year lost to COVID, it became more important than ever for the few veterans to quickly morph into leaders, a process that began early.
“In terms of getting guys up to speed, we knew it was going to take some time,” said Conley. “We started during spring break, bringing those younger guys out on the field, throwing the ball around, getting to know each other, developing that chemistry, and it kind of took off from there.”
The Lions are built around their defense, which allowed four goals or less in 10 straight contests after the opener. Merrimack-bound Conley is the anchor in the back along with fellow senior long pole Joey Loeber. Senior Pete Mitchell, the class president who is off to the Naval Academy, is also a key component.
Goalie Pat Cassidy, a firstyear starter as a senior, has been outstanding, settling in after the trial by fire in the first Billerica win, allowing three goals per game and stopping shots at a nearly 70% clip.
“Our defense gives us a lot of breathing room as an offense because we know we can count on them,” said Wright. “If we are daring another team to put up eight on them, we’ll take that any day.”
The offense has certainly done it’s part. Bentley signee Drew Gagnon has been a revelation, evolving from strictly a faceoff specialist as a sophomore to the catalyst in the midfield as a senior with 23 goals and seven assists through the first 11 games.
Junior attack Will Walsh leads the squad with 30 goals in that span, while senior Matt Miner is a dangerous presence up front as well.
The MVC clincher came against North Andover, a program that Chelmsford had never beaten since the Scarlet Knights made the jump to the MVC from the Cape Ann League a decade ago and that knocked the Lions out of the last Div. 1 North tournament in an OT heartbreaker.
“It’s been awesome. Since we were really young, U11, U13, we kind of knew we had a special group,” said Conley. “We are really the first class at Chelmsford where everyone got involved in club and started playing summer ball, fall ball. We have been working at it for a long time and had an expectation of maybe winning something so it’s been fulfilling to see that hard work pay off and see that ‘2021’ go up on the banner.”
Wright, in his sixth year as head coach, isn’t from Chelmsford — the Maryland native starred at Providence — but has a strong sense of the team’s history. He teaches at McCarthy Middle School with Tom Gallagher, who started the program in 1999 and turned over the keys to Wright, and has coaches on his staff that played on the squads that won back-to-back MVC titles in 2004 and 2005.
“Getting to know those guys and getting to know the history of the program, I appreciate it more every day,” said Wright. “It’s a more recent program, but at the same time Chelmsford is a very proud town. I’ve heard so much about those great 2004-05 teams that we are in great company. A lot of these are big monkeys to get off our back. I’m really proud of them and it’s very important to the town, you’ve seen it with the way people have rallied around them.”
Pride of Lions
While it’s been a breakthrough season for the Chelmsford boys team, there has been championship-level lacrosse being played in town for several years. The girls squad has won the last two Div. 1 North crowns in 2018 and 2019 and matched the boys’ unbeaten run through the MVC this spring.
Coach Ashley Rokas knew she had a strong senior class of seven to rely on based on their performances as sophomores, led by the dominant midfield duo of Kate Krueger
(Iona) and Sofia D’Agostino
(UMass Lowell), who actually missed the bulk of her last campaign with an ACL injury.
Classmates Leah Green and Kat Wood at attack, defender Kat Slattery and goalie Morgan Wright have all also been crucial parts of the puzzle, while a fresh crop of sophomores has given the team a boost.
“We have always had two or three superstars and this year I have a full team of 12 that I can play and a whole bench,” said Rokas. “It’s very team-oriented. It’s not about goals or stats. I have seven or eight kids that have 20 goals, which is unheard of.”
Both Wright and Rokas took over their respective squads the same year in 2016 and each pointed to the importance of Chelmsford Youth Lacrosse in the development of the programs.
“We had success a little sooner but now that they are on the same page as us and everyone is involved in the youth program and we’ve got boys and girls coming to our games, now that they are allowed to — it’s just great to have both teams be successful,” said Rokas.