Optimism and determination was in the air as the Greenwich High School girls lacrosse team hustled through each drill during an intense practice session on a cold, blustery Saturday morning.
The past several seasons have seen the Cardinals embark on pretty deep postseason journeys in the tournaments they competed in, yet tough losses prevented them from reaching their final destination — the championship game of the state and FCIAC tourneys.
With almost 20 players returning from last season’s winning squad, the talent-laden Cardinals are intent on taking their success to a higher level this spring.
And first-year coach Rachel Vallarelli hopes to help Greenwich do so.
“I’m so excited to be at a school like Greenwich,” said Vallarelli, who besides coaching, plays professional lacrosse for the Baltimore Ride of the United Women’s Lacrosse League. “We want to bring the program back to not only state prominence, but national prominence. I feel that Greenwich has always been there, it needs that push over the edge in a good way, to be on top. I’m hoping to fill that role and be the coach that cares about them so much, that they want to reach that next level.”
Greenwich advanced to the FCIAC Tournament semifinals, where it lost to champion Darien last season, then suffered a heartbreaking 7-6 defeat at the hands of visiting Ridgefield in the quarterfinal-round of the Class L Tournament.
The Cardinals last won the state championship in 2012 and reached the tournament’s title game in 2013. Since then, they’ve experienced several tight postseason losses — falling in the Class L quarterfinals three times and the semifinals once.
“I am really excited, I think we have a really strong team this year and we have a strong program as a whole,” said senior attack Grace Fahey, one of the Cardinals’ four captains. “We want to bring Greenwich onto the map as a top contender and I think we can do that this season.”
Paige Finneran, who also captained the Cards’ field hockey and ice hockey squads, is a senior midfielder/captain.
“We have a great group of seniors,” said Finneran, who will be relied upon to help anchor the midfield. “We’re all really close and everyone is going to be a big contributor from our defense to our offense.”
The Cardinals have captains on each line, as senior Olivia Hoekman (captain) and senior goalie (captain) Sloane Loveless will also provide leadership on and off the field.
“It’s a huge honor to be a captain of a team I’ve been on for three years,” Hoekman said. “Being able to be one of the role models for the underclassmen is a huge honor.”
Loveless, who is coming off a standout season in goal, knows she has an experienced defensive group supporting her.
“I am really excited to be a goalie in front of this defense,” Loveless said. “This is the strongest wall in front of me that I’ve ever had. I’m really excited to see what we all can do as a team.”
In one of its tune-ups for the rapidly approaching regular season, Greenwich scrimmaged defending Class L and FCIAC champion Darien on Friday.
“Scrimmaging Darien was a good eye-opener for them to see what we need to work on for the year,” Vallarelli said. “They came in today (Saturday) and were ready to go and it was great.”
Greenwich opens its season with a home game against Staples on April 2 at 4:30 p.m.
AT THE HELM: A Hartsdale, N.Y., native, Vallarelli replaces Kaitlin Gaghan, who resigned after coaching the Cardinals for one season. Gaghan, who guided Greenwich to a record of 16-4 and appearances in the FCIAC and Class L tournament semifinals, accepted a head coaching job at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. She was the recipient of the 2018 FCIAC Girls Lacrosse Coach of the Year.
A 2011 graduate of School of the Holy Child in Rye, N.Y., Vallarelli starred in goal for the Gryphons’ lacrosse squad. She continued her lacrosse career at the University of Massachusetts, where she was the starting goalie for three impressive seasons.
Her career goals-against-average is eighth in NCAA history and she was the NCAA save-percentage champion in 2015 (.523). Vallarelli served as an assistant coach at Fresno State, Villanova and Wagner. Megan Wax returns as a varsity assistant, while Andrew Morton joins the staff as a volunteer assistant coach.
WHO’S GONE?: Genevieve DeWinter, an All-American, All-State, All-FCIAC team selection, graduated and is playing lacrosse at Cornell University. Maggie O’Gorman (All-State, All-FCIAC team selection) is on the lacrosse team at Dartmouth College. Sailor Jiranek, Jordan Stefanowicz and Jennie Piotrzkowski and Harley Guerrieri were among some of the other graduates.
ATTACK: Fahey, senior Jennifer Kelly, junior Leah Caputo, Kate Loughran (junior), Delaney Roth (sophomore), Dani Cerza (junior) and Gabi Cerza (junior) bring a lot of stick and shooting skills to the attack position.
“As well last year, a lot of our play was individually based — a lot of 1-vs.-1, this year, our team has a lot of chemistry together and we are working the two-man, three-man, four-man game around the 8, which is great,” Fahey said.
MIDFIELDERS: Finneran, senior Katie Large, Kate Ochoa, Sasha Trieb (junior) and Katherine Feurman(junior) give the Cards a formidable group of midfielders.
“We are working well as one cohesive unit,” Finneran said. “Working hard at staying as one, not individuals is what we’re focusing on.”
Junior Jessica Ware, sophomore Madison Slattery, senior Cameron Castelli, Carly Andruss and Emma Norton are solid defensive midfielders.
DEFENSE: This line should be one of Greenwich’s main strengths, with seniors Olivia Caan and Hoekman leading the way.
Seniors Courtney Swift and Zoe Metalios and juniors Alyx Carifa and Megan Keller bring depth to the backline.
“We’ve implemented a great new defense and some new plays,” Hoekman said. “If we execute what we’ve learned we’ll be great.”
GOALIES: Loveless likes the challenge her position features.
“I like having my team’s back,” she said. “I am there for them and they are there for me. I enjoy being the last line of defense.”
Sophomores Kaileigh Jackson and Haley Hires are also goalies.
LAST SEASON’S ACCOLADES: Caan was an All-American, All-State, All-FCIAC team selection, while Finneran earned All-State and All-FCIAC honors and Fahey earned All-State, All-FCIAC and Academic All-American honors.
QUOTABLE: “The FCIAC is a top-level conference and I’m excited about coaching in it,” Vallarelli said. “It’s not a conference to be taken lightly.”
DID YOU KNOW?: Caan will continue her lacrosse career at Johns Hopkins University. … Finneran is headed to Vanderbilt to play. … Fahey will bring her skills to Davidson and Loveless will be a goalie at Cornell.