The fastest game on two feet is a hit with the Highlanders

| 10 May 2012 | 01:32

WEST MILFORD — In only its second year as a high school program, the girls lacrosse team is gaining fans, players and success.

Coached by Michelle Lugerner, the girls lacrosse team plays at the junior varsity level. And while Lugerner never played the game before she started coaching a few years ago at Pope John High School, the sport has certainly grown on her.

“I love the game,” said Lugerner, who played field hockey when she was a student at Kittatinny High School. “I see a lot of field hockey in it. It’s very similar.”

It’s fast moving and intense, two traits that make it appealing to the athletes who play it.

Nicolette Rich is a senior who plays midfield, probably the most grueling position on the field because of all the running involved. Nicolette picked up the game just last year as a junior, the first year of the jv program - and hasn’t looked back since.

“It was easy to pick up,” she said. “I play field hockey and it’s basically the same.”

Nicolette, who her coach calls “a complete natural,” had 38 goals before Wednesday’s win against Westwood. She’s the team’s leading scorer this year, as she was last year as well.

There are just two things Nicolette regrets about lacrosse: that it isn’t a varsity sport yet and that she didn’t pick up a stick sooner.

“I definitely wish I had started earlier,” said Nicolette. “I quit softball to pick up lacrosse. It’s so fast paced. You do a lot of running. And we're doing really good this year.”

They certainly are. After going 3-6 last year in their inaugural season, the girls are now 8-3-1 after their win on Wednesday. It’s quite a turnaround, and that, according to the coach, is because these girls are gelling together.

“We are a close-knit group,” said Lugerner.

The girls have played against some very established programs and also some fledgling ones like their own. It’s a good mix, said Lugerner.

Caitlin Hanratty is a senior who also picked up the game last year when the sport was introduced on the high school level. On the first day of practice, Caitlin jumped right in and volunteered to be the team’s goalie. A brave move indeed.

“I knew I wasn’t afraid of the ball,” said Caitlin, “so I jumped into goal.”

Caitlin’s never played goalie in any sport before this. She did play basketball her freshman and sophomore year and lacrosse, she said, isn’t that much different, at least from the goalie’s standpoint.

“It’s similar to playing defense in basketball,” she said. And her 5 foot 9 inch frame certainly helps when reaching for shots.

“This is a game of thinking,” Caitlin added. “You have to be smart to play lacrosse. And that can help with everything you do in life.”

Caitlin hit some milestones this year, posting her first shut out - not common in lacrosse - as well as having 18 saves in one game, her personal best.

The future looks bright West Milford currently has several girls’ youth lacrosse teams, including for girls in third and fourth grades, fifth and sixth grades and seventh and eighth graders. “I am very thankful for the development of the township program because from here on out, the freshman girls will be coming up with knowledge of the game of lacrosse and more advanced skills,” said Lugerner.

That’s a far cry from where Lugerner was last year when she basically started the program from scratch.

“Since last year was the first year of the program, the majority of the girls never even picked up a stick until the first day of practice. This was a huge challenge, but I was up for it,” said Lugerner. “None of the girls had even watched a girls lacrosse game before. I had to teach them the basics from start to finish.”

Brushing up on the sport Which is what she had to do for herself just a few years earlier when a colleague asked her to help coach the Pope John High School team. She knew nothing at all about the game and that posed a huge challenge for her.

“This was probably the bigest challenge I’ve ever taken, probably even harder than completing my masters,” she said.

She studied; she watched hundreds of games, attended college games, went to clinics and read books on the sport.

“I wanted to develop a program with structure, support and skills that the girls could use for a lifetime.”

Lugerner is a seventh grade science teacher at Macopin Middle School where she seldom misses the opportunity to extol the virtues of the sport on her students.

“I promote lacrosse as much as possible at Macopin,” she said. She’s conducted intramural lacrosse at Macopin for students to give it a try and learn basic skills. And she will do it again next winter.

“Basically in my eyes, lacrosse is a mix between hockey and basketball,” said Lugerner. “There are pics, screens, offensive sets, offsides, a face-off and a crease. Lacrosse is the fastest game on two feet.”

And that’s just the way they like it.