High scoring North Hills girls lacrosse chasing postseason goals
When Jim Cassandro took over the North Hills varsity girls lacrosse program, he knew next to nothing about the sport. A football coach, the only reason he took the job was because his daughter, a rising freshman, asked him to since the team would have been without a coach otherwise.
That was in 2013, and while his daughter no longer attends North Hills, four seasons later Cassandro's familiarity and comfort with girls lacrosse has continued to grow. His daughter's former classmates have also grown. And those current seniors, like captain Jamie Halloran, have propelled the Indians to a fast start in Division II so far.
“Everyone contributes something different that makes us great,” Halloran said.
This balance is clearest when North Hills (5-1, 2-1 Section 3) has the ball. The Indians lead the WPIAL in scoring offense, averaging 15.67 goals. Halloran said three or four girls share that main finishing responsibility. Also aiding the team's ascent has been an improvement in the defensive third. The team ranks ninth in scoring defense, allowing 5.83 goals a contest, after giving up 12.6 per game in 2015, which ranked 29th in the WPIAL out of all 41 schools.
The high school careers of Halloran and the other seniors didn't start out with success. Though North Hills finished as WPIAL Division II champion in 2011-12, the program has missed the playoffs the past two seasons and lost in a play-in game before that. Five players graduated from last year's team that finished 9-6.
During Cassandro's first season, there were 19 freshmen, and seven from that initial class remain. They began playing together as eighth-graders. According to Alayna Fuchs, a senior center, the chemistry that's evident now took time to develop.
When we began I didn't really (know what other people were capable of),” Fuchs said. “I was like ‘Eh, maybe she'll catch the ball, but I don't know if I should trust them or I should do it myself.' ”
Halloran has started in every game since joining the team her first year of high school, but the rest of her peers only joined her a season ago. One of those players, attack Taylor Kelly, tore her ACL at the end of February and is out for the season. But the rest of them all start — two on defense, two at midfield and two at attack.
”We know how one another plays personnel-wise and how we react to different things just because we've played together for so long,” Halloran said.
Whether or not North Hills can maintain its level of play for the next month and reach its goal of ending the postseason absence is impossible to know at this point — the top two teams from each section qualify for the Division II playoffs — but as the season progresses current team members will certainly have frequent reminders of what is attainable. Two members from those recent championship teams now serve as assistant coaches.
“They talk about it a lot. They bring it up quite often,” Halloran said of the WPIAL titles. “I don't want to say we're competing with them, but it does put a little bit of pressure on us, I guess.”
Jasper Wilson is a freelance writer.