By Mac Cerullo
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The phrase “defense wins championships” has become something of a cliche in sports over the years, but for the Newburyport girls lacrosse team, a strong defensive performance against Bromfield could literally spell the difference between a state championship and an unhappy ending.
Led by the explosive tandem of sophomore Sophia Turchetta and senior Jackie Planchett, the Trojans’ offense has rolled over just about every team it’s faced this season, and this weekend the Newburyport defense has the monumental task of trying to shut it down.
Despite the challenge, the Clippers’ defenders feel they’re up for the task. After all, as much as the team’s offensive production has grabbed the headlines this season, the defense’s ability to shut down opposing attackers has had just as much to do with the team’s success, if not more.
“We know what we have to do,” said senior defender Mary Pettigrew. “We’ve been working on the same things all season, and there’s nothing that we have to change. As long as we stick to what we know, then we’ll be fine.”
Since overcoming a rough start to the season, the Newburyport defense has locked down just about every team it’s faced. The Clippers have held their opponents to nine goals or fewer in 12 of 19 games this season, including all but three of the team’s games during their ongoing 13-game winning streak.
Newburyport coach Catherine Batchelder said the key for the defense has been trust, saying that the players know they can count on their teammates to back them up, which allows them to focus more on their own specific job.
“They work really well together, they trust each other. When something is going wrong, they talk to each other and fix it,” Batchelder said. “They’ve come together really well as a unit and the biggest thing about defense is trust, and these guys all trust each other. It makes them a good defense because they can take chances.”
The fostering of that trust has been one of the more remarkable developments for a defensive unit that mixes seniors who have been playing together for years with underclassmen who have barely any varsity experience at all. Among the players who compose the unit are seniors Pettigrew, Shannon Tinkham, Ali Peffer and Lilly Donovan, sophomores Olivia Kearney and Courtney Ryan, and freshman Elizabeth Fortier.
But the trust factor has been especially important for freshman goalkeeper Izzy Sarra, who came into the season expecting to be a field player before Batchelder decided to put her in the cage. Since making the switch, Sarra has performed at an All-Star caliber for the Clippers, and she credited her teammates for allowing that to happen.
“Honestly, I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me,” Sarra said. “Being a newcoming goalie, it’s really been an easy transition considering everything, and they couldn’t possibly be better about it. Mary, Lilly, Shannon, they save me on a daily basis every single game, and it’s really nice to have them there to support me and have someone to fall back on, especially when the nerves set in.”
Sarra led the Cape Ann League in goals against average this season (7.73), and since the state tournament began she has been the backbone of the Clippers’ defense. During Newburyport’s comeback wins over Manchester Essex, Marblehead and Norwell, Sarra made a handful of big saves that either preserved the lead or prevented the other team from getting any further ahead.
Batchelder said her performance against Marblehead in the sectional finals particularly stood out.
“She was having a really tough game, I think she only had one save in the first half, but then she came up with three huge saves at the end and was the reason we won the game,” Batchelder said. “For a goalie, it’s always about staying positive and looking for the next shot and not worrying about what just happened.”
As far as the other underclassmen go, Batchelder highlighted the improvement of Ryan and Fortier as a key development for the team.
“Courtney started the year on JV, and with injuries and such we pulled her up. Now she’s starting and she’s a huge part of the defense, and she’s had to learn a lot,” Batchelder said. “Liz is a freshman, she’s had to learn a ton this year going from youth lacrosse to a varsity level lacrosse.”
Ultimately, Batchelder said that no one player has served as the anchor that holds the whole unit together, and that’s why they’ve been so successful. Newburyport’s defense has confounded opposing defenses all season by becoming greater than the sum of its parts. And even faced with its toughest test on the biggest stage, the Clippers know they can count on each other to get the job done.
“It’s been a really long season, so we spend literally every day together,” Donovan said. “So we kind of have to get along, and with that comes the trust.”
Division II State Championship
Newburyport vs. Bromfield
Tomorrow, 10:30 a.m., Nickerson Field