As anyone who has ever done it will tell you, winning a championship in a team sport is an incredibly difficult feat. It requires peak physical and mental conditioning, great coaching, and a dash of good fortune to capture the top prize. Performing at such high levels and winning championships back-to-back is exponentially harder still. And, winning three in a row…well, that’s almost unheard of in the modern sports era at any level.
That’s why, when the Los Alamitos High School Girls Varsity Lacrosse team won their third consecutive Southern Section Division 1 Championship on May 14 by beating Redondo Union, it truly was a special accomplishment for everyone involved.
This year’s team started the season with high expectations from the first day of practice after going 40-0 the past two seasons. It also faced several off-season changes, creating a whole host of questions begging for answers.
The biggest change took place when Coach Meredith Meyran resigned and moved to Connecticut last August. Coach Meyran started the girls program at Los Al in 2007, and under her leadership, the team went undefeated and won back to back Orange County and Southern Section titles in 2009 and 2010.
Last year’s team also graduated 10 seniors, including seven All-League players, five All-County players, two All-Americans and the Orange County Player of the Year. The departures included some of Orange County’s top offensive and defensive players and an award-winning goalie.
With a new coach and only eight returning varsity players, this year’s team faced the toughest schedule in California and one of the toughest in the country. Top ranked opponents included Coronado (a top ranked San Diego team), Denver East (last year’s Colorado champion), Torrey Pines (ranked first in California for much of the season), and Monte Vista (ranked first in California in the pre-season).
In addition to games against those regional powerhouses, the Griffins also had to face tough Orange County opponents in Foothill and Beckman who were ranked first and second in pre-season polls for Orange County.
In short, no one was sure how this season would turn out.
New head coach Liz Connelly took the reins just before the season started and had a quick learning curve before making decisions on the roster for the varsity team. Fortunately, she had a couple of things working in her favor. The last two Los Al varsity teams were so strong that the JV ranks held players who could play varsity at almost any other school in Orange County.
Due to the explosive growth of girls lacrosse in Orange County over the past few years, incoming freshmen were much more competitive from their first day in the high school program. Many of them arrived at Los Al with three or more years of competitive lacrosse experience behind them, making them candidates to play varsity as well.
Because they were still learning how to play together, the team struggled in their first pre-season tournament, reinforcing the suspicion that it might take a season or two to rebuild a championship caliber team. But those concerns soon disappeared. As Coach Connelly settled in and started evaluating players, she built a new nucleus of talent that formed the core of a new championship team in the making.
Returning varsity players Allie Conrad, Torrey Bailey and Julie Crowell became the first line on attack. Melissa Hastie in the mid-field and Sophia Aragon and Keaton Otake on defense proved up to the task. Added into the mix were top underclassmen Lauren Actkinson in mid-field and Katrina Moretta on defense. Rounding out the core were three talented freshmen--Caitlin Derry and Haley Fessenden in mid-field and Grace Schmidt-Beck on attack.
As senior captains, Conrad and Hastie provided leadership to Coach Connelly, accelerating the growth of the team in both skills and strategy. The team’s season opener against Mission Viejo in February was a little rocky, but the team quickly got over their early season jitters and won their next five regular season games as well, extending Los Al’s undefeated streak to 46-0.
As all streaks do, this one came to an end. It happened in the Orange County Invitational tournament with a 13-11 loss to Coronado. The Griffins recovered quickly and thrashed Monte Vista by a score of 19-11. While Beckman ultimately won the tournament, Los Al came away knowing they had a competitive team, but wondering how far they might go.
The girls strived to maintain momentum, but two games later they dropped a 12-10 heartbreaker to Foothill. But that loss was followed by Los Al dominating a strong opponent as the Griffins defeated Beckman 24-15 in a game that surprised both teams and proved again that Los Al was a quality team.
The season moved forward with a close win over Denver East and a tough loss against Torrey Pines. However, that loss on April 11 would be their last loss for the remainder of the season. As the team continued to grow, they began to morph from a good team, to a great team, to an unstoppable team. In the final four game home stretch leading to playoffs Los Al outscored opponents 70-30.
Los Al entered the CIF playoffs as the number two seed. They cruised to a 19-7 victory over Tesoro in the opening round, setting up a big match against Beckman. The semi-final against Beckman was a high energy, hard-fought battle between two strong teams with a lot of respect for each other. Los Al prevailed 19-13, but had to fight every minute of the game.
The Orange County Championship pitted Los Al against a Santa Margarita team the Griffins had beaten 20-7 a month earlier. Santa Margarita, coming off an upset victory over Foothill, was not the same team that endured that earlier drubbing by Los Al. Santa Margarita dominated the draws, pressured Los Al’s attack and relentlessly took the ball to goal. By the half, a somewhat out-of-sync Los Al had built a 7-4 lead and thought they might pull away. But Santa Margarita had other plans. They outscored Los Al 7-3 in the first 12 minutes of the second half taking an 11-10 lead with just over 12 minutes to go.
Los Al then took control of the game. Julie Crowell scored three unanswered goals in two minutes with two assists from Melissa Hastie and one from Torrey Bailey. Melissa Hastie and Allie Conrad tallied one more goal each and Los Al pushed ahead 15-11 with less than six minutes to play. Santa Margarita came back, ferociously closing the gap to 15-13. But superlative goalkeeping by Emily Alpaugh shut the door on Santa Margarita, giving the Griffins their third consecutive Orange County Championship.
Unlike the Orange County final, Los Al coasted to a 19-5 defeat of Redondo Union a week later, winning their third straight US Lacrosse Southern Section Division 1 Championship. In doing so, they put to rest any questions about this year’s team and its new coach.
The team not only won the championship, they did it while racking up some impressive records and individual accomplishments as well. Allie Conrad set the record for most goals in a game with 10 (against Beckman) and tied a record with 82 goals throughout the season. Melissa Hastie set the record for season and career draws with 78 and 110. In goal, Emily Alpaugh matched the record with 117 saves.
Senior Captain Melissa Hastie earned team MVP and 1st team All-League honors. Senior Captain Allie Conrad earned team Offensive Player of the Year and 1st team All-League honors. Junior Sophia Aragon earned team Defensive Player of the Year and was named 1st team All-League.
Sophomore Julie Crowell was the team’s point leader (72 goals/54 assists/126 total points) and was named 1st team All-League. Junior Lauren Actkinson earned the team’s Unsung Hero award and received All-League honorable mention. Senior Torrey Bailey and sophomores Keaton Otake and Katrina Moretta were also named to the All-League 2nd team.
Although they didn’t go undefeated this time around, in the past three years, the girls varsity team compiled a 59-3 record. With a young team returning next year, a JV team that went 18-0 this year, and an ongoing track record of success, look for the Griffins to have another highly dominant season again in 2012.
By Paul Conrad, the proud father of senior Allie Conrad who scored a team leading 82 goals this season to help lead the Griffins to their third consecutive Southern Section Division 1 Championship. For more information on LAHS Griffins Lacrosse program, please visit www.losalamitoslacrosse.com.