The Salem News
---- — The focus in Northeastern Conference boys lacrosse is usually centered on the teams in the North, particularly Beverly and Marblehead. And while those two programs are once again battling for league supremacy, there is a nice battle brewing in the South Division.
Swampscott is a very hot team right now and sits atop the conference standings, but the Big Blue don’t have a cakewalk to the NEC South championship. Salem has won three of four games and remains just one game behind the conference leaders in the loss column.
Host Swampscott beat the Witches, 10-6, the first time around and Salem coach Anthony Nardella is hoping his club can even the score when they meet Thursday at Bertram Field.
“I think we’ve kind of figured things out a little. The first time we played we made a bunch of mental mistakes that cost us,” Nardella said. “We’re executing better on offense, and defensively we’ve clamped down and are playing great fundamental defense.”
Salem has strength in all phases of the game. For instance, Mat Muse has been an outstanding playmaker for the Witches.
“He probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves,” Nardella said. “He played attack last year and has been our best midfielder offensively and defensively (this year). He clears, he runs for days, and he can create something out of nothing in transition.”
Salem is also strong defensively, led by defenseman J.T. Kapnis and goalie Christian Costa. Meanwhile, Peter Slattery has been an excellent scoring threat for the Witches.
“We have a great group of seniors that have really put in a lot of work and want to build a successful program,” Nardella said. “They’re helping to turn the corner a little bit. They’re leaders and have done a great job on and off the field.”
Swampscott’s Todd Pierce may be in his first year as the Big Blue boys head coach, but he entered this season with some head coaching experience plus the benefit of previously serving as an assistant at Swampscott.
The Big Blue players have quickly responded to his coaching methods.
The Swampscott boys have put themselves in great position in the NEC South, starting off 8-1 overall and 5-0 in the conference. After dropping its season opener to Marblehead, Swampscott reeled off eight straight wins heading into last night’s late game.
Pierce spent two years as an assistant in Swampscott before taking over as head coach at Saugus. After two years there, he returned to the Big Blue this season.
”I was cautiously optimistic. I knew coming in that we had a very strong defense. I thought offensively we would be a little more challenged than what we’ve been,” Pierce said. “They lost their entire starting attack and backups; all six either graduated or transferred. So we had to replace the entire attack.”
Junior midfielder Jason Dignan’s role in helping the Big Blue offense thrive can’t be overlooked. In addition to scoring 13 goals and adding seven assists so far, he’s also winning 76 percent of the faceoffs.
”He’s been unbelievable. That’s been huge for us,” Pierce said. “That’s given us extra possessions. We’ve done an OK job scoring off fast breaks off that. I’d like to see it better, but we control the ball that much more (because of Dignan).”
Pierce thought he had something good in Dignan, but the junior has put the extra work in himself to improve.
”I heard he was a good faceoff guy and, in all honesty, I haven’t done much with him; he’s put the time in,” Pierce said. “He wants to try to go Division 1 as a faceoff guy. He’s committed to that. This winter he’s gone to clinics, worked hard and he’s doing great.”
Alex Balleza is another player who has helped the offense. He saw some time at attack last year and has shown excellent improvement this year, with 13 goals and five assists this spring.
Griffin Hunt, a team captain, has also developed into a dangerous scoring threat from the midfield. He’s also scored 18 goals.
Defensively, Swampscott has been led by seniors Joe Silva, Emory Green, Tucker Merritt, Jared Dignan and Timmy Costin. Pierce is also alternating two goalies who have each earned playing time in seniors Max Cohen and Justin Nestor.
”Coming into the season the goals were No. 1, to win the NEC South. We still have work to do, but we’re off to a good start. The second goal was making the tournament,” Pierce said. “I keep telling them at this point to keep working hard. Good teams would be satisfied; we want to show we’re a great team and keep going.”
It goes down as a one-sided loss, but Salem girls coach Jessica Trioli believes the experience will help her team immensely.
Reading’s 16-4 win over the Witches last Friday afternoon was a good measuring stick for Trioli’s team, which at 7-2-1 gives them a pretty good idea of where they need to be for the postseason.
“They’re an incredible team and it was good to play them,” Trioli said. “You need to play teams like this because going into the tournament you’re going to face teams like this. It gets our skills a little sharper and makes us a little stronger for upcoming games.”
A 14-14 tie between the Waring and Montrose girls last Friday meant nothing was solved in the race for the Independent Girls Conference crown. That’s the bad news. The good news is that both teams will get another crack at each other this Friday at Waring.
”It was a great game. The best game you could have wanted between two very good teams,” Waring coach Ambrose Devaney said. “We’ll try to break the tie (Friday). They’re always the team we play for first place.’
Waring has strong leadership in captains Eleanor Lustig and Brooke Adams (both seniors) and junior Sara Kessler.
Lustig is the type of player that makes an impact in all phases of the game. She’ll continue playing next year at Williams College.
The Ipswich boys and girls teams will be heading to Manchester Essex on Friday to play games against the Hornets to benefit brain cancer research. The girls game will begin at 5:30 p.m., with the boys game following at 7 p.m. Tickets will be $6 for adults and $3 for students.
Lax Lowdown, a column on North Shore high school lacrosse, runs each Tuesday during the spring sports season in The Salem News. Contact staff writer Matt Jenkins at 978-338-2648, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.