By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Rhiannon Accetta took a less traditional path to playing field hockey and girls lacrosse at Hillsborough High School.
Before she was a part of those Raiders teams, the senior played football and wrestled in middle school. She started wrestling in fourth grade when she saw another girl on her brother’s team, then her wrestling coach and her father convinced her to try football the next year. She loved it and played until seventh grade.
“I really wanted to play that one last year of eighth grade,” Accetta said. “But if it weren’t for stopping then, I don’t know if I would have ended up playing field hockey in high school.”
Accetta stopped playing football in seventh grade for the Hillsborough Junior Raiders only when she and her brother went to different schools. Wrestling ended for her after eighth grade as she got involved in her new sports. Accetta feels her earlier experience helped her develop as an athlete, and they have helped to mold her into a solid defenseman in both sports.
“I played linebacker, so I was used to getting in front of someone to stop them,” Accetta said. “I think it helped me. In wrestling, you really have to have a mental toughness to get through it because it’s such a grueling sport to do.”
Accetta is the one returning senior back on defense for the Raider girls lacrosse team. Hillsborough will open play next Thursday against Delaware Valley and they have been pleased with progress.
“We’re at the point where we’ve already made more progress than last season,” Accetta said. “We’re picking up where we left off for the most part.”
The defense, however, had to replace its graduation losses. Defenders Cate Zuccarello and Mia Barkel graduated and last year’s goalie Kirsten Deck is out with an injury so the Raiders are working on finding suitable replacements. They got an early test in scrimmages with North Brunswick and Roxbury before a traditionally strong Hopewell Valley program last Friday.
“When we first got the roster this season, there were only three of us defenders that were on the varsity team last year,” Accetta said. “We were worried about that. We moved up to five after moving everybody’s positions around, and when we played Hopewell last year, we did not do that well. This year it was a lot closer. In general, as a whole, I think we’re going to be better this year.”
Accetta’s confidence comes from seeing how the Raiders have put things together. They made a significant jump Friday in their scrimmage with Hopewell.
“I feel like in the beginning we had a slow start,” Accetta said, “but when we went up against a higher-paced team, we kind of just clicked more after we went over defense a couple days in practice before that scrimmage. It just clicked more against Hopewell.”
Everybody on defense is adjusting to a new role, including Accetta, who has to be the leader in the back.
“The last couple years, since I was always one of the underclassmen, I followed them and did as you were supposed to,” she said. “This year I have to try to be the one leads it.
“I feel like in a sense it comes naturally. In field hockey, I play defense and I also have that same role. I feel like it comes more naturally in field hockey just the way the game comes so it definitely helps. Lacrosse is so much more fast-paced.”
Hillsborough’s offense can help its defense by controlling the pace more and limiting the offensive chances of their opponents.
“I feel like our attack this year is definitely one of the strongest we’ve had since I’ve been in high school,” Accetta said. “In the past, we’ve kind of had one main player that we always looked to. This year, we’re definitely more team oriented on the attacking end. We don’t count on one single person to score all our goals. We definitely have a whole team effort on the attacking end.”
Head coach Beth Murrin has been encouraged by the early developments in her team. She is looking for a faster start to the year despite a large range of varsity experience.
“With some of these younger kids in the mix, we feel like we’ll be more prepared handling the ball and being able to move the ball quickly in transition as well as on the offensive side of the field,” Murrin said. “It looks like this group has a higher understanding and lacrosse IQ. It puts us in a better spot right now.”
She is also gaining confidence in her new-look defense led by Accetta. It has come a ways already.
“We were more assertive in dictating what we were going to allow,” Murrin said. “I thought we played 1-on-1 defense better and we played more as a unit. In the first two games, we were playing in that bubble of 1-on-1 everywhere. There was a lot more talk and communication and more appropriate timing on double teams Friday. They were switching on picks and things of that nature. We took a step forward in gelling as a team defense process. It’s particularly promising because this team we played was such a better team than the first two teams we played.”
The Raiders are still finalizing their goalie spot with junior Natalie Tavares the only goalie who saw any action on varsity last year and freshman Brooke McCormick starting strong. Either way, it will be a largely inexperienced varsity goalie who will need solid defense in front of her.
“This year,” Accetta said, “I’m trying to take more of a leadership role and keep the defense organized and make sure we’re communicating and working on getting our slides all together and keeping track of the ball.”
In Accetta, the Raiders have someone who has been playing defense for their varsity for four years. That experience can’t be overlooked.
“She’s a kind of defender who’s gritty and tough,” Murrin said. “She has that attitude difference in the field. This year, because we graduated two senior defenders, and she worked under them, now this year we’re looking to her to lead the defense and I think it’s something she’s ready and capable of doing. So we’re encouraging her that this is becoming her unit. Because we graduated some people back there, we’re going to look to her to work it out.”
With the attack starting to mesh well and giving the Raiders confidence that they will be a threat offensively, the defense’s development is paramount to solidifying the team. It will aid their expectations greatly to have a strong defense.
“That’s definitely going to be the biggest thing we have to work on,” Accetta said. “But I think with a couple more weeks of practice we’re definitely going to get to it and we’ll be able to work back up to it.”
The Raiders are looking to send their six seniors out with a special season. Accetta has tackled tough challenges before, and she’s ready to help this Hillsborough team reach its goals.
“I definitely think we have a lot of potential this year,” Accetta said. “It could be one of our best years in the past couple years. My freshman year, we made it to the county final. I definitely think we have the ability to make it there this year.”
HILLSBOROUGH: Girls’ lacrosse rebuilds defense around Accetta
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group