By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
The first game of the season brings a natural excitement, but for lacrosse player Gianna Napoletano, it was kicked up an extra notch.
The Hillsborough High School senior had been waiting nine months for the chance to return to action and a chance at a milestone. Her second of three goals in a 16-7 victory over Delaware Valley gave the attacker 100 career goals in her Raider career.
“It was amazing,” said Napoletano, who finished with three goals and three assists, “especially because it was our first game of the season. There was so much adrenaline anyway. Everyone was looking forward to it since it was the first game and it was my 100th goal.”
Her Raider teammates didn’t hide their intentions. They fed her repeatedly for the opportunity to share in the moment.
“They all wanted to be the one to get the assist,” Napoletano said. “They just kept feeding me.”
Olivia Johnsen passed the ball to Napoletano, who drove into the middle and skipped a shot by the Del Val goalie for the historic goal. She may have forgotten to take the game ball home as a souvenir, but she won’t forget the moment that was commemorated with a banner and balloons and puts her onto an esteemed list of Hillsborough players.
“Gianna has great stick skills,” said Raiders head coach Beth Murrin. “She’s able to utilize those in tight space. That’s kind of her game, whether she’s threading the needle or going herself. We traditionally have much more of an athletic driving type. She’s more of the finesse, stick-skill type of player.”
Napoletano could feel the magnitude of the moment, and much as she didn’t want to, she couldn’t help but think about this game differently than most.
“I wish I didn’t,” Napoletano said. “Going in, it’s our first game, and I was trying to focus on that. All my teammates knew (how close she was) and were talking about it. I think I missed seven or nine shots before I got it.
“It’s also a relief,” she added. “I knew it was going to happen. I had 20 games to score two goals. I was hoping it would happen the first game.”
Napoletano hadn’t really considered the possibility of scoring 100 goals until teammates started tracking her progress last year. With the milestone accomplished, Napoletano could put all of her attention to her biggest commitment — her team.
As thrilled as she was with her personal milestone, she’s happier about the team’s fast start. The Raiders improved to 4-1 with a 16-0 win over East Brunswick in miserable rain that turned to snow Saturday. Napoletano credited the team’s balance to its hot beginning two weeks.
“Everyone is contributing,” she said. “It’s not just one person doing everything. We have lot of good defenders who make good moves to the middies and our middies are able to pass to the attack. Everyone is contributing. Everyone is doing their part on the field.”
Hillsborough had figured its offense would be a strength. Napoletano is one of the reasons for such optimism.
“She’s our stabilizer right now,” Murrin said. “We have a lot of younger kids contributing. I see Olivia Johnsen a lot like her with her stick skills. She’s doing a good job of being our stabilizer and teaching our young kids. She and Olivia are able to play off each other well.”
Johnsen had seven goals and four assists in the whitewashing of East Brunswick. Napoletano had four goals and three assists to raise her career total to 113 goals.
“This year, I think she’s more composed,” Murrin said of Napoletano. “The first game, it was on her mind and it was not representative of how she is. She’s more composed. It results in a better shooting percentage and fewer turnovers.
“Through the preseason and the other games, her shooting and making decisions with the ball is better. It’s her composure and maturity that has grown. She has a lot of varsity games under her belt.”
Napoletano earned playing time as a freshman, then played plenty as a sophomore. She was one of their top threats offensively last year.
“As a freshman, you’re seeing the field, figuring out where your spot is,” Napoletano said. “Sophomore year, you get more comfortable and coach knows where she wants to put you. I’ve pretty much been attack the whole time.”
Napoletano is trying to utilize her experience on attack this year. She is filling her biggest role yet. She has tried to lead by example and be vocal.
“I talked to the coach about this at the beginning of the year,” she said. “This year, I have to be more confident and more vocal. Last year, I could be vocal, but I knew where I stood. I wasn’t the oldest. This year, I realized my team needed me to step up on attack and take that role on.”
Napoletano has been pleased by the progress she has seen as the Raiders head into a week of conference foes with Pingry scheduled for Tuesday and North Hunterdon today. The challenges will get tougher on their schedule.
Their only loss thus far came against Hunterdon Central.
“It’s so exciting,” Napoletano said. “We have a lot of high goals for ourselves. We’re hoping to make it far in the county championships and make it into states. I think everyone is on the same page with our goals. They know where we want to get in our conference.”
The loss to Hunterdon Central was a learning experience. It showed the Raiders that they have to be ready for a faster pace and be ready to play every game. Since then, they were able to bounce back with two easy wins. Celia Terreri had three goals, Lisa Ross had two goals and Sam Boyer had an assist in their win over East Brunswick.
“I’m pretty confident in everyone — attackers, middies, even our defenders — are good at carrying the ball up,” Napoletano said. “We go to so many different people. We have a bunch of different girls scoring. In all our games, our middies and attackers are all touching the ball.”
That balance makes the Raiders tougher to defend. Napoletano is looking to make the most of this year before she heads to join the University of Cincinnati program.
“I went to their camp over the summer,” Napoletano said. “It was my first time going to Ohio and Cincinnati. I figured I’d see if I liked the school. I loved the coaches and the whole atmosphere. I didn’t decide right away. I had other options I had to weigh out.
“They’re in the Big East conference, so it’s a good conference. Each year they’re growing as a program. They’re getting better and new recruits. I’m excited.”
Gianna Napoletano is hoping that milestone is just the beginning to a fulfilling senior year with the Raiders.
“I think I’m just geared towards the team now,” she said. “I want to get our team to the championship and set a good record. I don’t want to lose any more games.”
HILLSBOROUGH: Laxer Gianna Napoletano plows past 100-goal career mark
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group