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Lions’ girls’ lacrosse team finds success despite loss of veterans

By Wayne Witkowski

Jackson Liberty High School’s girls’ lacrosse team went into its season finale May 22 against Barnegat High School assured of a winning season, with achievements it had not reached in a number of years and the promise of better things ahead with a young lineup.

The Lions came into this week 9-7 and in a three-way tie in the loss column for second place in the Shore Conference B South Division at 7-4 with Lacey Township High School and Donovan Catholic High School, which completed their league schedules at 8-4. A victory over Barnegat (8-8 overall, 5-5 division) would lock the Lions in a final tie for second place. Barnegat won an earlier meeting, 17-8.

Although this season is no match for the 15-win season Jackson Liberty enjoyed nine years ago in coach Sarah Hayek’s first season, the Lions qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time since 2010, losing their opener to Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School.

They also returned to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association tournament in Central Jersey, Group III, losing to Ocean Township High School, 14-6, in the quarterfinals. Jade Rivera and Donna Polhemus led Jackson Liberty with two goals apiece, and Jules Brett and Maeve Carney adding goals in that game.

“Ocean is a very good team, but we did not play anywhere close to our potential,” Hayek said. “It could’ve been a closer game.”

Jackson Liberty found success playing at times without any of the four seniors in the starting lineup. All four sustained injuries ranging from short term to virtually the entire season, but it didn’t stop the rest of the team from rallying behind its young talent as it gained experience. With its success minus those seniors for some games, it bodes well for what this group can achieve for next season.

“It’s one of the most successful teams we’ve had in a while,” Hayek said.

Playmaking midfielder Danielle Marotta, who is one of the four seniors, went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second week of the season during a 12-11 loss to Donovan Catholic. She was the team Most Valuable Player a year ago.

Senior defender Jessica Thalen missed much of the season with a torn hamstring and another senior, Megan Slahoe, was out for a long time with an ankle injury. The other senior, Brett, also was injured.

Other players were pushed into picking up the slack, and Jackson Liberty reeled off five straight victories after a 3-3 start to the season to get into the tournament picture.

“We tried to utilize transition as much as possible, moving the ball up from goalkeeper to defense to midfield and getting it going up front,” Hayek said.

Junior Bailey Havens came up with some big and dramatic saves in her second season in goal and entered the game against Barnegat needing five saves to reach 400 for her career. Midfielders Carney, a junior, and Rivera, one of the many sophomores who started during the season, led the scoring with 43 and 38 goals, respectively. Carney has 24 assists.

Polhemus, a sophomore attackman, has 33 goals going into the final game. Junior Tsering Badushov picked up 15 assists as a spot starter. Sophomore attackman Hailey Pongracz earned Hayek’s praise for setting up goals by others.

The McGee twins, Amber and Hailey, are two sophomores who also make for a bright future for the Lions. They also play soccer — coached by Hayek — which had a similar scenario last season with a young lineup and only three players graduating off a 6-12 team. Hailey McGee had seven goals, which was one behind team-leader Samantha Yorke, a sophomore, and the team is looking to increase its scoring with its wealth of experience for this season to give more of a cushion to returning goalkeeper Alex Quamvie, a junior.

Hayek said she endorses her lacrosse players playing in other sports to sharpen their athleticism.

“It’s a huge reason behind when we are successful,” Hayek said.

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