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The North Branford girls' lacrosse team squared off with Shelton on April 8 with both squads looking to pick up their first win of the season. The Thunderbirds prevailed, downing the Gaels 16-11 on their home turf after racing out to a quick 7-2 lead.
"The last game against HK, even though we lost, we were behind and we came back so we said, 'We know we can do that, so let's try to get the lead and keep the lead,'" said Head Coach Lori Connelly.
The key to the win for North Branford was its draw controls. The T-Birds scooped up 24 of 29 draws, resulting in tons of possession throughout the contest.
"Last year, that was one of our weakest points so we really put an emphasis on it this year to win the draws each time," said Emmy Dulak, who scored four goals. "That really helps us with our offense because you can have a fast break down the field."
The T-Birds have four different players who can take draws and put a lot of talent around the circle that is capable of coming up with the ground balls. Alexa Picciuto and Candice Ballantoni are two of those players and they both grabbed five ground balls apiece to lead the Thunderbirds.
"We've been working on them every day in practice for a long period of time," Coach Connelly said. "Draws are a huge part of the game and they're something we put a lot of focus on because I think we lost some key games last year because of lost draws."
Senior Tara Melaccio was around the opposing net early, contributing on four of the T-Birds' first five goals. About two minutes into the game, Melaccio circled behind the net and hit Allie Sanzari, who was wide open in front for the T-Birds' first goal. Shelton tied the game shortly after before North Branford (1-2) went on a 4-0 run over the next five minutes. Melaccio scored two of her five goals in the game from point-blank range and assisted on one of two goals scored by Dulak during the run.
"I was just working the circle, rolling around, and just trying to get an opening," said Melaccio. "I was waiting for the defense to commit and taking the shot or looking for the open pass."
After Shelton scored its second goal, Dulak found the back of the net again and Picciuto scored her lone goal of the game to give North Branford a 7-2 advantage. Ballantoni added a goal before Melaccio scored twice more to give the Thunderbirds a 10-4 lead going into the half.
The second half featured a much more even game as Shelton was able to cut the lead down to three with about seven minutes to go. North Branford's defense got sloppy and Shelton was able to convert on its chances. Alyson Ferrante and Kayla Roballey led the comeback for the Gaels and scored three goals each in the game. It seemed as if Shelton constantly had someone open in front of the net through the first 20 minutes of the second half and it was able to beat North Branford goalie Leah Wilkinson six times.
"They were late to help and there wasn't a lot of talking today," Connelly said. "We're doing the right things; we're just hesitating and doing them late. I keep telling them to make a decision and commit to it, even if it's the wrong one, because the rest of the team is adjusting behind you and, if you don't make a decisive decision, then your teammates can't."
The T-Birds were able to overcome the lapses on defense in large part due to some timely scoring. They got back to winning possession of the ball and then Melaccio and Sanzari scored back-to-back goals just 20 seconds apart to seal the victory. Melissa Martin added two goals in the second half and Dulak netted two, as well. The team fired 25 shots on goal and Wilkinson made nine saves in net.
Connelly felt that, despite the win, the sloppy defensive play may cost them the win against a tougher opponent.
"We just weren't a cohesive unit today. We had spurts of it, but it wasn't a complete game as far as I'm concerned from start to finish," she said. "I still know they're capable of more."
The T-Birds then defeated Valley Regional 19-4 later in the week. North Branford responded against Valley, moving the ball well and having nine different girls find the back of the net.
"We played with a lot more intensity. They moved the ball, looked to pass the ball up field instead of run it which led to more fast break opportunities," Connelly said. "They weren't able to key in on player because we played more like a team."
Cassidy Norton and Dulak both had four goals for the T-Birds, Ballantoni added three, and Picciuto and Bryana Saroka both scored twice. Erin Sheehan, Tara Melaccio, Allie Sanzari, and Jen Levine each chipped in with one. Wilkinson saved six shots in the win.