Central girls lax runner-up again

Red Devils reach program's fourth state final, come up short against Loyola

The Hinsdale Central girls lacrosse team earned passage to Saturday's state championship game, its fourth out of the five that have been held since the sport received IHSA inclusion for the 2017-18 season. That's more than any other program.

The Red Devils had dispatched a scrappy Hersey 11-8 in the super-sectional and overwhelmed Sandburg 15-4 in the semifinal on Friday at Central's Dickinson Field to book their spot.

"Coming in to the match we were amped and excited," senior Angie Conley said of the title game, also hosted by Central.

Standing between the Devils and the crown was the vaunted Loyola Academy squad, who had amassed a 22-4 record, including a 9-6 win over Central back in April. And the Ramblers came ready Saturday, too, quickly jumping out to a 4-0 lead.

"We realized they had come out super strong and we had come out flat," Conley said.

Central took a timeout to regroup and were able to muster their own offensive flurries, but found themselves down 2-8 at halftime. The Devils turned up the pressure a little more in second half, reducing the margin to four at one point. But the team would get no closer as Loyola went on to win 13-8.

Head coach Matt McNiff said the girls were eager to return to the title match after last year's heartbreaking 12-11 loss to New Trier in the final. Central last claimed top honors in the inaugural IHSA championship.

"They were motivated and worked hard in the offseason and worked hard during the season," he said. "This year we had maybe a little bit more talent than last year, and every year some underclassmen girls step up, and some kid that you've never heard of steps up and they're ready to play."

Conley and fellow senior Reese Napier led the scoring with three goals apiece. Senior Ari Tavoso and junior Daphne Venetsanopolous each found the back of the net as well, while senior Emily Brankin notched an assist. Sophomore goalie Makenna Schultz - one of those underclassmen to step up this season - made seven saves.

Conley said the team was devastated after the loss but had no regrets.

"You give it your all when you're out there, and you try and contribute as much as you can," she said. "You need to learn how to balance when you need to do something versus when you're teammates need to make a play."

McNiff singled out team captain Napier for her growth over the course of the last four years.

"The change I've see from her from freshman year to senior year is incredible," he said. "I didn't believe that she would be a future captain, but one of the best decisions this team made this year was making Reese Napier captain. She has a way of keeping everyone calm."

Conley recalled her freshman year, when COVID canceled the season and she was still developing as a player.

"I was literally so small," she said.

Having veterans to look up to in past seasons compelled her to be a solid role model as part of her final act.

"That was my goal this year, to fill that role for the younger players, and I hope I did that job as well as I possibly could have and had a positive influence on the younger players," Conley said.

That means staying together through both victory and defeat.

"We battled as hard as we could. There are no fingers to point - everyone did a good job," Conley said of the championship game.

Ultimately, the relationships are what she will hold on to.

"There's something to be said for playing with people you've played with your whole life," she said. "It wasn't the result we wanted, but I loved doing it with these girls, and I'm so thankful to be part of such a special group."

The University of Notre Dame recruit said closing her Central career is bittersweet.

"It's sad to move on but I'm just thankful for everything Hinsdale Central lacrosse has done for me and for helping me mature both as a person and a player.

"Hopefully we can take a title in the coming year," Conley added. "I'll be watching from the sidelines."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean