As the weather warms, and the trees begin to bud with new life, high school athletes, suddenly upperclassmen, are stepping into leadership roles. Others are just trying to make a name for themselves at the varsity level. Everywhere, athletes and teams are trying to find, or establish, their identities.
For a few of the girls’ lacrosse programs in the area, however — namely, Duxbury, Norwell, and Notre Dame Academy of Hingham — the early season transition is a little bit easier, thanks to the return of elite players.
At Notre Dame, it’s All-American Alex Dalton , a University of Notre Dame recruit; for Duxbury, it’s three-sport star Hannah Murphy ; and at Norwell, two-year captain and South Shore League all-star Mary O’Connell .
“Those players are going to find ways to make plays,” said Notre Dame coach Meredith Frank . “I think the world of those players, and I know they’re going to be exceptional for their teams this year.”
That’s easy to say for Frank, who has been able to pencil Dalton into her lineup for each of her three years at the helm of the Cougars. The midfielder utilized her speed and footwork to lead Notre Dame (21-2) in just about every category last season, from goals (87) to ground balls (105) to caused turnovers (25).
And Frank doesn’t take credit for a single stat.
“I don’t attribute anything that Alex does to coaching,” Frank said of the Needham resident. “It’s something that she has innate. Her ability to read a play, her understanding of the game. . . . Some players just have the it-factor. And she certainly has that.”
More than the mere numbers, though, is what Dalton’s presence as a bit of a silent leader affords the players around her. Having played with and against the top players in the country, Dalton uses that experience to make everyone around her better. “Our young players learn a little something, figure out how to be that type of a competitor,” Frank said.
It’s a similar story at Duxbury with Murphy, who is set to play at the University of Massachusetts Amherst next spring.
Fresh off the ice, where she helped propel the Dragons to their third straight Division 2 state title, and with a strong field hockey pedigree, too, Murphy is not short on accolades.
Duxbury coach Kelly Jurgens said Murphy, a three-time Patriot League all-star, has been a leader for the last couple years, even when she wasn’t among the oldest on the field.
“You can see it on the practice field every day,” Jurgens said. “She has fire in her eyes. She wants to go out with that championship.” Duxbury finished 15-5-2 a year ago, losing to Medfield in the South tourney.
Going out with a championship would be even sweeter for O’Connell (88 goals, 62 assists in 2012); she was a member of Norwell’s state championship club in 2010 with her sister, Kara , now a junior at Boston College. In the fall O’Connell will be off to Middlebury, where she will continue her playing career, but for now she’s hard at work for the Clippers.
“She’s one of those athletes that works hard when no one is watching her,” said coach Kara Connerty , who also had O’Connell as a captain on the soccer team.
“She sets a great example for the student-athletes to be determined and have that work ethic. It puts the team in a better place because she really does raise the level.”
The presence of a Dalton, a Murphy, or an O’Connell often pushes their respective programs to great success. And defending those elite talents is no easy task.
Leslie Frank , the longtime coach at defending Division 1 state champion Westwood High, knows first-hand from matchups the past few seasons.
When Frank faced her daughter’s Notre Dame squad in the Division 1 South semifinals last June — an 18-8 Westwood triumph — her Wolverines faceguarded Dalton as well as double-teamed her at the draw circle.
“You don’t have much of a choice,” Leslie Frank said. This season, her own squad is minus a pair of talented grads, Laura McHoul , the Globe’s Division 1 Player of the Year last spring who is now at the University of New Hampshire, along with Kate Rich , now at Boston College.
But according to Meredith Frank, it’s not about trying to shut down elite players as much as it is limiting the damage done. It’s a strategy she picked up from her former coach at Northwestern, Kelly Amonte Hiller , a former standout at Thayer Academy.
“You have to respect those players,” the younger Frank said of Murphy and O’Connell.
“They’re going to keep your defense honest. No matter what we throw at them, they find ways to make plays, and that’s what you expect from players of their caliber, players of their experience.
“They’re certainly going to do big things for their teams. We’re not looking to stop them. I think it’s more contain them and have their teammates make plays.”
Connerty echoed that sentiment. “Goals are going to happen,” she said. “Yes, they are going to be successful, and yes, they are going to score. But try to reduce the number of times they get that opportunity and the number of times they set people up.”
Dalton said that when she gets faceguarded and scoring opportunities are limited, she tries to contribute in other ways. “There’s 12 girls on the field. You can’t do it alone.”
Connerty added that all three athletes have strong supporting casts, and that’s particularly true for Dalton at Notre Dame. Three other Cougars have also committed to Division 1 programs for next spring — midfielder Mariel Teague (Columbia), defender Julia Simmons (UConn), and attackman Amelia Brown (Colorado-Bolder). But when a game is on the line, expect Dalton to be the one cradling the ball in crunch time. She is the All-American, after all. The leading scorer. The natural.
“There are some athletes that are just so natural, so fluid, not only in their movements, but their ability to read a play or understand a game situation,” Meredith Frank said. “She is just a natural athlete.”