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VanZandt, Murtaugh help Highland top Red Hook

HIGHLAND – Each swing, of what initially was a back-and-forth contest, was reflected in Sophie Murtaugh’s expressions, the senior so locked in on each possession and invested in the result.

It didn’t matter that most of the first half for her was spent seated beneath a tent at the scorer’s table with a bag of ice at the back of her neck.

“I was lightheaded,” the Highland girls lacrosse standout said. “I think the heat was a factor.”

The temperature reached 88 degrees Wednesday afternoon and the sun beamed almost directly onto the field at Highland Middle School, resulting in a few players feeling unwell.

“I don’t think anyone expected this kind of heat in the regular season,” Huskies coach Ian Becker said. “Some of them felt the effects of it right away and I had to make more (substitutions) than I usually do.”

His defensive anchor among them. But Murtaugh, “feeling a little better,” couldn’t sit any longer as their lead was threatened late. She insisted she was well enough to return and showed she was good enough to make an immediate impact.

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The defender caused two turnovers, recovered a groundball, and forced an errant shot in the final minutes, helping Highland complete a 10-8 win over league rival Red Hook.

“She plays with the most intensity,” the coach said. “She’s fearless, goes for groundballs, is quick on her feet, and she can match up well with good scorers.”

And, clearly, is willing to push through discomfort to help the team.

Logan VanZandt scored four goals and Quinn Ahrenholz added three to lead the Huskies. Leah Klotz scored twice, and Caitlin Becker had a goal and an assist and contributed to them securing 12 draw controls.

A bit like the weather, Highland is unseasonably hot, having already clinched its division title and emerged this spring for the first time as a section title favorite.

“A lot of it is confidence, knowing that we’re capable of doing well,” said Ahrenholz, an eighth-grader who has flourished this season as a playmaker and finisher. “I think the better prepared you are, the less you have to worry about, and the more confident you’ll be.”

The Huskies (8-4) have earned that confidence, matching their win total from a year ago when the team enjoyed a run that culminated in its first trip to the Section 9 Class D final. They’re 5-0 in the division now and, after a four-goal victory over defending champion James I. O’Neill three weeks ago, Murtaugh said, “we think it’s possible for us to get far.”

What’s most remarkable, of course, is this program has made such quick strides in two years that it went from a two-win campaign to now having reasonable expectations of title contention.

Individually, Murtaugh said, their stick skills and fundamentals have improved along with their discretion in when to be aggressive on offense. The collective chemistry and communication are also better. That, Ahrenholz said, can be attributed in part to the bonding during carpools and several players being teammates in multiple sports.

Oh, and Natasha Bedingfield. The group unabashedly belting the lyrics to the 2004 hit “Unwritten” certainly helps with camaraderie. That’s one way to, eh-hem, release your inhibitions.

That on-field report was clear in the third quarter when Caitlin Becker intercepted a pass near the 40-yard line and immediately launched an on-the-money outlet to Klotz near the crease, setting her up for a quick score that pushed their lead to 7-3 with 8:29 left in the period.

Transition offense is emphasized in practice, the coach said, and they often work on throwing long passes on the run.

After three early lead exchanges, VanZandt’s fast-break goal put Highland ahead for good with 1:33 left in the first quarter. The freshman recovered a groundball and darted up field, maneuvering past two defenders to give them a 4-3 lead.

“She’s got a high lacrosse IQ and reads the defense well,” Ian Becker said of VanZandt. “She can see when it’s time to go to goal or make a cut or pass.”

Belmont Abbey commit Yianna Giannoulis had two takeaways and six goals, including a bouncer that created the margin with 14 seconds left for Red Hook (4-3). Taylor Kabat scored twice and Ani Safaryan recovered four groundballs and caused three turnovers.

The Highland defense put a lot of attention on Giannoulis and Kabat, often pressing on the perimeter to force early passes or collapsing on them inside.

“They did a great job,” VanZandt, a midfielder, said of the defense. “The doubles, the communication, always knowing where the ball is. They really stepped up.”

This young team, comprised heavily of talented underclassmen, also has the benefit of six seniors who star or provide vocal leadership. Klotz, Murtaugh, Becker, Raegan Hons, Jessica Rendon and Arianna Wallen were celebrated during a post-game senior day ceremony.

“Among those seniors,” the coach said, “we have good finishers, people that get us possession, and good defenders. We’ll absolutely miss them, but I’m really encouraged by our depth and the young players getting ready to step into those roles.”

Before that, though, there is the goal of ensuring this season a memorable one ― which for them would include hoisting a plaque a few weeks from now.

“I think we can do that,” Ahrenholz said with a smile. “Not a doubt in my mind.”

Stephen Haynes: [email protected]; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4