‘You need to play for them’

After losing key starters McKenzie Blake and Elise Fiannaca to season-ending knee injuries, Haddonfield girls lacrosse rallied around their two teammates.

Gabi Connor carries the ball out of the Haddonfield end of the field during the Bulldawgs’ 14-9 win last Thursday in the NJSIAA Group 2 state semifinals against Manasquan. Connor has scored five goals in each of Haddonfield’s last three games.

Haddonfield girls lacrosse defeated Seneca, 17-11, on April 26, but the team suffered two big losses in the victory.

In a span of a couple hours, the Bulldawgs’ leading goal scorer at the time, sophomore McKenzie Blake, and one of the team’s top defenders, Elise Fiannaca, both went down with season-ending knee injuries. The injuries forced Haddonfield to make a bunch of lineup changes and adjustments just as the team was entering the final stretch of the regular season.

“We had a long talk after it all happened,” senior Gabi Connor. “We knew we just had to come out strong, play our own role and play for them.”

After stumbling in their first week without their teammates, the Bulldawgs rallied down the stretch. The Bulldawgs won nine consecutive games to finish May, cruised to a third straight South Jersey Group 2 title and punched their ticket to a third straight NJSIAA Group 2 state championship game with a win over Manasquan in the state semifinals last Thursday.

Head coach Jessica Blake called the knee injuries to McKenzie and Fiannaca a “big stroke of bad luck.” However, she talked to her senior leaders after the Seneca game about how the team still had the talent to make 2019 special.

“There’s so many seniors and they were all out there and they knew it was their last season,” Blake said. “We told them, you’re not the ones injured. You need to play for them. I think they shifted their mindset and are playing for McKenzie and Elise.”

“We’ve always been a team,” Blake added. “It’s never been about one or two players. But with those injuries there was an emotional setback more than anything. They needed about three games to figure it out and get themselves back.”

Wayden Ay carries the ball past midfield for Haddonfield during the Bulldawgs’ 14-9 win last Thursday in the NJSIAA Group 2 state semifinals against Manasquan.

Senior Wayden Ay said the team needed time to adjust to the lineup changes. In its first game without McKenzie Blake and Fiannaca, Haddonfield suffered a 10-7 loss to Rancocas Valley on the road. Despite losing, Ay views the game as the turning point for the Bulldawgs.

“Even though we took the loss, it was in that game where we figured out what to do,” she said.

“Once we knew a couple people were hurt, we all had to step up and almost have a new role,” Connor added. “A lot of seniors had to step up and even the underclassmen who weren’t playing much stepped up and played really well.”

In the team’s four playoff games leading up to the state finals, Haddonfield outscored the opposition by a combined score of 70-25. Connor was one of the players who stepped up, scoring five goals in each of the team’s last three playoff games entering Saturday’s state final. Senior Caroline Beckett also stepped up offensively, eclipsing the 100-point plateau for the season in last Thursday’s state semifinal win. Ay has been a force on both sides of the ball for Haddonfield, contributing offensively while remaining an anchor on defense.

Even after their injuries, Blake and Fiannaca remained an integral part of the team. The two players were on the sidelines for every game and involved in the team’s pregame huddles. Even though they can’t step on the field, Ay said the team is making sure they remain a part of the team through the end of the season.

Haddonfield’s McKenzie Blake and Elise Fiannaca look on as their teammates warm up prior to last Thursday’s NJSIAA Group 2 state semifinal game. Both Blake and Fiannaca stayed heavily involved with the team after they both suffered ACL tears in a game against Seneca in late April.

“Our (hair) ribbons, we have their numbers on them,” senior Wayden Ay said. “A lot of us have their numbers on our cleats. We have them in our pre-game huddle all the time. They’re still here.”