Youth movement: Haddonfield ready for success despite largely young lineup

Three-time defending state champions looking toward more spread-out offensive attack in 2022

MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly: Haddonfield girls lacrosse has won three consecutive state titles, but enters this season with a significantly younger roster. Sophomores and juniors who showed great promise last year will now have their own time to shine during the 2021-22 season.

The Haddonfield girls lacrosse team has been one of the most dominant teams in South Jersey for a number of years — as proven by its three consecutive state titles — but a crucial part of sustaining such success is continuing to develop young talent that will eventually replace the key roles upperclassmen currently occupy. 

Having won the Group 1 state title last year behind high-scoring senior McKenzie Blake, who lodged the fourth-most goals in the state last season with 112 alongside numerous other key seniors who played pivotal roles for the Bulldawgs, the time is now to see what the largely younger roster for Haddonfield can do.

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While replacing graduating seniors on a yearly basis is nothing new, coach Jessica Blake was more than aware that this year’s challenge would be slightly more extreme than it has in past years, for a variety of reasons.

“It felt particularly difficult coming into this season; we have a lot of good, young players but I felt we were lacking experience coming in,” Blake said. “Between COVID years and the graduation of so many seniors last year, we went into this year with only four seniors, so I felt like the leadership on the field was lacking coming into the season so we just needed to get onto the field and wait for it to emerge.”

Quite a few of this year’s starters played significant time and in important roles last season, gaining valuable playing time as younger players during yet another deep playoff run, but often ended up secondary on the stat sheet. 

This season, Haddonfield now looks to see how the offense will operate with a largely new setup.

“It feels like we have an entirely new team out there,” Blake said. “We have leaders in practice and off the field, so it’s not a leadership problem at all, but as we get started here we’re looking to see who settles in and takes over when the game gets to critical moments. That’ll just emerge as the season goes along.”

Blake said she doesn’t expect a single girl on the team to make up for the production her daughter made last year; instead, she believes it will be more evenly divided amongst a number of the team’s players. 

Seniors Sadie Carpenter, Bella Carle and Juliet Walls have notched four, three and two goals, respectively, through the teams first two games of the season to contribute in the wins over West Deptford and Clearview. 

Meanwhile, junior Ava Keenan and sophomore Stella Stolarick have also figured to be crucial to the Bulldawgs success thus far as well. 

Keenan was the team’s second-leading scorer last year with 32 goals while Stolarick scored the third-most on the team last year, notching 29 goals as a freshman. 

Keenan, who like all other spring athletes in the midst of their junior seasons, lost her freshman season due to the COVID pandemic. Despite experiencing much success last season in her first year of high school varsity action, she said preparing for this season felt much easier after having a year under her belt, and therefore makes it feel a little bit easier to take the next step on the field.

“Especially after losing my freshman year, I didn’t really know what I was going into last season,” Keenan said. “Once I got that experience of a whole high school season, it made me feel better in getting prepared for that. 

“Last year we had such dominant seniors, so I knew this year coming in that I had to come in and work a little harder to fill bigger shoes,” she added. 

Both agree that last year’s seniors did a fantastic job of showing the younger players on the team how to play the game the right way and what it means to be successful. 

Because of that, Stolarick says she thinks that, although the team may be substantially different, Haddonfield can remain as a top team in both South Jersey and the state. 

“We had awesome seniors last year that showed us the roots of what ‘Haddonfield lacrosse’ really is … being able to learn from star players like that was really beneficial for us and now we get to show and incorporate what we learned from them on our own,” Stolarick said. “We kind of have to create a new offense and get in a new rhythm, which is exciting. 

“We have such a great team environment, we’re always pushing each other and lifting one another up … us all being so close together like we are only helps the team even more.”

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