Fritsche says Chargers are ‘making history’ with 1st women’s lax playoff berth

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The Northwood women’s lacrosse team is on the brink of making history — and by the time you’re reading this, they may have added to it — by becoming the first women’s lax team in program history, and in Chatham County history, to make the playoffs. The Chargers are hosting No. 19 Laney in the first round of the postseason on Tuesday evening.

After starting their program in 2019, the Chargers are having their best season yet with an 11-3 overall record (7-3 in the Central 3A conference) following three-straight seasons with a below-.500 record (including 2020’s COVID-shortened season). They’ve got a balanced scoring attack led by players all over the age spectrum and have some top-notch wins under their belts.

This week, the News + Record spoke with Larry Fritsche, Northwood’s third-year head coach, ahead of Tuesday’s playoff game against Laney to discuss his star players, his thoughts on the Chargers making history and how he’s helped build this program from the ground up.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Results for Northwood’s playoff game on Tuesday will be posted on the News + Record’s website.

Your team is 11-3 this season and have been phenomenal all year long, with your only three losses coming to really good programs in Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill. Could you describe what this season’s been like for you so far?

LARRY FRITSCHE: No matter what takeaways you have today, number one is Coach Jess Boone, Coach Katy Gilliam and the team. I cannot overemphasize how important it is to have a team of diverse coaches with diverse experience and knowledge. Coach Jess and Coach Katy have been absolutely key to this. And then there’s the commitment of the team. The offseason dedication to travel programs, club, clinics, it was off the charts for this team. As I tell the team over and over again, “January is too late to get ready for our season,” and they sure exemplified that. I would go to some travel tournaments and we’d have players from Northwood with two or three different teams — sometimes playing each other, which was a lot of fun — but I had moments where I was up in the middle of a stadium, looking on one side where there’s artificial turf, watching four of our players and looking on another side where two of our players are playing. That’s where it all really starts. Just the above and beyond effort to raise everyone to a new level that they worked on through the offseason.

To go from there, this season’s just been thrilling. I think a great example is that we’ve played some big teams. It probably isn’t common knowledge that we currently play in a 3A/4A combined format, so we are small-town lacrosse. I say that very proudly. It’s an uphill battle in a lot of ways. We call them “parking deck schools.” Every year, I ask the team to write down their goals and I don’t just have them do that and give it to me and I say, “Good job,” and throw them away. I think about them all of the time. And one of the things that one of our players said is, “I want a parking deck school,” meaning that we’ve never beaten a big school. And that’s a fact. Well, we’ve taken out several this year. And one of the biggest moments, maybe in program history, was a tale of two games where we played Chapel Hill at home and lost 11-1, so I was obsessed with breaking down that game — we’re big into film — and we learned a lot of lessons and day-after-day just getting ready for the next time we played them. And we went on to beat them in overtime in a thriller that we will never forget. What it takes in women’s lacrosse for a small town lacrosse team from 3A to take on a very established playoff-caliber program with feeder schools for lacrosse, etc. That was just one of many thrilling moments, but really a highlight of where we have arrived.

When it comes to some of the players making an impact for your team this year, a lot of them are underclassmen. Were those players ones that you kind of helped grow over the last couple of years with little experience, or had they already been playing lacrosse coming into high school?

It’s a combination, but very few played in middle school. We do have a few, though. If you look at one of our graduating seniors, our speaking captain, Kendall LaBerge — our first year, we had essentially four or five players that knew how to play and 30 that were looking at their sticks and looking up like, “All right, what do I do?” — she’s a great example of a longtime career lacrosse player, who played travel and had been developed before she was a first-year at Northwood. And then we have others that have just started and then, like I mentioned, they’re playing with various travel programs and clubs, and come back and work really hard with us. And they’ve really developed, they’re very coachable. This was the year we even saw more and more of them refining their roles within roles. A lot of it comes from the unselfishness of this team. We have numerous players that, whether it’s on travel or somewhere else, don’t play that same position on our team. We have multiple players playing different roles on our team because that’s what we needed, that’s what was best for us, for Northwood women’s lacrosse, and they’ve just been great about being in these roles and being the best for the team.

A few years ago, this team was 0-11 and now they’re headed to the postseason with 11 wins. What has it been like for you to help build this program from, essentially, the ground up?

One of the keys to small-town lacrosse is you have to look at every player, new player, prospective player, parents — and I’m going back to rec because I also coach rec lacrosse — and make your pipeline. You have to look people in the eye and let them know how fun, how exciting lacrosse is and how long we’ve played the sport. We’ve played the sport of lacrosse across North America for many, many hundreds of years. The tradition of lacrosse starts right here in North America. And just the belief that we can coach you, we can get you moving on this and advancing and having fun and competing and I think it’s just about every opportunity. You’ve got to work twice as hard. There are some schools where their middle schools have have lacrosse programs and they’re feeding into their high school, so we just have to work twice as hard as coaches. We have to work with rec programs, putting together clinics and workshops, and even internally at our high school, just say, “As part of your high school experience, this could just be a wonderful accent to it.”

Another thing that’s really important is not just saying you support multi-sport and multi-activity athletes, but that you mean it. For example, we’ve had games where, the afternoon before, we had players that are in the arts, that are performers and needed to try out and audition and ask, “Is that okay, Coach?” With me? Absolutely. Do you still have to take care of business? Yes, you definitely need to make it to the game, but they did. And that was the game that we won in overtime and one of those players was the one who scored the overtime goal.

You’ve got the first playoff game in Northwood women’s lacrosse history on Tuesday, where you’ll take on Laney at home. How are you feeling about that game and what are you doing to gear up for it?

I’m excited. Laney, they’re a very good lacrosse team. Their goaltending’s noteworthy, they’re very consistent on offense and defense, they just got a big overtime win themselves. They’re a solid team, but what we plan to do is play our game. What we bring, full throttle, is a balanced attack across a lot of different players. We’re ready to go. I think the fact that we’ve played teams like Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill, the current state champion, is beneficial in getting us ready for this game. We’ve got to finish well against a talented goalie, we’re going have to be especially accurate, making sure that we power in, but our finesse and our accuracy on getting those shots into the net, into the cage. Unselfish play is going to really pay off in this game because we have that balanced attack across a lot of players. It’s not just one or two players that get the ball all the time. So I think if we can go from every angle, we really run our motion offense, we make space, we’re moving on defense, we’re sliding well, we’re looking for the second slide, we’re ready to go and we’re talking, I think we’ve got a great shot at competing well on Tuesday.

If your team is going to make a deep playoff run, what’s going to be the key to that run? Who are some of the players that, if they lock in, can really help you on that run?

Here are some players you’d want to keep an eye on as far as some of our key contributors and some of these you don’t see as much on the stat sheet, but their defensive play is stellar and really drives the game. We’ve got Kendall LaBerge, Grazi Costa, Ella Boecke, Julia Colen — a great defensive middy who’s really done a lot that you’re not going to see in the numbers when you compare them to other players — Ryan Tinervin, Mia Collins — she’s just had a special year when you talk about someone who’s flexible and can score six goals, but also change her game to assist when we need to move the ball and make decisions — and Sophia Cremeans, one of our juniors that was very committed in the offseason. There’s just a toughness across these players. They’re different players with different skills and different strengths, but we’re really moving the ball this year and I think that’s another thing that helps. You’ve got to raise your defense because defense really decides lacrosse and then you move the ball. And I think, especially with the players I’m talking about, that’s where we have a shot of taking out some more parking decks.

We’ve also got Silcov Hopp as our goalie. She’s got nine wins, 7.7 goals-against average. She is a first-year, 9th-grade goalie. And she’s putting in the extra work. Last Saturday, she was in here working on skillwork, sharpening iron, but think about that: nine wins, 7.7 goals against average in her first year.

In an email you sent to me, you mentioned that your team is making both Northwood and Chatham County history. What did you mean by that?

Well, we’re the first women’s lacrosse team to make the playoffs at Northwood, and that includes all of Chatham County, because there’s not another Chatham County school with women’s lacrosse — though we’re hoping Seaforth joins us next year, very much so — so it’s also Chatham County history. On Tuesday, we will open another door. It’s not just that we’re the Northwood women’s lacrosse team and proud of it, but also it’s really important to me, it always has been, for girls and women’s lacrosse, across all of Chatham County, for everyone, no matter who you are, where you come from, whether you’ve never played before or you’ve played 10 years, that we’re one lacrosse family. I cannot wait for more women — even those that want to join as coaches — to get inspired that they can do this in small-town lacrosse. Is it hard? It’s twice as hard, but work twice as hard, then. It can happen. It can happen at other schools. We’ve done it. And we can help. I’m hoping that there are rec players, future rec players, current high school players, future high school players that are in the crowd or watching the NFHS Network stream and going, “They did this, so we can do this. They started in 2019. I can do this. I can join this.” And whether they’re joining us or joining another school, maybe this gives a little more enthusiasm and hope that this can be done not just at Northwood, but all across Chatham County.

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