Hartford (the Coach) Improving Hartford (the Team)

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2018

White River Junction — Words unlikely to ever be associated with first-year Hartford High girls lacrosse coach Heather Hartford: Indifferent. Negative. Still.

A longtime Massachusetts high school and club coach, Hartford took over for predecessor Jen Wheatley during the offseason and has delivered in a hurry with a 3-0 start.

A pacing, vocal, energized start.

“In and out, take your defender with you!” Hartford shouted at her attackers during the late going of Friday’s 9-7 defeat of visiting St. Johnsbury. “But not toward the ball! In and out!”

It was like that for 50 solid minutes, with the added visual of Hartford gripping a stick, sometimes with two hands and at chest height. No one at the Hurricanes’ games this spring will doubt whether she’s invested in its performance. 

At one point, a St. Johnsbury player muttered under her breath for Hartford to cut it out. Not that it would have made any difference if the Hilltopper had spoken louder. The coach is hardly self-conscious about directing what she hopes will be the Hurricanes’ first winning season.

“The first time I saw (Hartford) do that, I thought ‘Oh, my god, she’s really into it,’ ” recalled senior midfielder Morgan Pero, whose team previously beat Burlington and Chelsea. “She’s very much about lacrosse, and her energy transfers to us on the field. You just feel her vibe.”

Hartford and Hartford received two goals each from Pero, Taylor Simmons and Michaela Ricker. Greer McCarty had a goal and two assists, Carolyn North had a goal and an assist and Alice Dwyer also scored. Emi Harlow made eight saves for the hosts, who trailed, 1-0, before scoring four consecutive goals and five of the next six. 

The Hurricanes led, 7-6, at halftime, fell into a tie 38 seconds after the break and got Simmons and Ricker tallies before the five-minute mark. They held the ball for much of the last 10 minutes, content to pass it around the offensive perimeter while the Hilltoppers puzzlingly applied little direct pressure. 

“We’ll take high-percentage shots but, against a really good team like today, we’re content to move the ball around and pull it back out if it’s not there,” said Hartford, a Springfield native and resident who starred in three sports at Colby-Sawyer College during the 1980s. “We were controlled and patient and worked as a unit. That movement is what tires a defense out.”

The Hurricanes’ basic skills are clearly improved, and once that offensive movement without the ball becomes instinctive, this will be a team to be reckoned with throughout Vermont Division II. Given that some of the squad’s best players are also its youngest, however, maintaining positive chemistry will be crucial. Older players who once endured routs as part of sparse rosters may have to settle for lesser roles.

“It’s a challenge when the seniors have paid their dues and you get a new coach coming in with an open perspective on choosing the team,” Hartford said. “The (youth) program is giving us players who have had a longer time to develop skill sets and athleticism. We have to balance that with keeping the older ones involved and having them realize their leadership alone is invaluable.”

Said Pero: “It’s just good to know that with these good, young players coming, our program will be better in the future. There aren’t really any conflicts on the team.”

Hartford played without freshman Zoey Peiffer, out sick after scoring a combined five goals during the first two games. Junior Caitlin Gaudet, who’s scored twice, is on a school trip to Germany. Their return will bolster the Hurricanes, who play a home-and-home series with Vergennes next week. 

“I think the teams we’ve played so far underestimated us and expected the old Hartford,” Pero said. “Now that we’ve come out and won three in a row, I think that mentality is changing and they’re going to be more worried.”

Notes: Simmons also had an assist. … The Hurricanes’ varsity features 17 players and the JV has 13, mostly freshmen. … Hartford the coach helped start youth lacrosse and then the high school version in Georgetown, Mass., north of Boston and east of Lawerence. She began coaching the high school Royals upon their 2003 debut and was 70-42-1 before retiring in 2011. … Wheatley, who resigned because of health concerns after three seasons, went 8-41 but stepped into the job as the program’s fifth coach in six years and inherited a team that had gone 8-78 the previous six seasons, including a winless campaign in 2014. … The Hurricanes are a combined 18-99 during their last 10 campaigns, and athletic director Jeff Moreno said last year that they have never been above .500 during what’s closing in on a 20-year history.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.