A coaching change hasn’t slowed the Pope John Paul II High girls lacrosse program.
The Lady Knights haven’t flinched, winning their first 10 contests.
In fact, PJP II has rarely been challenged thus far.
The Lady Knights have managed to win their only close matches, which came over a three-day span in early March. PJP II captured a 7-6 victory at Franklin in an overtime contest and then a 10-9 win over visiting Houston.
Senior Grace Lascara scored the game-winning goal against Franklin. It was her 200th career goal, breaking the school record previously held by Mary Leonard (who played at North Carolina’s Davidson College following her career at PJP II).
“The girls gained a lot of confidence from that,” Pope John Paul II High first-year head coach Paul Raccio said. “We were down 5-1 in the Franklin game, and we were down 6-2. We were also down one player (due to the team being assessed four yellow cards). The girls just held their way back.
“That win was huge for the program and huge for the girls’ confidence. You have to battle through those situations.”
The setback is Houston’s lone loss, while Franklin has fallen to just one other foe, St. George’s (the state runner-up last season).
Houston was a state semifinalist last season.
All of that has to the Lady Knights being ranked third in the state in the LaxPower ratings, behind top-ranked Ensworth and St. George’s.
Raccio – who previously served as the PJP II boys program’s assistant coach – leads the Lady Knights, taking over after Megan Clark was at the helm of the program for the previous six seasons. Clark compiled a 70-32 record during her tenure, reaching the state semifinals in both 2012 (suffering a 15-14, double-overtime loss to Ensworth) and 2013 (dropping a 17-7 contest to Hutchison).
“There was a little bit of heartbreak when Megan left,” Raccio said. “It’s all they knew. We have two great assistant coaches (Katie King and Carly Grimm). I’m the disciplinarian, and they are there if they girls need to talk about anything.
“Mainly, the girls have bought into the culture we have tried to create. I think they are enjoying themselves for sure.”
Hutchison has won the last five state titles, after St. George’s captured a one-goal victory over Ensworth in the 2010 state final.
PJP II has outscored its other eight opponents by a combined margin of 133-40.
Raccio attributes much of that success to a six-member senior class, which consists of six starters.
“It was easy to get into the flow of things,” Raccio said. “The girls have taken to what we’ve been teaching. They’re receptive to the coaching. That’s a big part of why we are where we are.”
Lascara – a Kennesaw State (Ga.) University signee and a three-time Tennessee Girls Lacrosse Association All-Central West Region Team selection – leads the team in most categories, including goals (46) and ground balls (36).
Junior Aiyanah Simms (25 goals, 10 assists and 26 ground balls) and senior Anna Grace Shepherd (18 goals, 9 assists and 18 ground balls) are also offensive threats. Shepherd is a University of Alabama in Huntsville signee.
With sophomore Reanna McNair in goal and senior defensive midfielder Maddy Baechle providing stability in front of starting defenders Sasha Chunchukov, Miranda Smith and Rachel Tidwell, PJP II hasn’t allowed more 10 goals in any match this season.
The Lady Knights are coming off of a 13-5 season in which they reached the state quarterfinals for the second consecutive season, suffering a 10-9 loss to St. George’s.
PJP II lost 12 seniors from that squad.
The Lady Knights will have a two-week layoff before they return to action on Wednesday with a match at University School of Nashville.
“Everyone is excited to get the level of play up,” Raccio said. “We need to get ready for the playoffs, which will be difficult. We have USN, Ensworth, Ravenwood, Harpeth Hall and two of the better teams from Kentucky (Sacred Heart Academy and Louisville Collegiate School) coming up. That will help us.”
However, PJP II may face its biggest challenge one week later, when Ensworth visits on April 13.
“Ensworth is a big one,” Raccio said. “It’s big for the girls. JPII has never beaten Ensworth.
“Ensworth is very talented. They kind of took it to us in a (preseason) scrimmage. We are a very different team now. We are very much looking forward to that game.”
Reach Craig Harris at email@example.com or at 615-575-7138. Follow him on Twitter @HarrisGNESports.