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Hannah Tillier (left) and the Guilford Seahawks girls’ lacrosse squad opened play in the Dream League by notching convincing victories against Monroe and Stratford. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Maddie Epke (right) and her teammates on the Seahawks are excited to play lacrosse this summer, following the cancellation of the high school season in the spring. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Izzy Gurnham (left) scored four goals when Guilford defeated the Stratford Devil Dogs by the final tally of 24-6 on July 8. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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The Guilford High School girls’ lacrosse team had its sights set on putting together another big season this spring. Guilford was looking to defend its SCC title and then make a run in the Class M State Tournament, but unfortunately, those plans were canceled when the campaign was called off due to COVID-19. While there’s no way to replicate the experience of a high school season, Guilford’s athletes are still getting an opportunity to play lacrosse this summer in the Dream League, a free statewide league that was founded by the nonprofit James Vick Foundation.
The Guilford Seahawks are one of 10 teams participating in the Dream League. The Seahawks feature 24 lacrosse players from town and are coached by Wendy Epke, who has been head coach of the girls’ lacrosse squad at the high school since 2017.
Coach Epke’s club is off to a stellar start in Dream League action after winning its first two games of the season last week. On July 6, Guilford hosted the Monroe Panthers and prevailed by the final score of 17-10. Two days later, the Seahawks hit the road to play the Stratford Devil Dogs and notched a 24-6 victory for an early record of 2-0.
Coach Epke feels pleased that her team quickly put two wins in the books. She’s also happy about the fact that her athletes are together again and having a good time on the field while competing in the Dream League.
“We are really grateful to the James Vick Foundation that they decided to take on lacrosse as a sport to support and create this league,” Coach Epke said. “When you don’t get a season, everyone is on pause, but now we have gotten part of that season back, and the kids get to develop and learn. The kids want to play and want to get getter. Our seniors want to share their knowledge with the younger kids, so they can continue to grow and get ready to compete for SCC and state titles again next year.”
Every one of the players, coaches, and volunteers who are affiliated with the Dream League have been tested for COVID-19 and must follow prevention protocols like temperature checks before both practices and games. The league features a staff of prevention protocol volunteers, as well as doctors and registered nurses, who oversee the protocols and test results.
There is no shared water or equipment at Guilford’s practices and games. There are also no benches on the sidelines. Guilford’s players have to either can sit on the sidelines or each bring their own individual seat and, of course, they must maintain a distance of at least six feet between one another. Spectators must also maintain that same distance while standing along the fence. No fans are allowed to sit in the bleachers during Guilford’s games.
Coach Epke said that she and her players feel safe based on the safety measures that the Dream League has implemented.
“I feel that we are safe. I feel really comfortable,” said Epke. “I think that getting the test was a great idea, and I feel safe out there. I think that we all feel comfortable out on the field.”
Guilford hit the field to face Monroe for its season opener and earned a 17-10 win to start off on a positive note. Catherine Larrow and Hannah Tillier both scored four goals for the Seahawks, while Maddie Epke netted three goals in the victory. Epke also won 19 of her 25 draws in the face-off circle to help Guilford take an early lead that it never relinquished.
“I thought they did really well. We only have two seniors, so a lot of young kids are playing and producing,” Coach Epke said. “I thought that we looked a little bit nervous at first, but it was nice to see them get settled in and make good decisions with the ball.”
Guilford kept its momentum going by claiming a 24-6 victory at Stratford in its second game of the campaign. Once again, Tillier had her scoring shoes on as she netted six goals for the Seahawks in their lopsided victory. Izzy Gurnham scored four goals, while Maddie Epke, Sydney Cunningham, and Taylor Farace contributed three goals apiece for Coach Epke’s club.
“As we moved into our second game, I thought the kids did a better job of a having patience on offense and protecting the ball better,” said Coach Epke. “We didn’t make a lot of unforced turnovers and had good shot selection. We were taking good shots, instead of forcing things.”
Guilford is being led by two captains who were slated to hold that same role for the high school team this spring. The Seahawks’ captains are Larrow, an attacker, and defender Maggie Mandel, both of whom are recent Guilford High School graduates. Larrow and Mandel were each All-SCC and All-State Second Team honorees in their junior campaigns last year. Larrow will continue her lacrosse career at Niagara University, while Mandel is headed to Ithaca College to play lacrosse.
“Catherine is a goal scorer. She can find the back of the net. She is so quick, and her moves are so fast. She scored 78 goals in her junior year. She also does a good job of helping our younger kids figure out to run plays in a successful offense,” Epke said. “Maggie does the same thing on the opposite end of the field. She’s the one directing and teaching the younger kids on defense. She’s very vocal, encouraging, pushes herself at practice, and does a fabulous job of helping those kids understand how to compete in the SCC.”
The Seahawks’ roster features several athletes who are entering their senior year at Guilford High School. Leading the way in that pack is Tillier, who has already committed to play lacrosse at Boston University. Tillier was going to move from the midfield to attack during the high school season and, although that never happened, she’s now on the attack with the Seahawks and making the most of the opportunity with 10 goals in her first two games.
Guilford’s other rising seniors are Gurnham, Cunningham, Ella Kagan, and Kelly Calistro, who play the attack position; along with Jordan Filley and Kate Russell, who are both defenders.
The Seahawks feature a few rising juniors who’ve made huge contributions for Guilford on the high school circuit. One of those athletes is midfielder Maddie Epke, who had 42 goals and 40 assists on her way to garnering All-SCC and All-State Class M First Team accolades as a freshman. Goalkeeper Sydney Widlitz is also a member of Guilford’s corps of soon-to-be-juniors. Widlitz was the starting goalie for the high school team in her freshman year last spring.
The other rising juniors on Guilford’s roster are Marin Ciardiello, an attacker; Farace and Miya Imaeda, who were both midfielders; and Olivia McDonald and Olivia Skapczynski; all play defense. Ciardiello attends high school at the Hopkins School, and Imaeda goes to Choate Rosemary Hall.
Guilford also has eight rising sophomores on the squad. Those athletes are attacker Kayla Nophsker; midfielders MJ Santa Barbara, Ella Clarke, Kat Bassegio, and Scout Climie; defenders Kim Evans and Emerson Forsielous; and goalie Molly Scanlon.
Coach Epke’s assistant coaches are John Climie and Susan Tillier.
There are two divisions in the Dream League. Guilford is playing in the North Division with the North Haven Warriors, Madison Mavericks, Branford Sting, and the Wallingford West Side. The teams in the South Division are the Amity Vikings, Shelton Stags, West Haven Bulldogs, Stratford Devil Dogs, and the Monroe Panthers.
Every team in the league has 10 games on its regular-season schedule, including two contests against each of its divisional opponents to go with two games versus non-divisional opponents. Each team will also host a Senior Night game. Guilford’s Senior Night matchup is against Madison at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7.
Following the regular season, there will be postseason tournaments for each of the two divisions. The winners of those tournaments will then square off in the championship game.
While Coach Epke wants the Seahawks to continue the successful trend established by the high school team, she isn’t setting any specific goals when it comes to her club’s win total this summer. Epke said the biggest thing is that her team continually gets better throughout the next month and is performing at its peak by the end of the season. Along the way, she wants her athletes to simply have fun and appreciate their opportunity to play lacrosse in the Dream League.
“I am hoping that one month from now, our team will look as if we’ve been playing lacrosse for a month. I want us to look like a well-oiled machine when we’re playing out there,” said Epke. “We just want to do our best, enjoy the moments, and enjoy the experience that has been given to us. As one of our parents said the other day, ‘This is much better than Netflix.’”
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