ROCKFORD – The Brighton girls lacrosse team found the ideal way to avoid the revenge trap: Just do your homework and play defense.
That's the combination the Bulldogs utilized to successfully defend its Division 1 title in Saturday's 8-6 win over top-ranked Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern/Eastern at Rockford High School.
The championship came after Brighton outlasted the BirdDogs 12-11 in overtime in last year's Final.
But instead of allowing Forest Hills Northern/Eastern to avenge last year's loss, Brighton smothered an offense which had ended the regular season with eight straight games of double-digit scoring while averaging more than 14 goals over five tournament games.
Brighton junior goalie Gabrielle Buckenberger said the championship was a result of preparation and defense. As a result, the Bulldogs knew exactly what to expect from the BirdDogs, specifically the fine-tuning of switching on defense and knowing who the FHN/E scorers were.
"We watched a lot of film to prepare ourselves," said Buckenberger, who faced just 11 shots and made six saves. "We tried to go in confidently. For me, I knew if I didn't play my best, my teammates would.
"We've been practicing our defense, and it’s been great all year. We put in the effort and the discipline, and we took time to listen to our defensive coaches and what we learned, we embraced."
The defense was most evident during the second half. Down 5-4 at the break, Brighton (17-8-1) was still behind 6-5 on a FHN/E goal by Mia Dye with 17:23 left. But Brighton's Ella Toth tied the game with 14:51 left, and Brighton then sealed it on goals by Kaia Malachino and Georgia Gill over the final 9:16.
Neither team managed more than a one-goal lead until Gill's with 3:36 left.
Gill, Toth and Lauren Zaccagni all scored twice for Brighton, which lost seven key seniors from last year's champion. A young Brighton team managed just a 2-4 record through the first six games. Included over the last three weeks was a 12-10 loss to Division 2 runner-up East Grand Rapids and a 6-6 tie with FHN/E.
Brighton coach Ashton Peters agreed that the win was all about defense. The six goals was only one from FHN/E's season low of five against Forest Hills Central.
"Our defense was unbelievable. We said all year that our defense was the best it's ever been. We've been focusing on communication and being in possession," Peters said.
"(At the start of this season) we knew there was a gap we had to close. We came in having played a tough schedule, and we knew it was pretty much a rebuilding team that had to trust the process. We had a (four-game) losing streak, and I don't think the players cared about that."
Gill said her teammates were aware of the modest expectations facing the club.
"We definitely had our doubters, people who thought we were going to be toast," she said. "But we trusted the coaches and each other, and the process worked out for us."
BirdDogs coach Joe Curcuru, whose team saw its 12-game winning streak snapped, said the Bulldogs' defense was exceptional.
"We battled hard but just came up a couple goals short," he said. "Brighton's defense was terrific. They slid well behind the ball, and their on-ball defense was great. They also had the ball a lot. I think you'll see the time of possession was pretty strong in their favor. We battled, but in the end we couldn't get the ball in the net."
PHOTOS (Top) Brighton's Cecilia Mainhardt (18) considers her next pass while Northern/Eastern's Julia Kozal (6) and Logan Kirkwood (11) defend. (Middle) FHN/E goalie Sommer-Jo Grieser stops a shot by the Bulldogs' Lauren Zaccagni (10). (Below) Players from both teams scramble for the ball during Saturday's Division 1 Final. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
Alyssa Shaver has made a habit of getting women’s lacrosse programs off the ground.
Her first year in the sport was the first year of the program at Flint Carman-Ainsworth. Her collegiate career involved playing in the inaugural seasons for both University of Detroit Mercy and Lawrence Tech University.
As a coach, she led the first team at Urbana University in Ohio.
When she left Urbana for Lincoln Memorial University, a Division II program in Tennessee, she had an opportunity to take over an established – albeit still relatively new – program.
Two years in, another chance to start a program arose, and she once again stepped up.
However, this was not a different school – but in a different sport.
The 2008 Carman-Ainsworth graduate recently finished her third year in charge of the LMU women’s lacrosse program, and is now preparing for Year 2 in charge of the women’s field hockey program at the school – coaching a sport she had never played and rarely seen.
“I had not watched ‘Ted Lasso’ but when people figured out what I was doing, they told me about it,” Shaver said. “Last fall I started watching it and I was like, ‘Oh God, this is my life right now.’”
Starting with a new sport was how Shaver’s athletic career got jump-started in the first place.
She was a volleyball, basketball and softball player prior to high school, but when her basketball coach brought up the idea of starting a lacrosse program at Carman-Ainsworth, she decided to give it a try. The connection was almost immediate.
“I didn’t know what (lacrosse) was,” she said. “But I put a stick in my hand, and it felt like the most natural thing. I was a point guard in basketball, and I had played basketball since I could walk. I think in lacrosse, the footwork, defense, concepts and ideas are similar to basketball. But when I picked up a stick, it was like, ‘I get to carry this ball around? I don’t have to dribble it?’ From there, it kind of clicked.”
Shaver was a remarkable scorer at Carman-Ainsworth, racking up 226 goals during her four-year career. That included 81 goals her senior season.
While at Carman-Ainsworth, she also continued playing basketball and volleyball.
“As a point guard in basketball, I didn’t really care about scoring,” she said. “In lacrosse, I was really good at offense and scoring. I was a setter in volleyball, so my other sports I was always setting other people up.”
Her success at Carman-Ainsworth and at the club level led to an opportunity to play for U-D Mercy’s new program, led by coach Mary Ann Meltzer. Shaver was an academic all-conference selection during her time there and played for two years before coming back home.
While she was no longer playing, she continued to coach, something she had started while a freshman at Mercy.
It was while coaching a club team that the opportunity to return to playing at Lawrence Tech presented itself.
“It was terrifying,” Shaver said of returning to the game after two years away. “I would play in summer league, and I always had a stick in my hand because I was coaching, but I hadn’t really played competitively. I was 23 and most of my teammates were 18-year-old freshmen. I always joke with them now – some of them are my best friends – but the first couple years, they didn’t want to talk with me and I thought they didn’t like me. It turns out, they were scared of me.”
Shaver played three seasons at Lawrence Tech, earning All-America honorable mention from the National Women’s Lacrosse League in 2014 and first-team NWLL All-America honors in 2015 and 2016. She also was named an All-American by the NAIA as a senior.
Prior to her third season, with Lawrence Tech in need of a coach, Shaver reached out to Meltzer, who had recently retired from U-D Mercy. The two were reunited at LTU, and Shaver and her teammates reaped the benefits, reaching the NWLL championship game, which they lost 9-8 in overtime. Shaver was the NWLL National Offensive Player of the Year.
In 2017, with Shaver on the coaching staff, Lawrence Tech advanced to the NAIA national title game.
“She’s pretty much responsible for a lot of our program at Lawrence Tech,” Meltzer said. “She was the driving force in recruiting kids. She had taken a couple years off, and I think when she came here she was that responsible and was kind of the go-getter in getting players and getting people interested in LTU for quite a while. Fortunately, we’ve done well.”
In 2018, Shaver took over at Lourdes (Ohio), leading the program to its first winning season in her first year.
After two years at Lourdes, she took over Urbana, building the program from scratch. She took over the LMU program prior to the 2021 season. The Lady Railsplitters were 2-5 her first season, but have gone 12-7 and 10-9 in the two seasons since.
Shaver taking over the field hockey program alongside her lacrosse duties wasn’t the original plan. But after things fell through with the coach originally hired for the job, and with some of her lacrosse players signed on to play both as well, the LMU administration turned to her.
“I have a lot of experience with new programs with lacrosse, and the girls were so great and super appreciative,” she said. “My lacrosse players have some experience, and a lot of the field hockey girls were just awesome and understanding, and helping me learn.”
Shaver is learning the game and was able to get some help from volunteer assistant Khotsofalo Pheko, a former runner at LMU who played field hockey in South Africa before coming to Tennessee.
Meltzer has faith in her former player to navigate all of it and find success, even if she told Shaver she was crazy for taking on the field hockey job initially.
“Obviously she has the work ethic, and she’s going to do what she needs to do to be successful,” Meltzer said. “As coaches, especially younger coaches, when things aren’t going well they think that more is better when sometimes less is better. I think she just needs to be patient; we all do. That’s the biggest thing. With her, starting so many programs – we’re all competitive, we all want to be successful really quick – it is going to take time.
“She’s an incredible person. She has a heart of gold.”
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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Alyssa Shaver takes the field for Flint Carman-Ainsworth, and at right she coaches at Lincoln Memorial University. (Middle) Shaver just finished her third season leading LMU women's lacrosse. (Below) Shaver (bottom row, fifth from left) was a four-year player at Carman-Ainsworth, including on this 2007 team. (Photos courtesy of Alyssa Shaver and Lincoln Memorial's athletic department.)