Brighton Proves Rebuild Successfully Complete with D1 Repeat

By Steve Vedder
Special for

June 10, 2023

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.

FHN/E goalie Sommer-Jo Grieser stops a shot by the Bulldogs' Lauren Zaccagni (10)."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.

Players from both teams scramble for the ball during Saturday's Division 1 Final."(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."

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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.)