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07/05/2022 12:00 AM

Guilford Girls’ Lacrosse Adds Another Chapter to its Dynasty

The Guilford girls’ lacrosse team claimed its second-straight state title by earning a 12-8 win versus St. Joseph in the Class M state championship game this spring. Pictured from the Grizzlies are senior captains Sydney Widlitz, Maddie Epke, Taylor Farace, Olivia McDonald, and Lorelei King. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier

The Guilford girls’ lacrosse program has achieved just about every goal that it’s set for itself throughout the past few years, and that pattern didn’t one change bit this season. After winning their second-straight SCC title and first state championship last year, the Grizzlies defended both of those of crowns en route to an overall record of 21-1 during the 2022 spring campaign.

Guilford wound up finishing the season on a 21-game winning streak. The Grizzlies’ latest run to greatness further solidified them as one of the strongest lacrosse programs in the state, bolstered by a positive culture created by Head Coach Wendy Epke and her players.

The Grizzlies captured their second-straight Class M state title by posting a 12-8 victory over St. Joseph in this year’s state final. Sophomore Payton Root scored 5 goals Guilford, and junior MJ Santa Barbara had 3 goals in the game. Senior captain Maddie Epke scored 3 goals with 4 assists to help the Grizzlies prevail. When the game was over, Coach Epke felt relieved that her team had met its expectations and accomplished the incredible task of winning back-to-back state championships.

“I feel like this year, it was more of a relief, because it was a lot harder to be expected to win. I think a lot of the teams were expecting us to win and, last year, we were kind of just hoping,” Coach Epke said. “Last year, you win and you’re so excited, and it was totally a different feeling than this year, when we were just expected to win. We were expected to, we followed through, and we did it.”

The relief of claiming another state crown game on the heels of an exceptional regular season for Coach Epke’s club. After losing to Wilton in its season opener, Guilford won every game that it played the rest of the way this year. Even in the Wilton loss, the Grizzlies’ refusal to quit was inspiring for Coach Epke.

“Even the score didn’t really indicate the game necessarily. It was actually a much-closer game,” said Epke. “At one point, I said to the kids, ‘We could either hold the ball here and keep the score as it is or we can keep playing and trying just to challenge ourselves’”. The kids wanted to play, which was awesome.”

Guilford went on a remarkable run following its defeat against Wilton. The Grizzlies entered every contest with the willingness to make sacrifices and do whatever it took to put the team in the best position to win. Guilford had learned from its experiences last year and was able to fix past mistakes in key moments this season, ultimately setting the team up for another amazing campaign.

“We just had some things that happened this season where I think our team was able to grow from experiences from last year. I think our team in general had a lot more maturity than they did last year,” Coach Epke said. “They just mature. I think because we had some of those experiences last year, we were just better equipped for it this year.”

Two games in which the Grizzlies flipped the script from last season came against Fairfield Ludlowe and Staples. The Grizzlies had lost to Fairfield Ludlowe in overtime last year, but defeated Ludlowe by a 12-1 score in overtime this time around. Guilford also lost to Staples last season, but notched a 19-8 win versus the Wreckers just prior to competing in the SCC Tournament this year. Coach Epke’s squad finished with the regular season with a record of 15-1 heading into the playoffs, beginning with the SCC Tournament.

The Grizzlies kept hold of their conference title for the third-straight year by earning a 12-6 over Cheshire in the SCC final. Root, Santa Barbara, and senior captain Taylor Farace scored 3 goals apiece in the victory. Senior captain goalkeeper Sydney Widlitz made 12 saves en route to being named the SCC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Maddie Epke had previously scored 4 goals to go with 6 assists in the team’s 17-5 win against Hand in the SCC semifinals.

Every season, Coach Epke’s team chooses a word or phrase to stand by as the season goes on. The consistent string of strong performances was led by a belief that Guilford’s players chose to devote themselves to since day one of the campaign.

“This year, the kids chose ‘Believe it’. They all believed that they could win, and they did,” said Epke. “They believed they could repeat. That was a major takeaway.”

Guilford featured a talented class of seniors that led the way to the team’s most-recent championship season. Coach Epke said that the leadership, support, and guidance of the seniors played a major role in the Grizzlies’ success, as well as the progression of the team’s younger players. The members of Guilford’s senior class were the captains, Epke, Widlitz, Farace, Lorlei King, and Olivia McDonald, along with Sophie Ghantous.

“They all played different roles on the team and helped us in different ways. They’ve also done a good job of teaching the culture of Guilford lacrosse,” Coach Epke said. “Losing them in the program is going to be hard, but I just think they did a good job of teaching the younger kids that are coming up behind them different aspects of the game that they do well.”

Epke, Widlitz, Farace, King, Santa Barbara, Root, and junior Kat Baseggio each earned All-SCC First Team accolades for Guilford this season. Farace, King, Santa Barbara, and Root also made the Connecticut High School Coaches Association (CHSCA) All-State Class M First Team, while Widlitz earned a spot on the CHSSCA All-State Class M Second Team. Maddie Epke was selected to the USA Lacrosse/CHSCA All-America/All-State Team on behalf of the Grizzlies.

While relishing her team’s achievements from the 2022 season, Coach Epke realizes that Guilford will have big shoes to fill next year with so impactful seniors departing the program. Still, Epke anticipates that all of her returning athletes are going to maintain their high expectations in 2023.

“When we turned in our uniforms, I told the girls, ‘Alright, you got one week to relax and heal up and then the training starts now’” said Epke. “If we want to repeat our success, we need the younger kids to keep working and keep pushing themselves to become better lacrosse players, and I think they will.”

The 2022 edition of the Guilford girls’ lacrosse team carried on the program’s legacy by collecting some prestigious pieces of hardware. It means everything to the Grizzlies that they secured their third-straight SCC title and second-consecutive state championship this year. Guilford has had a long line of great players come through the program, and Coach Epke felt proud to see the athletes on this year’s team continue the Grizzlies’ winning tradition.

“I always tell the girls at the end of the season to thank the kids that were there before them because we’re sitting on the shoulders of the kids that have done all the same, but maybe didn’t have the same results,” Epke said. “We kind of build from their successes and learn from what they’ve done in the past to keep building as a program. Know that their sacrifices are part of the reason why we have success now.”

The athletes on the Guilford girls’ lacrosse team are Taylor Farace, Lorelei King, Olivia McDonald, Maddie Epke, and Sydney Widlitz; senior Sophie Ghantous; juniors Ella Clarke, Scout Climie, Kailyn Scott, Emerson Forselius, MJ Santa Barbara, Kat Baseggio, Kayla Nophsker, Brianna Seixas, and Delaney Victor; sophomores Isabella Blanco, Payton Root, Addison Widlitz, Tania Evans, Paige Balletto, and Maya Stoddard; and freshmen Tea Gambardella, Campbelle Jacobson, and Cassandra Ward.

The Guilford girls’ lacrosse team had a dream season that saw the Grizzlies achieve the SCC three-peat and then defend their Class M crown en route to an overall record of 21-1 for the 2022 season. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
The athletes on the Guilford girls’ lacrosse squad celebrate following their 12-8 victory over St. Joseph in the final of the Class M State Tournament at Sacred Heart University on June 11. Pictured are junior Kat Baseggio (left) with senior captain Olivia McDonald, senior captain Sydney Widlitz, and junior Emerson Forselius amidst the celebratory frenzy.File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Maddie Epke finished her storied career as a Guilford athlete by collecting a host of honors in a season that saw her help the Grizzlies’ girls’ lacrosse team add another chapter to its dynasty. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Senior captain goalkeeper Sydney Widlitz was named the Most Outstanding Player of the SCC Tournament after the Grizzles notched a 12-6 win against Cheshire in the conference final at West Haven High School May 26.File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Taylor Farace garnered All-SCC First Team honors while leading the Guilford girls’ lacrosse squad as a senior captain this year. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Senior captain Lorelei King was one of seven members of the Grizzlies who solidified a spot on the All-SCC First Team for their exceptional play during the 2022 campaign. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier