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Senior Callie Kessler was going to lead the North Haven girls’ lacrosse team alongside fellow captain Erika Holle during the 2020 spring season. This year was also going to mark Bernie Pellegrino’s first go-round as the Indians’ head coach. (File photo by Susan Lambert/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Madison Fredericks is one of six seniors on the North Haven girls’ lacrosse squad who had their senior season taken away as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (File photo by Catherine Avalone/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Bernie Pellegrino was eager to begin his debut campaign as head coach of the North Haven girls’ lacrosse squad. After serving as an assistant coach for the past several years, Pellegrino had great expectations for an Indians’ team that’s been climbing up the SCC and state ranks throughout the past decade. With the 2020 season having been canceled due to COVID-19, Pellegrino is going to have wait another year before he can enjoy his first game as North Haven’s head coach.
“It’s secondary to the kids and the disappointment that I feel for them, but it is certainly disappointing for me, as well,” Pellegrino said. “I had some ideas about what I wanted to try and do and how I wanted to progress our program. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to implement those things.”
As Pellegrino took on the head coach’s role, last year’s freshman coach Frank Biceglia was going to move up and take the reins with the Indians’ JV team this spring. North Haven resident Alex Acquarulo, who played lacrosse at Hamden Hall and Quinnipiac, was stepping into the head coach position with the freshman squad.
“Everyone on the staff was taking over a new role, so it was definitely disappointing for us,” said Pellegrino. “But I told them, ‘Hey, we’re undefeated in our first season as head coaches.’”
While Pellegrino and his coaches will get another crack at it next year, the six athletes in North Haven’s senior class are not going to have that opportunity. The harsh reality is that all six of those kids have played their final games in the maroon and white uniform. The Indians’ seniors are captains Callie Kessler and Erika Holle, who play at the attacker and defensive midfielder positions, respectively, along with offensive midfielder Christina DeAngelo, attacker Madison Fredericks, goalkeeper Kyla Kennealy, and midfielder Alyssa Konspore.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Pellegrino said. “We graduated 12 seniors from last year, most of which either started or played considerable time, so we were going to have a lot of players, some of which were seniors, who were going to fill starting roles and had been working hard to prepare themselves to do that. Unfortunately, that never came to pass. They were disappointed, and we were disappointed for them.”
Despite his disappointment, Coach Pellegrino wants his graduating seniors to that he appreciates how much they’ve helped the program grow in recent seasons. Two athletes who have been at the forefront of that effort are the captains, Holle and Kessler.
Holle missed her junior soccer season with a knee injury, but showed an unrelenting determination to get back on the field for lacrosse last spring. She will be attending college at the University of Alabama.
Like Holle, Kessler was also going to be returning to North Haven’s starting lineup this year. Pellegrino called Kessler a productive scorer who can strike from various angles and has “a nose for the goal.” Kessler will play Division I lacrosse for St. Bonaventure University in New York.
Coach Pellegrino said that Kessler and Holle were going to make an exceptional duo in the captain’s helm with their complementary combination of leadership traits.
“Their leadership skills are different. Erika is more of an out-front leader. She’s a little more vocal and brings a presence with her strength and speed. Erika is ultra-competitive, and people follow her lead because of her presence,” said Pellegrino. “Callie is a little more one-on-one, especially with the underclassmen. She’s worked hard to create those relationships the last two years, and I think that would be a benefit to the team, because she has a way of getting the younger kids to feel like a part of the group. Together, they’re a great tandem.”
Pellegrino added that North Haven’s four other seniors are also excellent leaders who were going to make key contributions to this year’s team. The coach gave high praise to DeAngelo and Fredericks for what they bring to the table. DeAngelo is a CIAC Scholar-Athlete recipient who is going to attend Penn State University. DeAngelo and Fredericks were both starters last season.
“Christina is an intelligent player, a hard worker in the classroom, and a talented athlete. She started as a defensive midfielder last year and was going to move over to offense this year,” Pellegrino said. “Madison is another senior who has been part of the team for four years, and she comes from a whole family of great lacrosse players. She’s a great offensive player who would have been our primary face-off taker this year.”
Pellegrino also had nothing but nice things to say about both Kennealy and Konspore. Kennealy played goal for North Haven two years ago, while Konspore has helped the Indians’ cheerleading team achieve tremendous success.
“Kyla would have been our starting goalie and a major contributor in net. After a successful sophomore year, she didn’t play in her junior year, but she was going to return this year, which was great news for us,” said Pellegrino. “Alyssa is another good team player. She would have been a great member of this year’s team.”
Even with the graduation of 12 seniors from the 2019 team, including three-time All-Stater Annie Uyeki, Coach Pellegrino was not viewing 2020 as a rebuilding year. Pellegrino felt that North Haven was going to improve upon last year’s 6-10 record in its second season competing at the SCC Tier 1 level.
One of the biggest reasons behind Pellegrino’s optimism is the fact that the Indians were going to be a deep team that featured large classes of talented juniors and sophomores. Some of the top athletes in North Haven’s junior class include attacker Mariella Biceglia; midfielders Gianna Mastroianni, Sophia Papa, and Sophia Barra; and defenders Zaina Gebril and Mackenzie White.
The Indians’ sophomore corps features attackers Shea Saracino, Eliza O’Connor, and Lorelei King; midfielders Jenna Pine and Riley Minns; and goalie Hannah Sommer.
“We had high hopes. Having a full year playing in SCC Tier 1 under our belt was going to benefit our kids, because they knew what to expect after going through the rigors of that schedule last year. Also, we saw the rise of several underclassmen start to happen midway through the season last year,” Pellegrino said. “We thought we were going to be very competitive, not only in the SCC, but in the Class M rankings, too. We didn’t look at it as a rebuilding year. We thought we were going to be better than last year.”
Although the Indians weren’t able to display their depth on the field this year, they still showed up in full force when Pellegrino hosted a series of meetings on Zoom as the team awaited the final verdict on the season. Pellegrino held about 10 meetings in which he and his athletes discussed a variety of topics, from the X’s and O’s of lacrosse to their feelings about the campaign being in limbo to what their favorite foods and TV shows are.
Pellegrino said that anywhere from 30 to 50 athletes participated in these group chats on a regular basis. The coach said it meant a lot to see his players stay invested through their attendance, despite the fact that they knew the season was most likely not going to be played. Everyone also stayed connected through a group text.
“What we saw was a committed group of young student-athletes who were anxious to stay connected with one another, help each other, and do team building, even though they couldn’t be together. It was a positive for us to see that we had good attendance at those meetings,” said Pellegrino. “The Zoom meetings were definitely helpful to increase our camaraderie. The texting was also good, because that was more frequent and back and forth every day. I think it was important to get everyone involved, so they could get to know their teammates better.”
Pellegrino and his team had a Zoom meeting on the same day that the CIAC announced its decision to cancel the spring season. While Pellegrino knows there is nothing that can replace the experience of playing lacrosse for your hometown, he’s hoping that his athletes, particularly his seniors, learn a life lesson as a result of dealing with the frustration that came with this situation.
“In high school athletics, we learn life lessons that are more important than the scores of any games. You learn lessons playing sports that you will carry with you and will benefit you moving forward, like committing yourself to a team and being accountable to your teammates,” Pellegrino said. “That was what we talked about on that day. This is a tough lesson to learn, but I hope down the road they can look back at their disappointment and know they can deal with any future disappointments that come their way, because they were a member of the Class of 2020 and had to deal with that, and it made them a better person.”
Even though he won’t be coaching the current seniors this year, Pellegrino is already looking forward to working with the players who are coming back for next season. When the calender finally turns to April of 2021, Pellegrino will finally get to make his long-awaited debut as North Haven’s head coach.
“We’ll be counting down the days. That’s for sure,” said Pellegrino said. “Losing a whole season will make our wait even more anticipated than normal. We’re already chomping at the bit, and we still have 10 months to go.”
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