NORTH ANDOVER -- In more ways than one, the North Andover High School boys lacrosse team needed a wake-up call.
After an 11-4 loss to Central Catholic in their season opener on April 5, the Knights were summoned to a 6 a.m. practice the following Sunday morning.
“That 5 a.m. wake-up was not good,” senior defenseman Ryan Slattery said. “Our first practice after getting embarrassed by Central, coach (Steve Zella) did not take it easy on us.”
Two days later, North Andover followed up that practice with a 19-2 win over Haverhill. On Friday, the Knights made it two in a row, cruising past Lowell, 16-5.
With its second consecutive comfortable victory, North Andover is putting that season-opening loss in the past and looking for continued improvement under first-year head coach Zella, using that physically and mentally demanding early morning practice as a place to start.
“I think something just clicked in everyone,” Slattery said. “Kids just need to keep buying in. That Sunday practice helped a lot.”
Looking to dominate as they’d done against Haverhill three days earlier, the Knights (2-1) didn’t quite get off to a roaring start. Lowell opened the game in a zone defense, which took Zella by surprise.
Slattery said it wasn’t that frustrating for his team, but felt more like growing pains to him, as the Knights tried to figure out how to crack the Lowell defense early on.
After failing to find the back of the net for more than five minutes after the opening face-off, senior midfielder Mike Roche knifed through the Red Raiders defense and fired in a goal with 6:22 to go in the first quarter.
North Andover went on to score five more goals before the horn sounded at the end of the frame, taking complete control with a 6-0 lead after just one quarter, following senior Matt Niejadlik’s score with 6.5 seconds on the clock.
“We just adjusted the offense,” Zella said. “We put in a zone offense really quick, then ran a couple of man-up plays. ...You’ve got to find the weak spots in the zone and we found them pretty quick.”
From there, it was smooth sailing for the Knights, who took an 11-3 advantage into halftime. They held Lowell scoreless in the third quarter, holding a 16-3 lead and forcing a running clock for the final period.
Roche finished with a game-high six goals, and added two assists for an eight-point performance. Niejadlik and junior Keegan Hughes each tallied four goals, as the three combined for 14 of North Andover’s 16 scores.
“The kids have responded,” Zella said. “These kids are fighters and warriors.”
Zella, who replaced Ryan Connolly at North Andover, said that, even with the short time he’s spent with the Knights, they’re believing in him to do what’s best for them. The Sunday morning practice helped them turn a corner, he said, and the last week has prepared them for difficult tests ahead.
As with any new coach, it takes time to come together with the players off the field and implement a system on it, but Zella is feeling good about the Knights, and Slattery believes things are getting better and better under the new head coach.
“We’re definitely gelling,” Slattery said. “Kids just have to get used to the new system, but we love the coach. He’s intense, he makes us work and we get the reward in wins like this. We love the guy. He’d take a bullet for us and we’d take a bullet for him.”
North Andover 16, Lowell 5
Goals: Mike Roche 6, Matt Niejadlik 4, Keegan Hughes 4, Charlie Dean, Jack Ferullo
Saves: Ethan Ford 6, John Drew 3
Lowell (3-3): 0 3 0 2 — 5
North Andover (2-1): 6 5 5 0 — 16