The North Andover girls lacrosse team was flying high to open the 2019 campaign, kicking off with five consecutive victories.
Then, the Knights hit a snag.
Back-to-back losses, albeit to two of the top teams in the state, convinced head coach Meredith Prior and her staff to find a way to ensure an end to the brief skid and a strong turnaround.
Thus, the puzzle pieces were born.
“We were not playing as a full team for a full game,” Prior said. “We set up a day where we sat around together and talked about what we individually bring to the team and how, without each of those pieces, we can’t win games.”
Each player stated her own particular skill set and it was deemed to be their piece of the puzzle. Since then, the very top of the shaft on every North Andover stick has a strip of athletic tape with a puzzle piece drawn on it.
The two losses came to Reading, the top seed in the Division 1 North tournament, and Concord-Carlisle, No. 3 in the Division 1 East playoffs. By no means were the Knights (17-5) beaten by lesser opposition, but something needed a quick fix.
North Andover has gone 12-3 since the puzzle pieces were introduced, and the Knights have won nine of their last 10, as they prepare for the Division 1 North semifinals against MVC foe Chelmsford.
At its base, the puzzle piece idea serves to remind the North Andover players and coaches of what they need to do for the collective good.
“If everyone brought their No. 1 thing they bring to the team each day, we would be a team,” Prior said. “We just felt like we needed to bring it back to why we’re all here. We keep referring to the puzzle pieces and how you can be a piece of the puzzle.”
The concept wasn’t entirely new to the players, as it tied into the team’s “goal sheets,” which range from winning the MVC to simply having fun.
Right away, the Knights bought in to the new idea, senior captain Cate Cheevers said.
“It’s very important for every member of our team to realize and know that every player has their own strengths,” Cheevers said. “They’re all just pieces of the puzzle, and when we put it together, we’re going to be our best. It’s a way for all of us to utilize everyone’s strengths ... I think it definitely helped mesh the team.”
Prior said the meaning behind the puzzle piece can change. On some nights, players who are usually relied upon to score goals can do other things, while different Knights step up. That’s evident in North Andover’s even scoring distribution, with four girls over 30 goals for the season and one more sitting at 29.
Cheevers, a defender, said her role is to bring everyone together as a captain and manage the mental side of the game, which she said is probably the most important part of lacrosse.
For instance, that role has an impact when the Knights huddle after conceding a goal. Cheevers said the players come together and are accountable in those moments, and if anyone is down, they can look at the tape on their stick as a reminder of the important role they have to play.
“It comes into play every moment we’re on the field,” Cheevers said. “We’ve got to be together at all times. That’s the only way we’re going to be successful in the playoffs.”
Prior said the team has so many figures it can rely on at any time, made evident by that scoring distribution, as well as in other parts of the field. Cheevers’ defensive unit has allowed more than 10 goals in a game just five times all year.
A huge part of everyone stepping up for North Andover down the stretch has been a by-product of the implementation of the puzzle pieces and what they represent.
“You can kind of see it with the way we play,” Cheevers said. “It’s a lot better now. We’ve got our flow going and it’s been looking really good. I’m really excited to see how it turns out for the playoffs.”
TEAM OF ARTISTS
While everyone has a puzzle piece, because each individual has different drawing skills, the quality (depending on how you interpret art) varies.
Cheevers says her puzzle piece is somewhere in between good and bad, and said she’d probably have to say either Abbie Downer or Ali Ferullo drew the best ones (that she’s seen, anyway).
Prior, meanwhile, said her puzzle piece looks like Patrick, the pink starfish from “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
“It probably does (look like Patrick),” Cheevers laughed. “Mine’s definitely better than hers.”
The Knights will face a familiar adversary in Chelmsford when the Division 1 North semifinal rolls around on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The two MVC teams split a pair of games this season, as Chelmsford won, 12-9, in Chelmsford on May 2. Sixteen days later, North Andover earned an 11-9 win over the Lions at home.
The rubber match will be back at Chelmsford, as the second-seeded Lions have home-field advantage over the No. 3 Knights, who will hope to return to the North finals for the first time since 2016, when they made the Division 1 state title game.
Boys lacrosse fab five
Ranking the area’s five best boys lacrosse teams
1. Central Catholic (17-3)
2. Pinkerton (16-4)
3. Brooks (13-5)
4. Pentucket (16-4)
5. Pelham (16-0)
Honorable mention: North Andover (12-8), Timberlane (7-9)
Girls lacrosse fab five
Ranking the area’s five best girls lacrosse teams
1. North Andover (17-3)
2. Pinkerton (19-2)
3. Central Catholic (14-6)
4. Brooks (13-4)
5. Windham (10-8)
Honorable mention: Pelham (10-5), Methuen (9-10)