MKA juniors Lily Pryor (left) and Reilly Hughes (right) pose with celebratory signs after the Cougars 9-8 win over Verona in the Essex County Tournament Quarterfinals on Tuesday, April 24. Pryor scored he 100th goal, while Hughes made her 400th save in MKA’s previous game

by Andrew Garda

Montclair Kimberley Academy’s girls lacrosse team lost to their counterparts in Verona twice last season, but the Cougars got their revenge this past Tuesday with a 9-8 victory at Muenster Field in the quarterfinals of the Essex County Tournament.

The fourth-seeded Cougars (8-2) did it with on the strength of a four goal effort by Claire Linaugh, Lily Pryor’s 100th goal and some key saves in the final few seconds by goalkeeper Reilly Hughes, a Verona native for whom this win was especially sweet.

“It feels great,” Hughes said after the win. “It was a monumental moment for us. We lost to them twice last year, and to come back this year and win was big,”

Hughes reached a milestone herself during a recent game against Kent Place when she made her 400th save.

“The growth that Reilly has shown as a goalie from freshman year until right now — and she just started playing her freshman year, she never played goalie before — is something,” head coach Chelsea Intrabartola said after the game. “And now she surpassed her 400th save in this game, and came up huge. I mean, this is really when she shines, when the game is on the line. She just thrives on that kind of pressure. We’re lucky to have her back there.”

For Hughes, it’s the folks off the field who help her rise to the occasion.

“The people on the sidelines, like the JV team cheering us on and everything and Coach Cait [DiRuggiero]. They’re the ones in my head and I hear their voices when I’m in goal,” Hughes said.

Hughes didn’t shrink during several Verona rushes throughout the game, and never let a goal get into her head. When it came down to a final Verona push with less than 10 seconds to go, just one thing went through her head.

“Oh shoot, this could be a make or break moment,” Hughes said, laughing.

Cougars goalie Reilly Hughes sets up to stop a Verona shot during a close 9-8 win during the Essex County Tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday, April 24.

Both the Cougar defense and Hughes did what they had to to preserve the lead, making it a very good moment for the team.

The Cougars now face a tough Glen Ridge team in the ECT semifinals on Saturday, April 28, but Intrabartola knows her team won’t shy away from the physical Ridgers.

“Our team as a whole, we went into this season with a chip on our shoulder, knowing it would be hard for us to break into that top four seeding,” Intrabartola said.  “So starting off this season 5-0 and take that momentum and confidence going into counties, we were just prepared for this game. Verona is a big rival of ours, we lost to them twice last year. A lot of the girls on both teams grew up with each other, so we knew it would be a tough game.”

Intrabartola was also proud of the way Pryor played.

“Knowing she was close to her 100th goal didn’t even really effect Lily at all,” Intrabartola said. “She just knew what her role was in this game, and that Verona would try to lock her off and slide early on her. But Lily is ok with just being a feeder or someone that’s clearing space, being dominant on the draw and on defense. And despite being blocked off for a lot of the game, she was able to come up with some huge goals, and was really dominant on the draw.”

Pryor brings a lot more than scoring to the table, Intrabartola said.

“Lily is one of the most dynamic and athletic players I’ve ever coached in my life. She’s reliable, she never gives up, and she has an energy everyone feeds off of.”

One of the players who fed off both the energy and attention Pryor got from the Verona defense was Linaugh. While the Hillbilly’s tried to shut down Pryor, Linaugh was the Cougars player who made them pay the most.

MKA Junior and Montclair native Claire Linaugh sends one of her four goals past the Verona keeper during the Cougars’ 9-8 ECT quarterfinal victory on Tuesday, April 24.

“That’s my favorite part about this team this year,” Intrabartola said. “We have so much depth that there’s no one on the field we don’t trust with the ball on their stick. So if the defense is locking off one person, we have six others on offense who can step up and take the ball. If that’s happening to Lily or to Claire, they know what their roles are, to clear through, create space for each other.”

Pryor agreed with her coach.

“Verona was kind of thinking to just shut me out of the game, and maybe they could win it that way,” Pryor explained. “What’s great about our team is that we have so many attackers who are confident going to goal. It’s not just me, it’s Claire, Caroline [Turgeon], Bella [Liu], and Sophia [Garrubbo].”

Eventually, the Hillbillies had to shift their attention to other players, and Pryor was able to break free, adding two scores which would help make the difference for the Cougars late in the game.

While the team has their semifinal match against Glen Ridge on Saturday at 10 a.m. at Watsessing Park, they have another game to get ready for in the intervening days Thursday.

In a quirk of scheduling and tournament play, they face Verona for the second time in three days.

Intrabartola knows it will be another tough game for her squad, but they’ve beaten Verona once this week. She knows they can do it again if they play like they did on Tuesday.

“It was a hard fought game, and both teams are very talented,” she said. “But we followed the game plan we put it together to get that win.”