Mendham girls stop slide with big win

By Mark Kitchin

SOAR-NJ.com

When Ali Cassera played lacrosse for West Essex, she knew what it meant to battle Mendham players year after year. Now that the former foe is coaching the Minutemen, Cassera knows exactly what she wants to get out of her players.

Mendham, has stumbled recently but got off to a strong start in its 19-11 triumph over Randolph in a regular season game on Saturday.

Meredith Curtin and Kolina Ungar scored four goals apiece and Jessica Beneducci and Megan Graziano registered hat tricks for Mendham (2-3). Tara Naslonski paced Randolph with eight goals. The Rams drop to 2-1.

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Meg McKeon (6) celebrates a Mendham goal during Saturday’s win against Randolph. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

Cassera has a lot to offer the Minutemen in her first year of coaching the high school team. She played on two NCAA National Championship teams at Northwestern University. She has the battle scars from when she played against some talented Minutemen teams and is still a little surprised to be wearing navy blue.

“All those games were battles, Blood, sweat and tears went into those games,” Cassera said. “I am excited to be on the other end of things. I couldn’t ask for a better program to be taking over.”

One of her goals was to instill the intensity and edge that perhaps some of the more recent Mendham teams have been lacking. She is also not afraid to tell the Minutemen what she thinks. Midway through the second half of Saturday’s game, she took a time out after witnessing some listless play and challenged the team in the center of the field in a voice that could be heard on the sidelines despite the whipping winds.

“She really brings the intensity all over the field,” Mendham attack Meredith Curtin said. “What is very different from last year is that she holds people accountable and she talks to us 1 v 1 instead of saying the entire unit is doing this wrong or doing this well. She talks to individuals and they know what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.”

A win against Randolph was important. After an opening day win against Oak Knoll, the Minutemen lost three consecutive games including a one-goal loss to Bernards earlier in the week. In that contest, Mendham didn’t start clicking until late.

“We actually started playing with four minutes left in the whole game and it wasn’t enough time for us to make it happen,” Cassera said. “Today was one of the few games we had this year where we put together a first half and a second half. This was a big much needed win for us.”

Mendham got off to a great start by scoring seven consecutive goals before Randolph got on the board. However, the Rams started plugging away and matched the Minutemen goal for goal, trailing at halftime 12-6.

Randolph stayed competitive by winning their share of draws and getting the ball to Taslonski. The Rutgers-bound athlete is crafty around the cage. She has a variety of moves and shots that are difficult to defend in single coverage.

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Tara Naslonski, center, scored eight goals for Randolph and gave the Mendham defense plenty of grief.  (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

“Coach even said we should have face guarded No. 11 earlier,” Mendham’s Megan McKean said. “It would have helped us lower the end of the scoreboard but she is definitely good.”

When Taslonski sank her lefty shot into the right side of the net with 17 minutes left on a free position, it made it a 14-11 game it looked like the Rams were on the rise.

It was game defining moment when seconds later Mendham goalkeeper Alanna Richmond stopped a free position shot and the Minutemen turned it into a transition goal by Beneducci.

“That was a game changer,” Curtin said. “Alanna has been making great saves and she’s been playing very well this season. She picked it up from the past two years. The goal also showed how well we can transition the ball from defense to offense. After that our confidence was lifted.”

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Ali Cassera, left, battled against Mendham as a player for West Essex. Now she coaches the Minutemen. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

Beneducci is a ballhawk on the circle and a capable scorer. The sophomore may be just scratching the surface of her abilities.

“She played a lot last year but I think she had a lot of those freshman nerves in her,” McKeon said “This year she is more involved and is feeling more comfortable on the field. She is a big part of our win.”   

Mendham scored the next four goals and shut out Randolph the rest of the way. It was a confidence booster for them going into a contest against sister school West Morris next.

“It was really important,” McKeon said about the win. “This was a good way to pick us back up.”

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About mcvbb

Mark Kitchin is a boys varsity basketball writer for the Morris County New Jersey area

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