Opolsky has NW program soaring
Lauren Schellhamer (right) of Northwestern battles for control of the ball with a Moravian player. DON HERB/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Northwestern Lehigh is headed back to the PIAA tournament for the second straight season, but this time the Tigers are going as District 11 Class A champions.
The district gold is the school’s first in field hockey since 2004 ,and comes on the heels of being district runners-up last season. While the program is quickly gaining respect and seeing better results in the postseason, it hasn’t come overnight.
Coach Lissa Opolsky took over the program in 2014 after the team had missed reaching districts in each of the two seasons before her arrival.
Opolsky didn’t bring any magic potions and the Tigers again missed districts in 2014. The first step came in 2015 when they reached districts, but were quickly dismissed in the first round. They reached the semifinals in 2016, but fell back slightly the next season when they again went out in round one.
Along the way, something clicked and the foundation started to be laid for what would become this year’s district championship team.
“Starting a few years ago, the girls really took hold to what I was trying to get them to do as far as preparing in the summer, and understanding field hockey from an x-and-o perspective,” said Opolsky, wearing her new gold medal around her neck. “Those who have graduated and gone on to play at Division 2 and a few at Division 1, sort of set the tone for these girls that are here now.
“They didn’t get to reap the benefits of it, but they set the foundation for what they wanted. Now, we finally have a class with two seniors and a boat load of juniors who really grabbed onto that and they’ve set the tone for everyone underneath them. It’s really been a snowball effect.”
Ally Myers — one of those two seniors on this year’s team — noticed the transition and was a part of the program developing the way that it has. She sees things from a player’s perspective that she believes has contributed to the success.
“I think that in recent years, we’ve really connected and we’re more like a family and we work together and we all connect really well,” said Myers shortly after scoring the game-winning goal Wednesday night. “We just really bonded, and we wanted to get back here this season, so we all just worked really hard to get back and get to the gold.”
All along, Opolsky has attempted to convey the feeling of winning a championship and give her players the knowledge of everything that goes into being a championship team. She has the knowledge of being a state champion from her days as an assistant coach at Crestwood High School, which won the 2A state championship on the same field where her Tigers won this year’s district championship.
“Us being here last year and not getting the result that we wanted, we were like a deer in headlights, because we hadn’t been here and that experience, you can’t replicate no matter how much you tell them,” said Opolsky. “I knew what it was going to feel like because I’ve been here before, but for teenagers, those emotions are all over the place and that back story of having that last year was huge today because it was a completely different demeanor, mindset, everything and the outcome was different.”
In their trip to states last season, Northwestern had to travel to play District 1 champion New Hope in the first round and lost 2-0, as the team again went into uncharted territory in states.
This time around, the Tigers have last years’ experience to draw from, much like they did in district’s this season. And by virtue of being the district champion, will have a game much closer to home against the fifth-place team from District 3, a much easier draw.
It remains to be seen whether Northwestern can take that next step with a win in states, but going into the game as champions should inspire some confidence. The Tigers have now gained that experience of what it takes to win on a bigger stage and look to continue moving ahead as a team.
“They really, really wanted this and they came in really focused,” said Opolsky. “No matter what happened in the game, we did have ebbs and flows, highs and lows and they were able to come back from everything. I’m proud of them for sticking with it.”