WEST WINDSOR: HiTOPS/Princeton Packet Girls Lacrosse Player of the Year

Harpel guided young Knights squad

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Even while starting with little varsity experience again, the West Windsor-Plainsboro High North girls lacrosse team enjoyed one of its finest years in program history.
   Having Olivia Harpel back for a third season on varsity certainly helped.
   The junior midfielder was a presence all over the field as she had been the year before. She played more defensively than a year ago, and she was the most experienced player for an offense that lost plenty from a year ago. Harpel scored eight of the Knights’ 17 goals in last year’s Mercer County Tournament championship win; the other nine goals graduated or transferred after last season.
   ”Pretty much our whole offense was different,” Harpel said. “Not having Devin (Brakel) and Kristine Towell and Ana (Lucia Dellien) was hard. If Ana had been here this year, our team would have been so amazing, not that it wasn’t. Our offense was different.
   ”Certain people bring different aspects to a team. Maybe one that sticks out is Devin always had trick plays. She was that crafty player. When you lose all the seniors we lost and lose a player like Ana, you have to find new ways. You lose that way and you gain new ones. We had girls this year that did things that maybe we never had before. Everyone brought something to the table and we were able to work together.”
   Harpel was at the center of it all again. Last year she had adjusted to being one of the focal points for the Knights, and this year her role jumped again as a captain for a team that had five seniors, two that had never played before, and a host of freshmen that took on starting roles.
   ”Being captain was a really cool opportunity,” Harpel said. “That obviously brings with it more responsibility in certain aspects. At the same time, I actually felt like I still fit in the team the same way. If anything, I got better at what I do rather than finding a new role.”
   Harpel helped to bring along the newcomers, showing them the Knights way. WW-P North opened well from the start with wins in its first 15 games. The Knights returned to the MCT final again before falling to Allentown, and they reached the semifinals of the South Jersey Group IV state tournament before falling to Eastern despite four goals from Harpel. WW-P North was never beaten in the Colonial Valley Conference on its way to a 19-2 record, a program best for wins in a season.
   Harpel finished with 85 goals and a career-high 39 assists to go with 77 ground balls, 74 draw controls and 59 checks. Harpel played more defense than in past years and had 13 interceptions. Her play notched her the first US Lacrosse Girls High School All-America selection of her career.
   ”We were 15-0 at one point,” Harpel said. “That’s an achievement. Being undefeated in the CVC regular season, that’s the first time in our program history. There are things to be proud of. We didn’t have a lot of returning starters and only had five seniors. We handled that well. We still came away with some big accomplishments.”
   Olivia Harpel is the HiTOPS/Princeton Packet Girls Lacrosse Player of the Year.
   ”Olivia is becoming an even more complete player on both ends of the field,” said Knights head coach Beth Serughetti. “She has always been a dangerous player and now she is even more of a threat because of how well she plays defense, as well as how she connects with her teammates.”
   Harpel, who has given a verbal commitment to play for Northwestern University in 2015, would have liked to win a few more titles this year, but knows that the Knights have a lot to build on after this year. And she isn’t content after a record-setting win total.
   ”If you ever are satisfied, then you might as well stop,” Harpel said. “We’re certainly always looking for ways to improve. Our coaches Serughetti, (Bernadette) Conner, (Julia) Lilienthal, (Kerry) Pehnke, (Lauren) Galietti and (Samantha) Berk had that as a focus. We were never done learning, never done growing.
   ”There’s always another way to do better. That idea carried us far. It’s always carried our program, and hopefully it’ll make us even stronger next year.”
   Harpel isn’t resting on her laurels. Despite already being committed to one of the best colleges in the country and with little else to prove at the high school level, Harpel is as determined as ever to come back better, and she’s hoping that will help her enjoy the best season ever for WW-P North.
   ”I’ve said it countless times that you can always improve,” Harpel said. “There’s a lot of technical things that I still want to learn and last year I wanted to learn for this year. I wanted to relax more. I only have two years of high school left. I tried to go with the flow of it.
   ”At the same time I wanted to work harder than I did. I had a lot of fun this year. There were a lot of laughs. I value that more than I ever have.”
   The defending MCT champions were a team targeted this year, yet they were able to come through time and again against more veteran clubs.
   ”Honestly no, we never worried about that (youth),” Harpel said. “We never used it as an excuse. It never held us back. Our young girls helped us a lot.
   ”We had two seniors pick up a stick for the first time. We never looked at it as something to hinder us. We looked at it as a positive — how can those girls have a role? It wasn’t surprising. You set high goals and expectations and if you work hard every day at practice, those girls fit in pretty quickly.”
   It helped to have a leader like Harpel, who exemplifies what hard work brings. She had broken into the Knights lineup as a freshman and could understand how difficult that transition is, and she spent this year adjusting to being one of the most veteran players.
   ”It’s certainly a new experience,” Harpel said. “The cool thing about the younger girls is we all have played together on other teams and in the past. We didn’t have to introduce them to new leadership or new styles of play because we all know them.
   ”We have a lot of sisters on the team. Everybody that’s younger has someone to look up to. There was no sense of hierarchy or fear because we were all close before the season started. That allowed us to work together right away. They were certainly welcomed into the program right away.”
   Harpel, whose sister Carli was a freshman for the Knights this year, was there to help bring along the rookie Knights and set an example.
   ”Her leadership has been phenomenal,” Serughetti said. “On and off the field, she’s been someone to look up to. What she says to pick up the players is so big.
   ”She practices outside of practice. That’s why she’s as good as she is. She encompasses every aspect of being a phenomenal athlete.”
   Harpel looked at helping the new varsity members as part of her job as one of the veterans, not a burden. It didn’t take away from her play.
   ”Certainly I had to be a leader this year,” she said. “I absolutely put that upon myself. I wanted to include everyone. I wanted the team to be a team this year. That was done automatically. The girls that never played before, or never played varsity before or scored a goal, they wanted to do that. They were excited for it.
   ”It was kind of an inspiring group, to have my little sister and girls I’ve known for a long time there. It was almost calming. It wasn’t nervous pressure or not knowing what we would do. These girls took it upon themselves to meet those challenges.”
   Harpel did plenty on the field to help them feel comfortable. She could take draw controls or line up on the circle, provide big goals or find passing lanes to alleviate double-teams on her.
   ”One thing that was awesome about our team is we were strong everywhere,” Harpel said. “We had young players come up and play well. Our depth was hard to defend.”
   With so many of the Knight starters due back next year, the expectation is that they can only get better. If they follow the lead of Harpel, they will. She will be one of the dozen seniors expected back for a WW-P North team that will have a different dynamic with a wealth of experience across the board.
   ”Obviously your hope for your last season is it’s amazing,” Harpel said. “I want to spend another year with the program and we have our goals we set for the team, but it’s more about the memories. The memories from this year are amazing already and that’s what I’m going to hold onto and I’m hoping we have those next year that I’ll hold onto them and relax and have fun.”