Lions return plenty of talent from last years championship team

by: VERN UYETAKE - Mariah Gatti is a returning senior and midfielder for West Linn this year and a captain for the second year in a row. Gatti notched a hat trick in West Linn's first game against St. Mary's this season. West Linn's girls lacrosse team enters the 2014 season as the defending state champions and, with that, comes a large target on its back.

But the Lions are armed to take on all comers with an exceptionally talented and seasoned team and one that should be among the top in the state once again.

West Linn graduated seven seniors from last year's team, which broke an extended championship drought, but the team returns its entire defensive back line and returns perhaps the most talented midfield tandems in the state.

As a result, the Lions are a confident squad but one that is also measured and focused as it looks for a repeat performance this season.

“They know they're a very good team, but they're not out of their heads. A lot of these girls have been on the team when we weren't very good, so they're staying humble,” coach Meg Elston said.

West Linn's back line consists of Caitlin Bernert, Genna Hughes and Mary Richardson, who have all been playing defense together for the varsity team for three consecutive years.

The Lions gave up the fewest goals in the state last year and boasted a defensive prowess that may likely not be seen again in Oregon for quite some time.

But that won't stop West Linn from trying to equal that level of stinginess this year. The biggest change defensively comes at goalie. All-state goalkeeper Tara Sonnemaker is gone and replacing her is talented freshman Annalyssa Sassara.

“She's been in our youth program and is very good, but we know there's a big learning curve at the varsity level,” Elston said.

Defense should be a huge strength for the Lions this year as they will hound opponents all over the field.

At the midfield, West Linn features Mariah Gatti, Hanna Morford and Natalie Bryne, three exceptionally dangerous scorers and nightmare match-ups on draws, especially with the new rule this year with only three players allowed in the middle instead of five.

“It's exciting to have them all returning. They complement each other well,” Elston said.

Gatti is one of the most talented players to ever come through West Linn's system and is a captain for the second straight year while Bryne, last year's MVP of the state title game, is one of the most electric young players in the state.

The Lions also have experience up front with both Jessica Weinhard and Jazmine Agcaoili returning at attack.

“We have a lot of experience and kids who have played together for a long time,” Elston said.

West Linn will be an aggressive and up-tempo team again this season and one with few weaknesses.

The Lions will play a rugged schedule, competing in the always difficult Three Rivers League while also taking on non-league powers like Sunset and OES.

The usual suspects are expected to be strong again this year with Lake Oswego giving the Lions perhaps their biggest challenge, continuing those teams' terrific rivalry.

The Lions haven't had much time to practice as a full team but have been putting in a new option on defense.

“The beginning of the season is always a little fragmented so we've had to be focused. It's nice to have another option on defense depending on who we're playing,” Elston said.

In their first game, the Lions dismantled St. Mary's, who is new to the Three Rivers League, 18-2. Gatti and Byrne each had hat tricks in the game and Byrne captured six draws.

West Linn will face Sunset April 5 and Lake Oswego April 7.

“It's hard to think about what goes into a championship team. You can't just recreate it with a cookie cutter pattern,” Elston said.

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