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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Nashua North’s Kara Upton leads girls lacrosse into tourney

NASHUA – This is it for Kara Upton. The Nashua High School North senior’s final playoff run begins Wednesday. Surprisingly, at home.

For the second time in program history – and second straight season – the Titans’ girls lacrosse team is hosting a first-round tournament game. ...

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NASHUA – This is it for Kara Upton. The Nashua High School North senior’s final playoff run begins Wednesday. Surprisingly, at home.

For the second time in program history – and second straight season – the Titans’ girls lacrosse team is hosting a first-round tournament game.

Last spring’s hosting opportunity resulted in a 15-7 loss to Exeter. Wednesday, when North takes the Stellos Stadium turf for it’s second go at hosting a tournament game, the third-seeded Titans (12-5) will welcome No. 6 Salem (9-8) to the Gate City for a 5 p.m. quarterfinal tilt.

The Titans have come a long way in the last six years. Former coach Jenn Dyer took over an 0-16 program in 2009 and built it up to a contender before handing off the reigns to coach Kristen Peterson for 2014.

“The steps we’ve made,” Upton said. “Coach Dyer’s helped us so much. And Coach Kristen is doing so awesome this year. They’ve really just helped us progress and I really just want to reach that second round this year.

“When I was a freshman, we had a really rough time. This year, hopefully we can make it to the second round. That would be great. A couple things will need to fall into place, but to play a second playoff game would be great.”

The turnaround from a winless program with no hope of making the playoffs to a steady program with yearly tournament aspirations became official with the program’s first postseason appearance in 2012. The Titans lost to Concord in the first round that spring.

“It was an attitude adjustment that we as coaches needed to instill,” Dyer said. “Having somebody like Kara in the program certainly helped us move that along faster. We had strong senior leadership, which she learned from as a freshman and sophomore. Then she stepped up to lead the way. She’s phenomenal. She’s grown so much as a player and a leader. She’s one of those unbelievable kids, that you don’t have to push. She’s self motivated to succeed. Her game is all about intensity and moving forward with the ball. That’s exactly what a struggling program needed, and she brought that to the table at an early stage in her high school career.

“I came in that first year knowing it would be a slow process. Kara was one of the driving forces in facilitating that change over time. We improved a little bit each year and now it’s a program the girls and coaching staff and school can be proud of.”

Upton is proud of what the program has become. She loves lacrosse, and to be part of a team that went from cellar dweller her freshman year to tournament host in her final two seasons means the world to her.

Especially since Wednesday could be her last school-sanctioned varsity lacrosse game – in high school or college.

Upton, who was a cross country runner in middle school before becoming a three-sport athlete playing field hockey, basketball and lacrosse in high school, is playing lacrosse at that next level. Despite discussing lacrosse with multiple schools, Upton settled on Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., to study biomedical engineering. WPI does have club lacrosse, which she is still considering as an option.

“Everything I do, I’m just so competitive,” Upton said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without lacrosse, and I just want to win. How bad I want to win is insane. So hopefully we do well once we hit playoffs.”

Reaching the next round is a good possibility for the Titans, who have beaten the visiting Blue Devils twice this regular season, 13-11 on April 23 at Stellos and 16-12 on May 2 in Salem.

That April win came just days after Upton recorded her 100th career goal in an 18-16 win over Hollis Brookline. The senior midfielder was joined later in the season by junior midfielder Jexi Williams, who posted her 100th career goal in a 21-11 rout of Manchester Central on May 19.

The duo has North working the ball better in transition over the last three seasons, helping feed upstart junior attacker Alyssa Bottari around the net. The game plan has matured in the last three seasons.

“We’ve been playing together since we were really young,” said Upton of Williams. “So I think when we really started to pull together our team, and get some really good surrounding people to work with, that’s when we really started to play well and get better. I think they learn from our experience. So they learned how to get the ball up and now we have some really amazing people that help us out.

“We’re sharing the ball a lot. The good teams – you always see them cutting to the net and it’s mostly assists. Back when we didn’t have it all together, we only had a couple girls who had played before. Now that we have a full program, we can pass the ball and work different plays and do things that are more advanced.”

In her first season as varsity coach, Peterson has been able to continue the success started under Dyer. It doesn’t hurt to have Upton as her on-field coach in that endeavor.

“I’m lucky,” Peterson said. “I was handed a first-class program from Coach Dyer. The attitude, the talent, the players and structure were all molded under her watch. I’m just continuing what she started, and Kara has been a big help in that regard. The girls love and respect her. She gets it done on the field and teaches by example. She’s a rare talent, and it’s going to be hard to replace her presence on the field next year. Thank goodness that time isn’t here yet – we still have her with us and we’re headed back to the tournament.”