"If I'm an opposing coach, I'm thinking Menlo has a crack in its armor and that there's a window of opportunity," said Menlo head coach Jen Lee.
Sacred Heart Prep had to be thinking along those lines as it appeared to have everything going in its favor heading into Tuesday's showdown against the host Knights.
The Gators were undefeated in the West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division) at 5-0 and were 11-0 overall, in addition to being ranked No. 3 in the state and West Region by laxpower.com. The Knights, meanwhile, had lost six times and were ranked No. 16 in the region.
If there was ever a better time to take down the defending champion Knights, it was now.
The Gators, however, are still looking for their first-ever win over Menlo as the Knights pulled away from a close first half to post a 13-6 triumph.
"It was a wonderful opportunity for them," Lee said of the Gators. "But, if you look at our schedule, which may be the most difficult we've ever had, my team is battle-tested."
Lee, figuring she had veteran goalie Hannah Rubin and scoring leader Michaela Michael back leading the team, put together an appropriately tough schedule. When both players went down with injuries — Michael for the entire season — the preseason schedule became house-of-horrors as the Knights gave up 114 goals and were outscored by an average of 19-9 in their six losses.
Menlo's players, however, got tough in a hurry and benefited from the experience. Thus, the Knights' big win over Sacred Heart Prep shouldn't have been that much of a surprise.
"It was a measuring stick for us," Lee said. "We proved our mettle."
Menlo took over sole possession of first place at 5-0 while improving to 6-6 overall. The Knights are also 55-0 in league play since their last league loss, to Menlo-Atherton, in April of 2007, and are 99-6 in league play since the Peninsula Athletic League began girls' lacrosse in 2004. Menlo is 43-0 in the WBAL regular season since joining in 2009.
The Knights, meanwhile, jumped ahead of the Gators in the West Region rankings at No. 3 while SHP fell to No. 4. Amador Valley and Carondelet rank No. 1 and 2, respectively. Those top four also make up the state leaders. Menlo lost to Amador Valley on March 19, 20-5.
Moreover, Menlo still hasn't suffered a loss to SHP since the teams began their rivalry.
Tuesday's match seemed a perfect time for that to happen as the Gators trailed by only 6-4 at halftime. Menlo, however, turned up the level on its aggressive play in the second half and contested everything.
The Knights also went on a 5-0 run in less than 10 minutes to open the second half and an 11-4 lead. Senior Ali Kim scored twice, followed by junior Alyssa Sherman, freshman Parvathi Narayan and senior Sam Hoag.
Sherman added a second goal with 11:44 left to play as Menlo completed a 6-0 run in less than 14 minutes.
Sacred Heart Prep didn't score its first goal in the second half until freshman Libby Muir found the net with 10:41 remaining. The Gators' Brigid White, who scored three times in the first half, managed just one goal in the second —with 2:50 left to play.
Menlo's defense was that outstanding as Iman Salty, Annaliese Yukawa, freshman Chelsea Sahami, Lizzy Lacy and Sherman helped shut down the Gators' offense. Normally high-scoring Caroline Cummings was held scoreless.
Menlo senior Brooke Bullington led the victory with four goals and four assists while Kim and Narayan each tallied three times. The two combined for seven of Menlo's 10 draw controls and four of the team's seven takeaways.
"She (Bullington) has come SO far this spring," Lee said. "We always knew she was going to have a big spring, but she has really stepped it up and has come incredibly far as a leader. The beginning of the season was hard for her, and the rest of the team as they began to get their bearings — and they all had to do so in an extreme environment of the toughest opponents . . . She (Bullington) has done a wonderful job.
"Ali Kim has also blown us away with her leadership this spring . . . She crushes it at the center draw and has outright won 61 draws on the season. She leads the team in the coveted defensive stat of caused turnovers/takeaways (19) . . . both Kim and Bullington are exceptional players."
Rubin, meanwhile, made her first appearance of the season an important one after missing 11 matches with a knee injury suffered during soccer season. She came up with five big saves while anchoring the defense.
SHP goalie Emily Westerfield also was solid with nine saves.
Next up for Menlo will be a match at Menlo-Atherton on Friday (4 p.m.) and a nonconference test at Palo Alto on Saturday (5 p.m.) Paly is currently No. 10 in the West Region.
Menlo-Atherton improved to 1-4 in league (3-9-1 overall) with a 22-5 win over host Sacred Heart Cathedral. The Bears grabbed an 8-0 lead as Emily Carlson scored all four of her goals and Meredith Geaghan-Breiner added three. Madison Frame also tallied three times for M-A as did Cybele Reed.
In the SCVAL, Gunn (6-2, 8-3-1) posted a 12-4 victory over host Pioneer while winning its fourth straight.
Menlo-Atherton held on to its lead in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League with a 13-7 victory over host Menlo School on Wednesday. The Bears improved to 9-0 in league (12-5 overall) while the Knights dropped to 3-5 (5-8).
The Bears, just three wins from wrapping up a perfect league season, overcame a 6-5 halftime deficit as Drew Uphoff, Duncan McGinnis and Keifer O'Hara all tallied three goals. Kotaro Kihira, Nick Schlein, Peyton Uphoff and Jordan Zuk all scored once. Matt Bradley led Menlo with three goals while Jack Ferguson tallied twice. Hank Strohm and Jack Marren each scored once for the Knights.
On Tuesday, Sacred Heart Prep got a last-second goal from Brian White and posted a 14-13 victory over visiting Palo Alto in SCVAL action. White scooped up a loose ball and found the net with just two seconds to play as the Gators improved to 7-2 in league (9-8 overall). Paly fell to 4-4 and 9-5.
Frankie Hattler and Noah Kawasaki tallied four goals each for SHP with freshman Andrew Daschbach adding three. Backup goalie Jack Wise had seven saves, as starter Austin Appleton had to leave the match after aggravating an injury suffered during a loss to state-ranked Redwood on Saturday.