Gazette Girls Lacrosse Player of the Year: Cedar Conrad, Amherst

Amherst goalie Cedar Conrad stops a shot in front of Belchertown’s Kenzie LePage during the first quarter of the Western Mass. Class B final lacrosse game at West Springfield High School earlier this season.

Amherst goalie Cedar Conrad stops a shot in front of Belchertown’s Kenzie LePage during the first quarter of the Western Mass. Class B final lacrosse game at West Springfield High School earlier this season. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

Amherst goalie Cedar Conrad (1) makes a save against Granby earlier this season in Granby.

Amherst goalie Cedar Conrad (1) makes a save against Granby earlier this season in Granby. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

By CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 07-03-2024 3:52 PM

AMHERST — Cedar Conrad led the girls lacrosse team into a math classroom on a Wednesday afternoon at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School and started class.

Every player took a seat and put their head down on their desk. Then, Conrad and Amherst’s other captains conducted a blind poll with a raise of hands. Are you familiar with the pick-and-roll? How about the give-and-go? They asked this for every play Amherst had in its playbook.

It was late May and the Hurricanes were preparing for the start of the Western Mass Class B tournament, which they won. It was the first banner for Amherst girls lacrosse in program history and 2024 Daily Hampshire Gazette Girls Lacrosse Player of the Year Cedar Conrad led the way.

Amherst had initially thought its semifinal game would be on the following Monday against Northampton, a team they had played just three weeks earlier. Instead, it was now on Saturday and against Mount Greylock, winners of the past two Class C championships and a team Amherst hadn’t played in more than four years.

On top of that, Amherst’s head coach, Andy MacDougall, was on a previously planned work trip and wouldn’t be back until Sunday night. The Hurricanes wouldn’t have their head coach, they’d have to travel two hours to get to the game and they weren’t even sure if they could field a team – at the first raise of hands, only 10 players said they could commit without calling out of work.

A few players called out of work and the Hurricanes brought up two more from the junior varsity squad. But they still didn’t have a coach, and for a senior-laden team hoping to secure the program’s first-ever Western Mass. championship, it was hard not to feel a little helpless.

“There was definitely the feeling of how did this happen?” Conrad, Amherst’s goalie, said. “The one year that we have a shot at it, how is this what happens?”

So, they ran through every single one of their plays, diagramming them on the classroom’s whiteboard. They made a list of the offense and defense’s strengths and weaknesses and how they could correct them.

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Amherst had struggled with crease rolls in earlier games during the regular season, and through some initial scouting on YouTube and some stalking of the Mounties’ Instagram page, they learned that Mount Greylock loved to score with crease rolls. Conrad and her captains showed the Hurricanes how to block the lane they knew the Mounties would try to score from.

But the coaching question lingered. Amherst athletic director Victoria Dawson volunteered to coach the team as a last resort, but her background was in basketball, not lacrosse. The team started searching for someone who could man the sidelines on Saturday morning in Williamstown.

Fellow captain Abi Como got one of her club team coaches to agree to it, but the necessary paperwork wouldn’t be filed in time. Conrad’s father, Mark, the former Amherst girls tennis coach, volunteered. But he didn't have lacrosse experience either.

“There were 24 hours or so where I was both excited about the prospect and also terrified,” Conrad said.

Then, the most unlikely – or likely, depending on how you look at it – candidate stepped up. It was Frank Hein, Amherst’s coach from seventh grade who had retired from coaching once the pandemic hit during their eighth grade year.

It was under Hein that Conrad picked up a stick for the first time and volunteered to be the Hurricanes’ goalie, mostly because she wanted playing time and no one else had asked to do it. She hadn’t seen him in years.

“Fast forward to 2024,” Hein said. “And I get this random text from somebody named Andrew MacDougall.”

“Frank, what are you doing Saturday?”

“I don’t know, you got a barbecue going on or what?”

“No, you want to coach in the western Mass. semifinals? I can’t be there.”

 “OK, well, yeah, why not? Let’s kind of bring this full-circle.”

On Thursday, Hein came to practice and watched on the sideline as Conrad and the other captains led practice. They spent the entire session running through plays.

“Everyone wanted to prove that we did this,” Conrad said. “And we did this from sitting in a math classroom, drawing it out on a whiteboard.”

Conrad and the rest of the Hurricanes team had come a long way to reach that day in their math classroom. In Conrad’s freshman year, Amherst played some of the toughest teams in the area and finished 0-10. They lost eight of those 10 games by at least nine goals. Conrad started the whole year, and though now she says that competition helped her, at the time she was a little shaken.

Amherst moved down in leagues the next year and finished with records well over .500 in both Conrad’s sophomore and junior seasons, but didn’t win a playoff game in either year. Buoyed by seven seniors and three college commits – including Conrad to Springfield College – the Hurricanes hoped to succeed in 2024 where past teams had failed.

“Going into the season, we knew we could do something different than any other year,” Conrad said.

Heading into her senior season, her second as a captain, Conrad served as the team’s “offseason mom,” MacDougall said. She organized offseason practices and shooting sessions and helped find fundraising opportunities for the team for breast cancer awareness and HEADstrong, an organization that supports the families of those affected by cancer.

Even before she was an upperclassman, Conrad took a large role in planning for senior night, fellow captain Abi Como said. And as a captain, she was vocal on and off the field. When a teammate was considering quitting the team, Conrad took her out for ice cream and she stayed on.

Conrad was always a source of much-needed feedback, Como said.

“This year, especially, she got really good at voicing what she thought,” Como said. “And I’m very glad she did, because it was things we really needed to work on as a team and everyone benefited from what she was saying.”

Conrad and Como frequently texted each other the night before games to share information on the next day’s opponent and their tendencies. They both used friends on other teams to glean information about their opponent’s best players and Conrad was diligent about watching film.

“Especially as a goalie, watching somebody shoot, you can tell that they always shoot high, they always shoot low, they always add in a fake,” Conrad said. “It was interesting to watch that, because when a player would be coming down, I would know either don’t fall for the first fake or maybe hint a little bit toward stick-side high because that’s where they like to shoot.”

Starting in her sophomore year, Conrad would make up informal scouting reports for herself so she wouldn’t have to wait for the post-first quarter huddle to discuss the opponent’s best players and tendencies.

“By her senior year, the amount of scouting was really over the top,” MacDougall said. “She knew the players to look for, she was providing coaching advice to me about how she thought we should do things.”

When Conrad and the Hurricanes reached that western Mass. semifinal against Mount Greylock, she was prepared, and her team, thanks in part to her, was more educated as well. What followed was what Conrad described as Amherst’s best defensive performance of her four-year career.

They sniffed out Mount Greylock’s signature crease roll play over and over again, thanks to Conrad’s preparation and instruction on the whiteboard in the math classroom.

In a back-and-forth game, the ‘Canes led by one at halftime before a spurt by the Mounties put Amherst behind going into the fourth quarter. Amherst went on a run of its own to retake the lead, and propelled by several strong saves from Conrad, held on for a 12-11 win.

After years of the Hurricanes losing the close game, they finally won it. 

“We did the high-five line and then we tried to call Andy but he didn’t pick up so we sent him a video,” Conrad said. “At first, telling him we lost – and then, just kidding – we won. It was such an amazing feeling.”

The western Mass. finals were set, and Amherst had a matchup with Belchertown, a team it hadn’t beaten in three previous meetings across Conrad’s career.

But Conrad was very familiar with Belchertown stars Madysen LePage and Paige Magner, a good friend who played with Conrad at Amherst in seventh grade. She knew their tendencies, and she knew how to stop them. 

Just like the Mount Greylock game three days earlier, it was a tense affair. Amherst rallied down from an early deficit and Conrad made a pair of game-saving stops in the final minute on free runs from LePage to force overtime, tied 15-15. Amherst won the draw to open the extra session, and Como swung it to Talia Sadiq, who buried the game-winner to give Amherst its first-ever western Mass. championship.

For Conrad, it was the lacrosse culmination of four years – if not six.

“It’s fun to see, fast forward, ‘oh, this is the way it turned out,’” Hein said. “That’s pretty darn good. That’s pretty amazing that you took it that far from when you started.”