Olivia Johnson

Nashua South’s Olivia Johnson, shown controlling the ball during the May 2 game against Nashua North, has contributed mightily as a freshman.

After two consecutive first-round exits in the Division I tournament, the Nashua South girls’ lacrosse team is determined to take the next step forward this spring.

The Panthers earned the eight-team tournament’s No. 7 seed after posting 8-8 regular-season marks the past two seasons, which both ended with a first-round loss to Souhegan of Amherst.

With its 15-5 triumph over Dover on Monday, Nashua South tied its win total from the past two campaigns and improved to 8-3. The Panthers went 1-2 over their first three games before going on a five-game winning streak, which ended with a 14-10 loss to Souhegan on April 30.

“Our first year, when our seniors now were freshmen, we won five games and I think before that the team hadn’t won five games in five years or something like that,” said Panthers fourth-year coach Ciki McIntire. “I think they (the players) believe they can make playoffs — absolutely make playoffs — and they’re looking to make it past the first round of playoffs. That’s their goal.”

The Panthers’ most noticeable strength throughout their march to an 8-3 record has been their defense, an area McIntire and assistant coach Mark Bolduc have focused on since they joined the program four years ago.

Souhegan is the only team that has scored more than 11 goals on Nashua South. Even getting to double digits against the Panthers has proven difficult, as they have held opponents to five or fewer goals in six games.

Senior captains Izzy Bolduc and Emma Pucillo and junior Bailey Morin have anchored the Nashua South defense in front of goalies Rileigh Bunton, a junior, and Abbey Rowe, a senior captain. McIntire praised both Bunton and Rowe’s work in practice and said Bolduc, Pucillo and Morin act like another set of coaches on the field.

The Panthers’ stingy defensive play paired with the upperclassmen’s leadership have been key to their strong start, McIntire said.

“Just the fact that our core defense is so strong that I think that helps us stay competitive in a lot of games,” McIntire said. “I also think that the leadership from the upperclassmen — juniors and seniors — have been so helpful with the sophomores and freshmen. They’ve just made it such a welcoming culture.”

While the Nashua South defense has shut opponents down, its offense has lit them up on the other end. The Panthers have outscored their competition, 150-75, entering their home game against Division II Hollis/Brookline Wednesday.

McIntire’s daughter, Kirsten, who is a junior captain, senior captain Liz Harrington and junior Sarah Signorello have helped lead the Panthers’ attack. Kirsten McIntire leads the team in goals (51) and assists (22), Harrington has registered 29 points (23 goals, six assists) and Signorello has logged 36 points (23 goals, 13 assists). Nashua South has also seen freshman attacker Olivia Johnson step right in and contribute, tallying 30 goals and 12 assists.

Ciki McIntire credited the offense’s success to her players’ unselfishness.

“They don’t care who is scoring as long as we’re putting it in the back of the net,” Ciki McIntire said. “I think any successful offense, you have to have smart players, which we do — we have very smart offensive players — and they have to be willing to dish off the ball for a better shot or better chance. Of course we have stuff to work on both sides of the field like any team but that seems to be the key: looking to make teammates better and make teammates shine.”

Before they can think about reaching at least the second round of the Division I playoffs, the Panthers have some significant tests remaining on their regular-season slate. Hollis/Brookline was 6-0 entering its scheduled home game with Kingswood of Wolfeboro on Tuesday. Nashua South also has upcoming bouts at Bedford, Pinkerton Academy of Derry and defending Division I champion Bishop Guertin of Nashua (10-0).

Like many other areas of her team, though, Ciki McIntire has noticed a vast improvement in her players’ self confidence this year.

“We have a very tough schedule coming up in May so our whole focus has been building that confidence and helping them believe in themselves — believe that they can compete with the tough schools,” Ciki McIntire said. “For them, a lot of it is mindset and I think starting off so strong is such a good thing for them.”

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The Hopkinton boys’ team captured its 42nd consecutive victory Monday when it defeated Stevens of Claremont, 21-0.

The only team in the country with a longer active winning streak than the two-time defending Division III champion Hawks (8-0), according to laxrecords.com, is three-time defending Division II champion Derryfield School of Manchester (63).

Regardless of the streak’s growing number, Hopkinton coach Deacon Blue said the team has gone about its business the way it always has during the stretch.

“We don’t think big picture very often,” Blue said after Hopkinton’s 16-2 win at Trinity of Manchester last Thursday. “We talk about it sometimes but really we’re just trying to get better every day, win the next game and keep it rolling.”

The Hawks have only six games remaining on their regular-season schedule but three of those opponents have the potential to snap their streak. Hopkinton plays at Pelham (6-0) on Friday, at Campbell of Litchfield (5-2) on May 16 and at Laconia (6-2) on May 21.

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The Pinkerton Academy boys’ team entered its scheduled Tuesday night bout at Souhegan with a 6-3 record, thanks in large part to its defense.

In each of their first six victories, the defending Division I champion Astros held their opponents to nine or fewer goals. Pinkerton’s only in-state loss over its first nine games was a 12-11 setback at Bishop Guertin of Nashua on April 16.

The Astros have not suffered at the goalie position after graduating Alex Sturgess last year. Senior Jack Sweeney, who will play at NCAA Division I High Point next year, served as Sturgess’ backup the past three seasons and has fit comfortably into the shoes that Sturgess left behind.

Sturgess now plays at NCAA Division II Southern New Hampshire University.

“Our defense returns from last year so we can match up with anybody’s attackmen,” Pinkerton coach Brian O’Reilly said after his team’s 15-7 win over rival Londonderry last Friday. “Jack, when he sees the ball well, Jack’s a good goaltender ... Even though it’s his first year starting because Alex was here for three years, Jack’s OK.”

One area O’Reilly said his team does need to improve is its midfield depth.

“I think we get tired after a while because we keep playing a lot of the same midfielders,” O’Reilly said. “It’s something we need to work on and we will work on now with our stretch of games coming up.”

Manchester Central battles Manchester Memorial/West on Wednesday at 6 p.m. on the West High turf. Central is 5-2 in Division II; Memorial/West is 2-3.

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The High School Lacrosse column runs Wednesdays during the season. Alex Hall can be reached at ahall@unionleader.com.