Lafayette's Walker and Warhill's Lassiter share top field hockey honors

The Lafayette and Warhill field hockey teams shared the distinction of having their seasons ended by Bay Rivers District sides bound for their respective state finals.

Lafayette lost to 4A runner-up Grafton in the Conference 18 semifinals and Warhill was defeated in the 3A East Region quarterfinals by Tabb, which won its third consecutive state title.

In Williamsburg, there was no clear-cut best team with Lafayette edging Warhill in a shootout and Jamestown defeating Lafayette 2-1, but falling to Warhill 2-1.

A pair of local players sharing 2016 Virginia Gazette Field Hockey Player of the Year honors only seems apt following a season like this. This year, juniors Lauren Walker of Lafayette and Braelyn Lassiter of Warhill earned the title of Gazette co-players of the year, largely because of the area's best attacking players' similar stat lines and list of accolades. Each was first team all-conference and second team all-region. Both players scored nine goals and Walker registered four assists while Lassiter tallied 12.

Lassiter was tasked with leading a Lions' offense that needed some reconfiguring after losing three players to the college ranks from the previous season. Kayla Cooke, Jessica Cooke and Haley Smith each departed Warhill for Newberry College's team in South Carolina.

Lassiter slotted in at central midfielder, serving as the fulcrum of the attack. Warhill coach Kristen Boykin told her before the season it was the position that would keep the team together.

"Last year we had the Cookes and it was really easier," Lassiter said. "We would pass to them and they would just take shots and those worked out well. This year, we had Megan (Cretney) and a couple of more forwards step up and we definitely cracked into the circle a lot more than we had in the past."

"Braelyn is the type of player all coaches want to duplicate," Boykin said. "She works extra hard, always looks to get better, stays after to help other players, and plays every game with pure heart."

For the third consecutive season, Warhill lost in the conference championship to Poquoson, which advanced to the 3A state tourney before it was eliminated by state runner-up James Monroe.

Lassiter, who runs track in the winter and spring, said it was still a great season. "Even though we lost to Tabb and Poquoson, I think everybody played really well," she said. "One of our defenders was hurt and I think that hurt us, too, but I think overall we did really well."

In their only head-to-head meeting, Lafayette and Warhill were scoreless through regulation and overtime before Walker knocked home the shootout winner in one of the highlights of the Rams season.

When Kelley Engstrom arrived at Lafayette, the first-year Rams coach had already been briefed on what type of player she would soon inherit in Walker.

"She's a great leader on the field," Engstrom said. "I can tell her to do something and she'll do it."

That might have been best illustrated this season when Walker, after missing a couple of weeks with a broken finger, propelled Lafayette to a win over Bruton. The Panthers pulled ahead early before Walker was subbed in to tie it and then scored the go-ahead goal.

"That's just the type of player she is," Engstrom said. "She can just go from one end to the other and score. She's very versatile."

Walker played a combination of forward and central midfielder for the Rams, who registered some tight wins in low-scoring games. Walker scored the lone goal in a win over Lakeland and evened the score against Smithfield before Lafayette fell in overtime.

Walker committed midseason to play Division 1 field hockey at Longwood University, which competes in the Mid-American Conference. Walker, who plays year-round with locally-based Focus Field Hockey, elicited the offer at a Lancers camp.

Lafayette had lost several seniors entering 2016 and will lose several more for next year, but Walker will be back to captain the squad before suiting up for Longwood in 2018.

"We were hoping for better," Walker said, "but I think most of the people that are back for next year are ready to build for next season and are excited and lucky to have Coach again next year. We just want to win some more games."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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