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<B>Mount Anthony Union High School girls lacrosse players Taylor Palmer (left) and Rosie West work through a drill during practice. Geoff Smith / Bennington Banner</B>

BENNINGTON -- Coming off an 11-7 season and an appearance in the Division I girls lacrosse semifinals, the Mount Anthony Union High School team returns to the field this year looking to keep building on that success.

And despite the usual attrition that comes with graduating players, the Patriots are buoyed this season by the return of their leading scorer, and assister, in senior Emily Cross.

Cross, who scored 80 goals and dished out 20 assists last season for the Patriots, leads an MAU team that mixes in a bit of senior leadership with talented underclassmen this season.

"All around, we have a lot of good shooters and a solid defense coming in," Cross said. "I feel like I'm going to get guarded a lot more [this season]. It doesn't really matter. They can double-team me all day, we have other girls that can score."

MAU coach Tom Otero, entering his 14th season at the helm for the Patriots, agreed with Cross' assessment of the team.

"It's a good spread between seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen," Otero said. "We have a good quality number of girls in key positions coming back. I've got some good athletes out there."

Joining Cross up front this year will be fellow seniors Courtney Gabrus, who has dealt with injuries over the last two years that have kept her out of action. Gabrus, who says she feels as good as ever entering the year, scored four goals in six games last season.

Sophomore Erica Hale will also play a significant part in the Patriots' plans in the middle of the pitch after scoring 18 goals last season, and leading JV scorer Bridget Ahearn was pulled up to varsity this season and will play in the midfield.

Senior Taylor Palmer is another returning face for the Patriots. But where Palmer played in a forward position last year, tallying 11 times, Otero noted that Palmer could start sliding back to help on defense.

"She does a good job of anticipating passes and knocking them down," Otero said. "She opened our eyes to it. We will see if she makes the move down to defense."

Guaranteed to be on defense this year will be sophomore Rosie West, who started for the varsity last season and led all returning players with 33 ground balls, along with junior Sam Cross. Classmate Claire Taub will play in the midfield and defense for Otero this season, and Otero also tipped junior Catie Lyons, a reserve last year, as a player that could take over a major defensive responsibility. Freshman Munroe Ports will also play a part in the defensive setup as she gets her first crack at varsity action.

In goal, junior Sam Mayer returns between the pipes to provide some experience between the pipes as the defensive assignments shake out. Mayer let up 10.3 goals per game last season while stopping 53 percent of the shots that came her way.

"I feel strong about the girls that came back and the new girls coming in," Mayer said. "I think we have a lot of talent. Last year, we struggled finding the right girls to fit in on defense. We figured that out last year for our returning players. [Coach] has a good idea of the new girls, where to put them, and they know how to play."

Otero, who identifies himself as a defensive-minded coach, also feels strongly about Mayer and the girls immediately in front of her. As has been the case with an Otero-coached team, the defense will play man against the opposition.

Asked further about the strengths of his side, Otero also noted the team's pace.

"I think we have some speed here," Otero said. "Individually, we have some raw speed. Any time you can have speed in the game of lacrosse [it's a good thing]."

Invariably, a lot of MAU's success this year will come through Cross and what she does with her stick.

"She loves the game of lacrosse, she takes it personally," Otero said of his senior. "Emily has very strong stick skills, she also has great control of her body. She led our team in scoring last year, but she also led with assists. It's not just ‘me, me, me' with her."

The Patriots started the year with a loss to East Longmeadow over the weekend and return to action on Friday at Hoosick Falls Central School. The team will then travel to Virginia Beach during the break next week to play in scrimmages. After spring break, the team returns with home games against Emma Willard on April 22 and Burr and Burton Academy on April 24. The team wraps up the season on May 29 with a Senior Day game against Marble Valley League foe Brattleboro.