Gianna Gollinge takes the ball up the field during a 9-8 loss to Steinert on April 13, 2017. (Photo by Martin Griff.)

Caroline Unger is back to doing what she loves best – running up and down the lacrosse field to help the Ewing High School girls team in any way she can.

The Blue Devils senior wasn’t able to contribute as much as she would have liked last year after partially tearing her hip flexor. Even though she was nowhere near 100 percent, she wasn’t coming off the lacrosse field.

“We ended up putting her back deep on the D,” said Ewing coach Leslie Conant. “She did a lot on the defensive end. She’s a very good defensive player. She’s very aggressive.”

Back at 100 percent this year, and Unger runs up and the down the field non-stop. “It’s wonderful to see because she’s very passionate about the game,” Conant said. “She loves it and loves her teammates and the fact that she’s finally able to do what she wants makes her happy.”

Unger is in her fourth year starting, and her experience and abilities are invaluable. With two older brothers that played, she picked up the sport quickly and fell in love with it.

“I played soccer, but I think that because I started freshman year with lacrosse, and it was an opportunity to try a new sport, it definitely became my favorite,” Unger said. “I found a new way to get invested in it and try to become the best I could.”

Unger went to captain practices before the start of her freshman season. She watched herself practice cradling in the mirror and walked around her house with her stick and played wall ball.

She still watches college games whenever she can catch them, tries to mimic trick shots she finds on YouTube, and tries to spread her love of the game to a Blue Devils program with a range of experience.

“It’s definitely encouraging that we have such a young team and we’ve seen so many new players show a lot of promise and potential,” Unger said, adding that the team also has a number of senior veterans.

Unger is one of seven seniors, all of whom have started for Ewing this year. Carmella Asparrin, Fascia Barclay, Becky Coulton, Gianna Gollinge, Lola Kusoro and Natalia Rodriguez are seniors who are showing their newer teammates the ins and outs of the game. Unger, Coulton and Rodriguez are tri-captains.

“Because this is definitely my last competitive year playing, I want to make it worth it,” Unger said. “Having that leadership role with the other seniors, we’ve definitely found this way to bind together and lead the whole team by example.”

Ewing opened the season 3-2 as they began the second half of their division schedule. They handled Burlington City, Nottingham and Hamilton West and lost twice to Steinert, the second time a heartbreaking 9-8 loss.

Natalia Rodriguez chases down a Steinert player during a lacrosse game at Ewing on April 13, 2017. Ewing lost, 9-8. (Photo by Martin Griff.)

“We’ve definitely made a lot of progress on defense,” Unger said. “In our last two games, we had some outstanding defensive work. Against Steinert, we were able to hold off their offense for a good six minutes and didn’t let them into the 8-meter. And same thing with our offense when we learned how to settle down and get smart passes into the 8. It was an exciting moment. As a team, everything is starting to click.”

Through the first five games, Unger and Rodriguez have 18 goals each to lead the team, and Keri Capstack has seven goals. Unger has had to be more of an offensive player this year as Ewing has been looking for a way to replace Kellyann Krepp, who graduated after scoring 100 career goals, including 40 last year.

“I feel like we don’t have just one big goal scorer this year,” Conant said. “It’s pretty much separated between Caroline and Natalia and Keri Capstack, a junior we have. Becky Coulton, Olivia Ruch and the defensive girls Lauren (Ettinger) and Gianna (Gollinge) have been putting in goals. It’s more of the team scoring effort than last year. Everyone has picked up the slack so it’s been OK.”

Ewing has leaned on its experienced players in the early going. Having someone with Unger’s experience and passion has helped and Conant and co-coach Kelly Hammer have been able to rely on the captains with one of the biggest teams they’ve had. Twenty-four girls tried out this year and they kept 22.

“There’s a lot of learning and teaching and having those three girls on the field helps us out a lot,” Conant said of the captains. “The newbies are learning the game and the vets are taking responsibility.”

Unger has been happy to see progress with the team, and sees the opportunity for the Blue Devils to improve more.

“I think we still need to work on getting that completely settled attack and defense,” she said. “At times we tend to panic in games, especially when the score is really close and we’re down by one or two or we’re up by one or two.”

She said the team tends to rush its passes or cuts. “We need to become more comfortable with our ability and once we do that we’ll be able to play with more control.

It can come down to the little things, the passes and catches and especially the ground ball pick-ups. Once we learn to be more comfortable with those little things, we’ll be even more comfortable on the field.”

Conant said that the team has a lot of speed and the veteran players have the catching and throwing down. As for the younger players, she been trying to get them in the game as much as possible. It’s the best way for them to learn.

“They get a little scared sometimes, but if you throw them in the fire they do OK, which is very encouraging,” Conant said. “The vets, they’re constantly talking to them and they’re picking up the game a little faster than I thought they would, which is nice.”

The team wasn’t sure how it would perform this year after losing two major pieces from last year’s 8-7 squad. In addition to Krepp, who paced the offense, they graduated four-year starting goalie Veronica Wilson. Maddie Doleo is in her first year playing and has won the starting role between the pipes.

“She just started in the cage maybe two and a half weeks ago,” Conant said. “It’s been tough, but she’s worked so hard. She brings balls home and does wall ball on her own and catches and throws with her friends. Her growth has really been great. Kellyann was another huge hole we had to fill this year, her speed, her athletic ability and her shooting was big.”

It’s helped to have Unger back at full strength. She can help at either end of the field and has been a reliable source of offense and defense in the midfield over her career.

“She’s grown a lot,” Conant said. “She’s very athletic. She came into the game already kind of knowing what to do. She’s very easy to teach… She’s always trying to get better and find new ways to do the same kind of thing. She’s a bundle of energy, and she’s a joy to have the on team and a joy to coach.”

Conant is hoping that Unger’s enthusiasm and passion for the game will be reflected for years to come. She is looking for a strong finish before she turns her main focus to her studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is exploring playing club or intramural lacrosse.

“I’ll be a molecular biology major so I’ll be busy,” Unger said. “But I’ll definitely be bringing my stick and cleats.”