Halfway through Tuesday’s sectional semifinal, Tori Accardo sensed something wasn’t quite right with the Eastern girls’ lacrosse team.
“We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win,” Accardo said. “We were like, ‘We have to dig deep, let’s go.’ We needed to look at ourselves and go out and play the way we know we can play.”
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The second half was a different story, as top-seeded Eastern outscored Cherokee 10-1 en route to a 14-4 victory that sent the Vikings into Friday’s South Jersey Group 4 final against second-seeded Lenape.
But what wasn’t different was Accardo’s prominent role in setting the tone for a team on a mission to make amends for last season’s heartbreaking finish.
“She’s such a huge leader on and off the field,” Eastern coach Gretchen Kiep said of Accardo. “She’s extremely positive and she plays with such energy. She’s just a special player.”
Accardo, a University of Cincinnati recruit, leads the Vikings with 54 goals. She scored three against Cherokee and four in a quarterfinal win over Washington Township.
Kiep said the 5-foot-4 Accardo specializes in outmaneuvering defenders in tight spaces.
“Her cuts in the eight-meter [zone] are some of the fastest I’ve seen at the high school level,” Kiep said.
Beyond her physical skills and goal production, Accardo’s biggest contributions to the Vikings’ cause might be her experience and leadership.
On a team loaded with talented underclassmen, with a first-year coach in Kiep, Accardo along with midfielder Dani Mlkvy and a handful of other seniors have kept the Vikings humming along at a high level. They have a chance to capture both the Olympic American and South Jersey Group 4 titles in the same season for the first time in program history.
“We have a lot of young players and Tori was always reaching out to them, making sure they felt comfortable, making sure everybody was on the same page,” Kiep said. “She and some of the other seniors, they’ve made the transition easy for me. They’ve been like mini-coaches.”
Accardo and Mlkvy (45 goals, 128 face-off wins) are seasoned veterans. But the Vikings feature top non-seniors such as junior Kara Heck (51 goals, 37 assists), sophomore Jenna Casole (40 goals, 51 assists), and freshman Ryleigh Heck (42 goals).
Accardo is a four-year varsity player. She was a starter in 2017 for the team that upset Lenape on the Indians’ field for the South Jersey Group 4 title.
And she was a starter in 2018 for the team that lost at home in the sectional final to Clearview. She calls that the toughest setback of her high school career.
“We had beaten them twice in the regular season, but they were both close games,” Accardo said. “We knew it would be a tough game. To lose that game on our field, it was really hard for us.
“From the first day of practice, we said our goal was to be home on Friday [for the sectional final]."
Kiep said memories of last season’s finish have fueled the Vikings, especially the seniors.