High School North’s Maria Tello celebrates her 100th goal in last year’s Mercer County Tournament win against Ewing.

Maria Tello had played a lot of other sports before she followed her older brother, Nicolas, into lacrosse.

“We’ve always been in close competition,” said Tello, a High School North senior. “I always wanted to compete with him. He’s also a role model and I looked up to him. I started in fifth grade, and I only did Lightning (travel lacrosse). I didn’t like it much.”

It was hard at first for Tello to adapt to the new sport, but she started to like it more and committed to playing travel lacrosse in seventh grade as much for the social connections as the competition.

“As I started getting more serious and working harder, I found a team with girls I liked and I was able to pick up the skills,” Tello said. “When I had great memories with the girls and had more experience, I started to like it more.”

Tello is making more memories in her last year of lacrosse and fourth year as a starter for North. She was the Knight girls’ leading scorer last year and finished with a career-high 50 goals in 2018.

“She’s always made an impact on the field,” said third-year head coach Julia Giordano. “Her shot selection is just amazing. She’s really a leader on the attack. Not only does she score the goals, but she’ll make things happen for us. She sets people up for success. She’s like that in practice too. She’s always coming up with new ideas for the team for the attack.”

Tello has honed her scoring skills while playing attack for her Garden State Elite club team, but she plays midfield for North. While running up and down the field can be tiring, she prefers the increased chances to be in the action that come with being a midfielder. She’s looking to help the midfield establish a strong connection between the attack and defense.

“As the team gets into better shape, it’s easier to keep up,” Tello said. “As the team gains more confidence in each other and gains skills, there will be better passes in the midfield and everything will be smoother.”

North opened the year with back-to-back losses before scoring its first win. Perennial power Allentown handed them a opening-day defeat, then the Knights came back to push Pennington into overtime in a 12-11 loss despite four goals from Tello. The team won its first game on April 4, 15-13, against Monroe.

North graduated 16 seniors, including its entire defense and two goalies from last year’s team. About half the varsity team returned, and they are finding their roles together this season. They already showed major improvements between their first two games.

“From that Allentown game, we worked on setting up our offense and getting more organized on the attack,” Tello said. “And we also worked on our defense. Our defense made a lot of really great stops in the Pennington game after we adapted from the Allentown game. That was a big improvement from the Allentown game. Just being organized on our attack, having different plays we set up helped, and girls felt more comfortable and confident up there.”

In Tello, the Knights have someone that they can rely on for goals. That role brings some pressure with it, but she’s handling it fine.

“I feel like I owe it to my team to give 110 percent of what I can,” Tello said. “It also allows for me to try to fill in different roles. This year, I’m going to try to work on assisting other players. That will help when I’m double teamed or watched closely.”

Tello has 92 goals over the last two seasons combined, and she scored her 100th goal overall last year. She is the go-to player that other teams try to slow down even as the Knights lean on her.

“She is the girl we give the ball to when we need a quick goal,” Giordano said. “For example, in one of our games last year in overtime, she’s the one we went to when we needed a quick goal to win it. She has a great drive to the goal and great placement with the ball.”

Tello’s experience is a big plus. She and Jillion Pelosi are the two seniors who have been starting since their freshman year. “Getting accustomed to a higher level of playing early on helped me learn different skills that I might not have applied at the middle school level,” Tello said. “The difference from middle school to varsity was big, and my ability to play at that level the last couple of years has helped me adjust to it. And playing travel has helped me adjust to a lot of different levels too. My experience has helped to get me to where I am now.”

Tello is an example for the new varsity players and a role model. She’s been trying to set the example for her teammates and help them grow in their roles.

“I think we have a lot of potential on attack,” Tello said. “We have an entirely new defense. That’ll be harder to work towards, but we do have potential on defense. On attack, we have a lot of younger girls that know how to shoot well and catch well, they just have to work on their confidence. In midfield, we have a lot of fast girls. We can do well in transition.

“We can implement a strong defense. We just need to practice more. It’s difficult coming up from JV or middle school to varsity. They’ll get more accustomed to it. It’s Diane’s (Yoon, sophomore goalie) first year and she’s already doing well.”

Giordano also likes the potential for this year’s group. The Knights are coming together quickly and finding ways to develop the team successfully.

“One of the big focuses was getting our attack set up and getting organized, something that we thought as a team and as coaches we thought we were lacking in the past,” he said.

At the other end, the Knights are growing with a rebuilt defense. “Our whole defense were seniors last year,” Giordano said. “That’s something we had to change up. We’re trying out a few different things, working with the girls we have now, the talent that we have and adapting to their skill sets.”

As the newcomers adjust to the new level, the Knights are leaning on veterans like Tello. “We want her to step up as a leader,” Giordano said. “We want her to get that assist number up too because the way she sees the field is unlike many people. I think she can set more people up for success and some shots this year.”

Tello is hoping that the Knights will enjoy another good season before she heads to Washington University in St. Louis, where she may play club.

“It would make me really happy to have a winning season or even to make it states,” Tello said. “I think we’re in a very difficult division. We have a lot of great teams to play. That’ll be a good goal. Beyond lacrosse, it would make me happy to build more intimate relationships with these girls.”

Finding new connections to play with helped get Tello more interested in lacrosse. It motivated her to continue to play for more than just a way to top her brother, who graduated a year before her.

“We both had some great successes,” Tello said. “I’d say we’re even. It’s no longer a competition. We work to help each other get better.”