When the High Point women upended Duke, 16-12 on Monday, it made headlines as another upset win for the Panthers.
Erica Perrotta, who had three goals and an assist to become the program’s all-time leading goal scorer in the win over Duke, would have agreed with the upset talk if the win had happened three or four years ago, but not anymore.
“Was it that big of an upset?” said Perrotta, the senior midfielder. “We were ranked 20 and they were ranked 19. It bothers us. We’re just as good as them. It’s just people have never heard of High Point beating teams like this, so they think it’s a huge upset.”
The win was the second over a ranked team this season for the Big South conference favorites. They also took out then-No. 20 Notre Dame on March 14 by a 13-7 count. Their confidence has snowballed.
“We go into games knowing we’ve already done this,” Perrotta said. “We’ve already beaten a team that’s ranked higher than us. Going into the Duke game, our mantra before the game was, ‘We’ve done this before.’ It keeps going back to last year’s win against Towson. We go out there and we just say, ‘We’ve done this before, so why not do it again?”
High Point kept rolling with its 10th straight win, a 19-1 win at Presbyterian on Wednesday. The Panthers led 15-0 at halftime and have risen to another level since defeating Towson in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, just its third win in program history over a ranked team. They earned their first in 2012 against Navy.
“The win over Towson was big for setting up this year,” said High Point coach Lyndsey Boswell. “It set the tone for ourselves, not just against other teams, but the expectation we have for ourselves and our program now. That’s the level we want to be competing at every year. We don’t want that to be a fluky type of win. We want to be considered one of the top teams in the country, and we know that being consistent with those types of wins is the only thing that’s going to get us there.”
Perrotta and her teammates have done their best to continue to build respect. They showed improvement early even during their only two losses of the year. They fell to then-No. 7 North Carolina, 14-10, and a week later, 13-11, to then-No. 6 James Madison, two teams that beat them by a combined 21 goals last year.
“Even if the result doesn’t come for us, the stepping stones are just as important,” said Boswell, who has been the head coach for the entire eight years of the program’s existence. “We do see success even in the losses.”
High Point has been gaining momentum since the arrival of Perrotta’s class. They first went through a valley when they became the first High Point team to not win the Big South conference in their first two seasons, but they jumped from eight wins in 2015 to 13 wins in 2016 to a program-record 16 wins last year and an NCAA breakthrough.
“Not winning the Big South, after them winning the previous two years before that, we wanted a chance to win,” Perrotta said. “We didn’t get rings, and I think we stepped it up our junior year. A lot more of us were able to contribute during our junior year and now in our senior year. Our senior class is really strong. We get each other on and off the field. We have a really strong bond.”
Perrotta is at the center of it. She scored 232 goals with 59 assists for West Essex Regional, an established New Jersey power, before deciding to bring her game to High Point.
“When I chose High Point, I knew it was a pretty new program,” she said. “I thought, how cool would it be if I was part of a program that takes off – that gets better when I’m there and takes off? That’s one of the reasons I chose High Point because it was a new program and because I wanted to make an impact and make history at that school. In my senior year, to look back, it’s kind of cool that we did make history as the first Big South team to ever win in the first round of the NCAAs. That’s something that no one can ever take away from us.”
Perrotta started from the first game of her freshman year and she’s been able to contribute across the board. After the Duke game, she led the Panthers in goals (32), points (50), ground balls (26), caused turnovers (30) and sat second in draw controls (31).
“On and off the field, the direction she goes is the direction the team goes,” Boswell said. “She’s a hardworking, very committed, extremely selfless player which makes her an easy player to follow. By default, she has a lot of followers and a lot of people are bought into what she wants for the team. She may not look at herself as the heart and the soul of the team, but I think her teammates would say that about her. Her energy and her level of competition every day is what takes this team to the next level. She’s definitely a piece of it.”
Perrotta snapped Mackenzie Carroll’s program-record 129 goals record in the win over the Blue Devils. The two never got to play together, but Perrotta did take Carroll’s uniform No. 4 when she arrived. She won’t catch Carroll’s 263 career points, but she’s happy to have the goal mark.
“It’s definitely really cool,” Perrotta said. “It’s a great accomplishment. It’s also something I couldn’t have done it without past teammates. They gave me confidence as an underclassman to play the way I know how to play. My teammates now make me better every day at practice. I can’t thank them and my coaches enough.”
Even better has been living through the growth of High Point. She’s flattered to receive some credit for the emergence.
“It’s great to hear that, but it’s not just me,” Perrotta said. “Everyone on this team is unreal. We work so well together as a unit. You can’t just give the credit to one person. I think that’s what makes us special. We don’t have just one person. We have so much depth.”
Junior Sam Herman snapped the school’s all-time draw control record with her 135th in the win over Presbyterian. Brooke Stevens and Herman scored four goals apiece in the victory. High Point has a Top 10 scoring offense and a Top 20 scoring defense, but what helped key its win over Duke was a staggering 14-3 difference in caused turnovers. High Point is second in the nation in caused turnovers per game behind Liberty.
“It’s not just our defenders and our middies; it’s our attackers too on the ride,” Perrotta said. “I think mostly the defense that we play is just so strong, and when we work as a unit and we go out and pressure and have the backer, we trust each other so much. We end up getting someone on body and someone for the check.”
The Panthers’ caused turnovers have trended up along with their wins. They were ranked 34th in the country in caused turnovers three years ago, then fifth in 2016 and fourth last year.
“It is something we emphasize,” Boswell said. “We play a high-pressure style of defense. We’re more of a go-out-and-make-it-happen type of team than wait for another team to make mistakes. Especially at the top level, those players aren’t making those mistakes, so we force it upon them. That’s definitely our defensive mentality, just creating as much offense as we can for our attackers. It worked out well for us [Monday] night. It worked out well for us against Notre Dame. I felt like that was the only way we could compete with JMU and UNC earlier in the year – through our defense.”
Boswell has seen a new mindset develop in her team. There is more commitment to developing their skills and their grit.
“We talk a lot about their mental toughness,” Boswell said. “Between two and three years ago and now, our mental toughness has gotten stronger. That’s not all it is, but it’s a huge piece of it.”
High Point has gotten tougher with each win. No matter whom they play, the Panthers are approaching games with confidence if they can play at their best.
“It’s one of those things where if you’ve never done it before, you can talk about doing it, but until it’s been done and executed, it’s something that you want to do and something you dream about doing,” Boswell said. “Once it’s been done, you can go back to those thoughts of, I’ve done it before and we can do it again. That’s our mentality now.”
Staying consistently strong going forward is the goal. The Big South may not get a lot of respect, but High Point is starting to earn some. They will again be a tough matchup if they reach the NCAA tournament, and are probably more dangerous after gaining confidence over this season.
“Being in the Big South conference, it depends whom we play our first round,” Perrotta said. “I think the way we’ve been playing and the way we’re beating teams, I think we’re finally getting recognition. Teams won’t take us as lightly anymore.”
The Panthers’ first task is to get back to the NCAA tournament, and they’ll still likely have to earn the Big South conference’s automatic berth to get in. They will be testing each other in practice to stay sharp while hoping to avoid what would have to be an upset if another Big South team was to beat them.
“We go into every game knowing they’re going to give us their best game because they want to beat us because it would give them huge recognition,” Perrotta said. “We know we have to go into every game pretending we’re playing a top ranked team. You never know. Look at lacrosse this year and it’s been crazy with all these games. Princeton almost beat Maryland. It’s crazy.”