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Feisty Cole leads scrappy Wildcats in battle for playoff spot

Staff Photo: John Bohn Ali Cole, a junior lacrosse player with Duluth High School, is one of the top two goal-scorers in Gwinnett County and is tied for second in assists. Cole's future college plans include playing lacrosse. She looks to former University of Maryland player Jen Adams for inspiration as a lacrosse player.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Ali Cole, a junior lacrosse player with Duluth High School, is one of the top two goal-scorers in Gwinnett County and is tied for second in assists. Cole's future college plans include playing lacrosse. She looks to former University of Maryland player Jen Adams for inspiration as a lacrosse player.

If there is a chance to get possession of the ball, expect Ali Cole to be there fighting for it.

If there is a chance, this laughing, bubbly girl becomes a ruthless hunter.

Cole leads the county in goals scored with 65. She's third in assists.

But it's two other stats that are more reflective of the kind of game Cole plays.

The Duluth junior is third in caused turnovers and first in a stat particular to lacrosse, groundballs. It's essentially how many times Cole has gotten to a loose ball before anyone else.

She has more than double the number of groundballs of anyone else in the county.

In fact, you could add the second- and third-place numbers together and still not equal Cole's total of 89.

Groundballs are purely effort plays.

"It's not really, like, who is good," Cole said. "It's who wants it. You see them on the ground and all these people are always running to get it. There's a lot of contact. Sometimes I'm not even sure how I get them all. I really do want the ball though."

Her coach Paul Hennelly had Cole in a math class, which was also full of football players.

"I told them I could turn off the lights and pitch a penny and she'll be the one to come up with it," Hennelly said. "I don't care how big and tough they think they are.

"In terms of competitiveness, you don't find someone who wants to win as much as her and is in the game as much."

But that math class was also a lot of fun for Hennelly to teach.

For all her tenacity and grit on the field, Cole is as goofy and gregarious as they come off it.

She's always smiling and laughing. She has a fresh, uncontrived air about her.

"If you listen (at practice) and you hear this one girl that's really loud and laughing -- that's her," Hennelly said with a grin.

Once you meet Cole, you can exactly picture how she ended up separating her shoulder goofing around in the car with her sister.

"It was so stupid!" Cole said, of course, laughing. "I did it while driving. It was like the first day of tryouts (this season). I was driving to school, I reached up to turn the light on for my sister and put my shoulder out."

Cole wears a brace that keeps her arm from rotating above her shoulder. She isn't medically required to wear it, but keeps it on so she doesn't hurt it again.

"With it, she can't lift her arm above 90 degrees," Hennelley said. "Which is what's amazing about this season. I can't imagine what she'd do if she had full range of motion."

Cole's role changed this season. It had to.

Duluth's best player and Super Six selection, Ajahna Grosvenor, blew out her knee five minutes into the first game of the year.

"She went down screaming and the kids all looked at me and said, 'Coach, it's Ajahna,'" Hennelly said. "That's like the franchise."

And Cole had not practiced up until that night because of her shoulder injury.

"That was horrible," Cole said of seeing Grosvenor get hurt. "Oh, my god.

"It took us a while to get going. Really, we were supposed to be so good this year. First game, Ajahna, out. It was crushing."

Hennelly turned to Cole, who began playing lacrosse as a freshman -- the same time Duluth started its program.

"Last year, she didn't have to score as much because she would get the groundballs, clear it up the field and there was Ajahna," Hennelly said. "This year, she's had to take on more of a scoring role. She's had to kind of do everything.

"She has definitely improved her all-around game though. She's near the leaders in assists. A lot of times, the teams we play, you'll hear them yelling, 'Oh, she's a hog.' It's because she draws a lot of attention. She does look to feed the ball and it's becoming a better part of her game."

Cole has twice scored nine goals in a game this season. But she hasn't paid attention to the numbers.

"Last year, Ajahna and I kept track of our goals," Cole said. "This year, I have just been thinking, 'Oh, we have to win.'"

The wins have been coming, too. Duluth, which also lost its top defender to an ACL injury in the third game of the season, is a surprising 6-2 in area play after a 11-3 win over Archer. Cole had three goals and two assists in a game that kept the Wildcats in the thick of the fight for the area's fourth playoff spot.Cole also stepped up in what Hennelly called the program's biggest win. She scored six goals in a 14-13 win over Collins Hill last week.

"We're playing four or five freshmen and some sophomores that we didn't expect to," Hennelly said. "So she has had to take on more. But that supporting cast is getting better and better."

The season didn't start well. After losing their two best players, the Wildcats struggled in the county tournament.

"We were getting tuned up at the beginning of the season," Hennelly said. "We went to the county tournament and we lost every game by double digits. But we've been able to get better and develop each week.

"This is the first time, in April, we really have something to play for. Two weeks into it, we would have had every reason to quit."

But the team's leader doesn't quit. Not on groundballs and not on a season.