Defense looks to anchor women's lacrosse in its quest back to the national championship
Success has been plentiful for the Salisbury University women’s lacrosse team during head coach Jim Nestor’s tenure. Nestor’s squad has made it to the “big dance” every year since 2002 and has only lost one in-conference game since 2003.
The Sea Gulls also have some hardware to go along with this success. In 2010, the team finished 21-1 overall and secured its first national championship. It also captured national championships in 2013 and 2014.
Since 2014, though, SU has yet to return to that championship game.
Last season was their deepest run of the past four years, led by a strong core of seniors. The Sea Gulls opened the year strong, winning their first 14 contests and toppling six ranked teams in that time. They began the year slotted at No. 9 in the rankings and would rise all the way to No. 1 following an 11-10 win over No. 10 University of Mary Washington.
However, their first loss of the year came just six days later. The team traveled to face No. 3 The College of New Jersey, a game they would lose by a final score of 10-1. This loss eventually dropped the squad to third in the national rankings, but it did not matter. This was the only game the Sea Gulls lost during the regular season.
The Gulls finished the regular season with an 18-1 record, winning their 16th straight Capital Athletic Conference championship and reaching the NCAA semifinals. They also boasted the 15th-ranked scoring defense in Division III, allowing just 7.17 goals per game.
Their season would come to an end at the hands of the would-be national champions in Gettysburg with a final score of 12-7.
Moving into this season, the Gulls find themselves with a preseason national rank of fourth and a lot of shoes to fill.
To have this level of success again this season, a new core of players will have to lead the team. Five key starters from last season graduated: attackers Dana King, Krissy Murphy and Alissa Talbert, midfielder Allie Hynson and longtime goalkeeper Gianna Falcone.
King, Murphy, Hynson and Talbert combined for 116 and 100 of the team’s 321 goals and 162 assists, respectively. The offense ran through these players and the chemistry of the team flowed best when all four were on the field together.
“I watched them all through their four years of college lacrosse,” sophomore attacker Emma Skoglund said. “It was so cool to be able to be a part of that my freshman year.”
While there is clear offensive production that needs to be replaced, Skoglund does not put the focus on any individual players to fill those shoes specifically this upcoming season.
“Really, it’s more of our teamwork and working together and we can make up for those people that we lost," Skoglund said. "It’s really just working as a team and coming together and just being a whole that’s really going to help us push forward and be as successful as we were last year.”
A bigger focus for SU will be in goal, as for the first time in four years, it will be without Falcone. Logging just shy of 4,000 minutes in goal in her career and boasting a 63-12 record, No. 46 has been a crucial part of the Sea Gulls' defense these past four seasons.
Falcone recorded 453 total saves in her time with Salisbury, earning a career save percentage of 51.7 percent, including a career-high 147 saves last year.
There has been a position battle of sorts for this goalkeeper position in the offseason, and it appears that junior Skye Graham is the frontrunner to start the season.
“I’ve known that I would have two years being mentored by Gianna, and then two years that I would have to step up to the plate,” Graham said. “So in the offseason, I just tried to get as many shots as I could, as many realistic plays as I could, and our coaches did a really great job of that.”
Graham also says that she is extremely grateful to have played with such an experienced player as a teacher.
“It allowed me to make a lot of mistakes and to realize what I want to be doing when I am playing,” Graham said. “I’ve been able to make those mistakes, and now I can come into my junior year with a lot of knowledge.”
However, Graham is not the only option, with young talent right behind her competing for playing time. Two freshman goalkeepers joined the team this season, Mary Claire Hisle from Walt Whitman High School and Jasmin Hall from Caesar Rodney High School.
“Skye, being a returning player, has done a great job right now to fill in those shoes, but we have two freshmen that came in that are also doing a great job and really challenging for that spot,” Nestor said. “But Skye has that experience and she knows what it takes to win in those big-game situations.”
One of SU’s greatest strengths as a team has been its defense, and the team is returning all seven defenders from last year’s roster. The large focus in many practices is on the defensive end as well.
“We’re always trying to challenge them. That’s the biggest thing at practice," Nestor said. "Put them in high-pressure situations, so that hopefully on game day we can make smart decisions and take care of the ball, not have as many turnovers.”
The fundamentals will remain key for the Gulls as they look to continue being a team that limits mistakes. SU had the least turnovers per game (12.13) out of any team in DIII last season.
This high level of discipline is found across the defense of this team led by multiple veterans, including senior Morgon Von Schmidt.
“We prepare by running the other team's plays; our coaches do a lot of scouting on the other team, so we pretty much know who their top attackers are and what they like to do,” Von Schmidt said. “Our attack does a lot of mimicking the other attack, so they really help us prepare quite a bit.”
Despite the losses to the offense last season, the Sea Gulls have plenty to look forward to with a new influx of youth complimenting a core of upperclassmen including seven seniors.
Nestor has been optimistic about this season’s roster and their potential for success once again.
“We lost a lot of great players from last year, so we know we have some big holes to fill, but from what we’ve seen so far, I feel that the players have done a great job," Nestor said.
Nestor knows just how important it is to excel in all phases of the game in order to compete with the teams at the end of the tournament. He highlights being able to create scoring opportunities from unsettled situations, taking care of the ball in transition, dominating draw control and having a stellar defense to take pressure off the goalkeepers.
“I think it all comes down to handling that pressure in those big-game situations,” Nestor said.
SU will start off its quest to return to the national semifinals with its season debut hosting Stevenson, a program that finished with an 8-10 record last season on Feb. 16. With a defense that has been there already, eyes will be on the offense and in goal as the Gulls try to make that leap back to the top of DIII women's lacrosse.
By NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: The Sea Gulls celebrate a goal against Trinity in their 9-8 Regional Final win last season. May 20. (Emma Reider images).