Senior All-American Kelsey Reilly heads a senior class that has provided valuable leadership to this year's squad. (PHOTO BY Andrew Katsampes)
By Glen Farley
EASTON — The head coach admits she had her doubts.
"We actually started off really rocky," Stonehill College women's lacrosse coach Katie (Lambert) Conover said. "We went to Florida and came back 0-2 (following losses to Rollins and Florida Southern).
"For the first three weeks of the season, most of the month of March, me and my assistant (Janna Anctil) kept looking at each other and saying, 'We're not very good.' We kept looking at each other like, 'Uh-oh.' We were pretty nervous, to be honest with you, but then we started peaking and I think we're playing our best lacrosse right now."
Now 13-6, the Skyhawks will need to be this weekend, for when they take the field in Brookville, N.Y., at 11 a.m. Saturday, they'll be doing so against unbeaten (17-0) and top-ranked LIU Post in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Div. 2 Championships.
Oh, by the way, the Pioneers, whose wins this year include a 15-12 victory at Stonehill on April 13, also happen to be the defending national champions.
"It's a challenge, obviously, but we played a pretty good game against them in the regular season," said Conover. "The thing about women's lacrosse, especially in the North region, is it's just so competitive across the board. There's no doubt that LIU Post is the No. 1 team, but we seem to be everybody's Super Bowl. It wouldn't matter if it were Adelphi, Le Moyne or Post. It's the same kind of challenge."
Senior Kayla Green is the Skyhawks' leading scorer with 85 points. (PHOTO BY Andrew Katsampes)
The challenge the Pioneers present centers around Jackie Sileo, who recently set the NCAA career points record (391 and counting) – as a junior, no less. Senior Ashley Olen has fed off Sileo's playmaking skills, setting LIU Post's single-season (81 this year) and career goal-scoring records (252).
"Jackie Sileo is, hands down, the best single lacrosse player in the nation. She's almost impossible to deal with, to be honest with you," said Conover. "But she also has an unbelievable supporting cast.
"You could play a zone to shut her specifically down, but it's going to open up the middle and she'll have another 10 assists against us (Sileo had five goals and eight assists when the teams met last month). So I think we're going to focus a little bit more on the supporting cast and see if we can shut down the assists. We'll make some adjustments on defense, try our best to stay confident and involved on attack, but we'll give them a game."
The Skyhawks rebounded from their sluggish start to win six straight, triggering a span that saw them go 13-3 before they were knocked off last Saturday by Adelphi in the semifinal round of the Northeast-10 Conference Tournament, 11-7.
Sophomore goalie Ashley Armstrong was outstanding in the NE-10 tourney, her performance earning her a berth on to the all-championship team.
Conover credits senior leadership – from Kayla Green (attack; the team's leading scorer with 85 points), Jessica Guisti (midfield), Kelsey Reilly (attack), Heather Sullivan (attack; the team's second-leading scorer with 72 points), Caitlyn Taveira (goalie), and Abigail Walsh (defense) – for getting the Skyhawks to this point, their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010.
"I think we have a really phenomenal group of senior leaders," said the Skyhawks' sixth-year head coach, who, during a Stonehill College Hall of Fame playing career, helped lead the program to its first of two national championships (2003 and 2005). "We have three captains (Green, Guisti and Reilly), but that's not the way we really look at it. All six of our seniors have been really great leaders on this team.
"They've been knocking on the door for a while now. I think they know it's their last shot at it, and they're confident and they're hard working. I think this is a group that wants it more than any other group than I've had at Stonehill so far."