COLCHESTER, Vt. - Simply by being a member of the Northeast-10 Conference, the Saint Michael's College women's lacrosse team's schedule is annually chock full of national and regional powers, as evidence by seven of the Purple Knights' 12 league counterparts recently earning national recognition.
A year after Saint Michael's posted a 4-12 record, including 1-11 in the gauntlet that is her team's NE-10 slate, third-year head coach Ashley Hughes points to a narrow 11-9 loss against seventh-ranked Stonehill College last March as one of the signs that the Purple and Gold can compete with some of the top teams in the league.
"We try to approach every game in the same way that we approach every practice, in that we want to be better than the day before," said Hughes. "Last year was a great example of that, when we came out against Stonehill and really almost shocked them, ourselves and the conference by taking it down to the end."
Against a Stonehill team that has lost only seven league games in 14 seasons, the Purple Knights forced 24 turnovers, the most by the Skyhawks against an NE-10 foe in two years. Following that contest, which came after an overtime setback against eventual NCAA Division III Tournament qualifier Keene State College, Saint Michael's stayed within three goals of eighth-ranked Bentley University on April 4 until more than seven minutes were gone in the second half in another setback. The season came to an end, however, with the Purple Knights upsetting non-league foe Queens College, which was receiving national votes, by an 11-9 final on April 29.
"We proved to ourselves last season that we have the potential to surprise some people, but we have to put it all together every day for 60 minutes," said Hughes. "That's the toughest part of being in this conference, that if you let up for one minute, you're going to be exposed."
Hughes is joined by sixth-year assistant coach Cara Gorman and a pair of alums in third-year assistant Maddie Cave '10 and first-year assistant Sandy Palumbo '12, the team's lone goalkeeper last spring. Among the dozen teams the squad is set to face in NE-10 action alone, five were ranked in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association's (IWLCA) March 5 national poll, and two others were receiving votes.
Thirteen of the 16 Purple Knights who recorded points last year return, and after one graduated senior scored nearly one quarter of the team's goals, Hughes is looking for a more balanced attack in 2013.
"Knowing that a lot of our sophomores got a ton of playing time last year and are starting to mature and develop, we're looking now for a more collaborative approach as opposed to depending on one or two people to be the goal scorers," said Hughes. "We've built an offensive set that really fits the talents that we have, finding skills in people that were already there and pulling them out even further."
Juniors Caroline Casper (Norfolk, Mass./Thayer Academy) and Crystal King (South Burlington, Vt./South Burlington) made major contributions to the attack last year, with King notching 15 goals and 20 points, and Casper turning in a team-best 12 assists en route to 17 points. Casper is also a member of the field hockey team. Sophomores Kate Boyer (Standish, Maine/Bonny Eagle) and Courtney Piper (Wolfeboro, N.H./Brewster Academy) both collected 19 points during their debut seasons, with Boyer totaling 17 goals and Piper potting 14.
Junior Alexa Coleman (Boxford, Mass./Masconomet Regional) totaled seven points while appearing in every game on the attack last year, drawing 10 starts, and classmate Shannon Murphy (Boxboro, Mass./Acton-Boxboro Regional/UMass) also notched seven points but was limited to eight games, including five starts. First-year Maggie Dougherty (Verona, N.J./Verona) rounds out the attackers.
In the defensive portion of the field, four upperclassmen bolster a seven-player contingent, while Casey Curtin (Waltham, Mass./Ursuline Academy) is the lone first-year in that corps, and the only goalkeeper on the roster. "This year we'll see a much cleaner, more disciplined defense, and being that they are veterans, they're going to be able to work much better as a unit," said Hughes. "Being able to build on what we already had last year is going to put us in a much better place. Casey is really starting to come into her own, and beginning to feel comfortable and communicating as part of the unit."
Five players figure to rotate through four spots on defense, among them junior Nicole Buckley (Scituate, Mass./Scituate) and sophomore Taylor Midgley (Hampton, N.H./Saint Thomas Aquinas), both of whom started every game in 2012. Buckley tied for fifth in the NE-10 in caused turnovers (30) and tied for 12th in ground balls (42), while Midgley scooped 31 ground balls and caused 18 turnovers.
Senior captain Amy Forshay (Boxboro, Mass./Acton-Boxboro Regional) and classmate Molly Moran (Lincoln, N.H./New Hampton School) both drew four starts in the defensive third in 2012 while appearing in 12 and 11 games, respectively. In her first season of college lacrosse, junior Maeve Carroll (Acton, Mass./Acton-Boxboro Regional) started eight times in 14 outings while recording 12 ground balls and causing 10 turnovers.
Sophomore Julia Murphy (Southboro, Mass./Algonquin Regional) played 11 contests off the bench as a first-year and is expected to lend a hand in a reserve capacity as both a defender and midfielder. She is one of 10 Purple Knights in contention for a job in the midfield, as many of the returners stood out in their given roles.
Senior captain Caitlin Mahoney (Cohasset, Mass./Cohasset) scored eight times while putting together a well-rounded line of 32 ground balls, 23 draw controls and 11 caused turnovers. Junior Claire Martin (Mattapoisett, Mass./Bishop Stang) was 15th in the NE-10 in draws controlled (45) while adding 42 ground balls, 18 caused turnovers and seven goals, and sophomore Melissa Jaskiewicz (Kensington, Md./Bethesda-Chevy Chase) had 25 draw controls, 15 caused turnovers and 11 goals, and even lent her versatility to two stints in net. Also a member of the field hockey team, sophomore Hannah Beardsley (Essex, Mass./Manchester Essex Regional) posted 18 ground balls, 11 draw controls and five tallies.
Junior Beth Cusimano (Essex Junction, Vt./Essex) had three goals and three assists in 12 games as a reserve last spring, while sophomore Sarah Fortin (Dover, N.H./Saint Thomas Aquinas) scored twice in eight contests, including seven off the bench. Classmate Megan Finneran (Scituate, Mass./Scituate) joins the team for her initial season of college lacrosse, as do first-years Steph Bonewald (New London, N.H./Proctor Academy) and Emily Loebs (Acton, Mass./Acton-Boxboro Regional). One of three multi-sport varsity student-athletes on the squad, Loebs also plays ice hockey.
Hughes said goal-setting has been a key point of emphasis during the preseason. "We assess whether they met their goals at the end of every day, and just having that clear focus for themselves has really helped us be more organized and purposeful in what we do and why we're doing it," said the coach. "It's helped them learn to quickly self-assess, and that skill will allow them to better themselves without having to wait for the coaches' feedback during halftime or a timeout. We want them to be able to give themselves feedback during those 60 minutes."
The Purple Knights open the season on Saturday at Queens (N.Y.) College before playing a pair of contests in Florida during Spring Break. Upon returning north, they head to Stonehill, which was seventh in the IWLCA's most recent national poll, on March 18 to begin their NE-10 schedule. A date with No. 9 Bentley looms on March 26 before Saint Michael's faces No. 2 Le Moyne College; Saint Anselm College, which is receiving national votes; No. 5 Adelphi University; and No. 8 University of New Haven in succession to complete the regular season. The six-team NE-10 Championship begins on May 1.
"We set out every day to be competitive within ourselves and get better, set small goals, try to be mentally tough, and make good things happen," said Hughes. "Mental toughness is one thing we have been trying to work on and, with everyone being a year older and continuing to mature, we hope it shows this year on the field."