SALISBURY, Md. – After winning the team's 14th-straight Capital Athletic Conference title and making its 17th NCAA tournament appearance in 2016, the Salisbury University women's lacrosse team looks to continue that success in their 2017 campaign.
"We're looking forward to this season," Head Coach Jim Nestor said. "We want to continue doing well in the CAC first with winning the conference and getting that automatic bid, then obviously our main goal is to get back to the final four, and be able to put ourselves in a good position to be bound for the national championship."
The Sea Gulls lose some firepower on the offensive side but bring back a strong group of returners and talented newcomers including a stout veteran defense and an experienced midfield.
When asked about what will make Salisbury Women's Lacrosse successful in 2017, Coach Nestor responded with "they will be well prepared from both the physical side of things such as practice to the mental side such as breaking down film. I can see them going into every game confident because of their mental preparation, I think that's something we do really well."
"Alongside their preparation, to be successful you have to work as a team, and I feel this is a great group with a good nucleus and a determined senior class that realizes we haven't been to the final four in two straight years, and that's a goal they want to achieve, playing on that final day."
The Sea Gull offense loses two of its top offensive threats from last year in speedy midfielder Sam Duranti and scoring threat Megan Wallenhorst who notched 28 goals and 38 assists for the maroon and gold. Despite the changing of the guard, Salisbury looks to bring back three of the four top scorers from last year's squad.
One of those returners is last season's top goal-scorer, Lacrosse Magazines preseason Player of the Year to Watch, Gabbi Nieves. Nieves led the team last year with 41 goals and nine assists in 2016, earning an Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches' Association First-Team All-American selection and First-Team All-CAC honors for her performance.
"We have high regards of Gabbi and she's going to have high expectations of herself as well. We are really looking forward to her controlling the midfield and what she's going to be able to do for us."
Nestor also looks to junior Kristen Murphy to take more of that leadership role now that Megan has graduated. "We are looking to have Kristen behind the goal to help run the offense. She is the one out of that group I can see being face guarded in the big games."
Also returning to the attack is veteran senior Hannah Young, who notched an impressive 26 goals and an assist for the Sea Gulls last season.
Junior Dana King and sophomores Gabrielle Mongno and Lindsey Wagner saw quality minutes last season and will look to add to Salisbury's attacking depth. The trio last season combined for 51 goals and 44 assists (King 14-27, Mongno 26-1, Wagner 11-16).
"I really feel this offensive unit is a talented group, especially with Lindsey and Gabrielle being freshman last year and gaining valuable game time experience. I think they'll be coming back much more confident this season," Nestor said.
Despite graduating Samantha Duranti, Salisbury looks to return a forceful core of experienced players in senior Nieves and juniors Allison Hynson, Emma Wall and Alissa Talbert who will make an impact at the midfield position.
"This unit is strong defensively and offensively ," Nestor said. "This season we will be moving Alissa back to the midfield so we can utilize her even more because she's so smart on both ends of the field and after that we are going to freshman."
Hynson and Wall return for their junior campaign to give the Sea Gulls depth, experience, and speed in the midfield after tallying a combined 38 goals and four assists for the flock last season. Hynson earned her 33 draw controls, good for second on the team alongside of 28 ground balls last season.
Returning alongside Hynson and Wall will be Nieves. On the defensive end, Nieves caused 27 turnovers and scooped up 32 ground balls. The Centreville, Virginia native also rounded out the team's fourth-most draw controls with 18.
Sophomore Ryan Schrader, who has been consistently finding the back of the net in practice, is someone who will look to see more quality time in the midfield as well this season. Shrader's hot hands leads the team in shots on goal percentage with 1.000 and a .800 shooting percentage.
Kelleher returns off a strong 2016 campaign, as she notched 20 ground balls and caused 11 turnovers. The Ellicott City, Maryland native started in every game last year.
Koolage returns for her senior year after starting in every game last season. Last year Koolage recorded 18 ground balls, 20 draw controls, and caused 14 turnovers.
Miller, who also started in all 20 games for the Gulls last season, picked up the second-most ground balls on the team with 31 last season. She also earned nine draw controls and caused five turnovers.
"In regards to all three of them, they are all equally as talented as they are quality leaders. We are counting on this leadership to make the defensive unit hard to beat," Nestor said. "
Sophomore Morgon Von Schmidt will look to continue seeing quality minutes in the defensive rotation for Salisbury this season.
"She continues to do a nice job for us and continues to develop as a player," Nestor said.
Returning between the pipes for her junior season is the defensive juggernaut Gianna Falcone. Falcone, ended last season with a 5.89 goals against average, one of the top averages in the country, while recording 113 saves and an 18-3 record. The Florham Park, New Jersey native efforts last season earned her an IWLCA Third-Team All-American selection, IWLCA First-Team All-Region honors, First-Team All-CAC recognition, and this year's 2017 IWLCA Player of The Year nominee.
"Gianna was outstanding last season and we are looking forward to another good, solid performance from her this season as well," Nestor said.
Also looking to see some time in front of the net is freshman Skye Graham.
"Graham's done a great job thus far, she had a great fall and we really like her and we feel pretty good with Skye being able to go in there and hold her ground in the goal," Nestor said.
Once again, the Sea Gulls face a tough road ahead, both in CAC and non-conference play. Salisbury is scheduled to take on seven teams in the IWLCA top 20, including four in the top 10, with the first test coming on the road against No. 11 The Catholic University of America on February 25.
"Well we've always said we want to play the best so we can be the best. I feel that prepares us for that final four weekend," Nestor said.
Not only is the out-of-conference schedule tough, but the CAC schedule is getting more difficult with each and every year. The York College of Pennsylvania, which Salisbury faces in a road game on April 12, is currently No. 10 in the country, while teams like the University of Mary Washington (16th) and St. Mary's (18th) are getting better every year.
"Everyone is coming back fully loaded, so I think within the CAC there will be a lot of teams battling to win it all and a lot of teams are going to have the ability to win it all. I believe we will have to be really prepared going into conference games," Nestor said.
The 2017 campaign is set to begin Saturday against Stevenson University at 3 p.m., Nestor and the Sea Gulls are confident they can get it done with hard work and determination.
"We always have high expectations, and lofty goals. You have to work hard to meet those expectations and the team knows that. As long as we're improving day in and day out, we'll be prepared."