SALISBURY, Md. – After capturing its 15th-straight Capital Athletic Conference title and making the team's 18th NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, the Salisbury University women's lacrosse team looks to continue the program's storied success in the 2018 campaign.
With a schedule comprised of eight different teams ranked in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association top-25 preseason poll, Head Coach Jim Nestor knows it will be no easy task getting back to the NCAA tournament.
"We're first looking at getting better each day, each game," Nestor said. "One of our team goals is to repeat as conference champions. We want to be the number one seed going into the CAC playoffs. For that to happen, we need to do our job during the regular season. Winning the conference will help us reach another team goal of having a deep run in the NCAA tournament and earning a trip to the final four."
With some new rules in the women's game, including a 90-second possession clock, Nestor looks forward to a much faster pace of play. The head coach is hoping that the team's depth, full of both experience and youth, will help wear opposing teams down with the increased pace of the game.
The Sea Gulls return plenty of offensive weapons, with six of the seven team leaders in points returning from a season ago.
"When looking at the offense, we have a lot veterans with experience returning who should be able to create in unsettled situations," Nestor said.
At the top of that list is senior Dana King, an IWLCA First-Team All-Region selection a season ago after registering a team-high 63 points on 35 goals and 28 assists. Fellow senior Krissy Murphy, who was second on the team with 52 points on 22 goals and a team-high 30 assists, will join King on the low attack.
Junior Lindsey Wagner also returns after notching 28 goals and 21 assists for 49 points, good for third on the team. Alissa Talbert, a versatile player who could also be used on defense, will join King, Murphy, and Wagner in an attack unit that Nestor expects a lot from.
Higher up on the offensive end, Nestor expects Courtney Fegan to continue her success after coming on strong at the end of last season. Fellow junior Gabrielle Mongno, a versatile player who can go outside, will look to pair well with Fegan up top. Rotating in with Fegan and Mongno will be sophomore Gianna Demato.
Leading the way in the midfield position is IWLCA Third-Team All-American Allie Hynson.
"Allie did a great job all season last year, being so consistent and really strong on the draw," Nestor said.
Hynson earned 41 draw controls, recorded 22 ground balls, caused 15 turnovers, and scored 14 goals on the season for the Sea Gulls.
A player who expects to see a major increase in their role this season is sophomore Elaine Draper.
"We're really expecting to see a lot from Elaine in the midfield this year," Nestor said. "She's got a great shot and is strong through the midfield, so we're really expecting to see her offensive presence."
Other midfielders who will play a more prominent role include sophomores Taylor Poore and Holly Bowers, who combined to appear in 22 games and tally eight points last season. Nestor expects both players to see a lot of time at the defensive midfielder position while also getting some runs on offense.
The back unit will be completely revamped after the loss of four starters from a season ago.
"Defensively, we're young after graduating four starters from last year, but a lot of these players have received a good amount of time from last year," Nestor said.
Junior Martha Hutzell will join Bannan and Wehland after moving from midfield to defense last season. Hutzell scooped up 16 ground balls, earned 14 draw controls, and caused 10 turnovers last year.
Freshman Carrie Hesen is expected to be on the field quite a bit as well.
"Carrie brings a lot of knowledge from her club days and we're looking to see her progress with this unit," Nestor said. "She's really strong one-on-one and really good communicating defensively."
Between the pipes the Sea Gulls have two starting-quality netminders. Three-time All-CAC honoree Gianna Falcone returns for her senior season after posting a 6.86 goals-against average to go along with 107 saves and a save percentage of 46.9. Falcone earned IWLCA Second-Team All-Region and Second-Team All-CAC honors after recording a 14-6 record in 2017.
Also returning in net is sophomore Skye Graham. Graham went 2-0 in her two starts while appearing in 12 games. She recorded a 3.70 goals against average and 56.8 save percentage while saving 21 shots.
"We are very fortunate to have two exceptional goalies," Nestor said. "Gianna's experience gives her the upper hand, but Skye is right there. We feel very confident with each of them, and they both are worthy of being in goal."
The Sea Gulls face a challenging schedule once again in both CAC play and non-conference action, with eight opponents ranked in the preseason top 25. Out of conference, Salisbury will play six teams ranked in the top 15.
"We feel that our schedule prepares us for a strong run at the end of the season and hopefully prepares us for that run at the final four," Nestor said.
Salisbury opens its home slate against No. 14 The Catholic University of America on February 24. The Sea Gulls follow that game up with a showdown against No. 3 Washington and Lee University, a final four team a year ago.
The maroon and gold will also have a tough schedule come conference time.
"In conference, those top five teams everybody is going to have an opportunity to knock each other off," Nestor said. "We really have to make sure we're coming out there and playing our 'A' game."
The CAC was well-represented in the preseason poll, with York College of Pennsylvania coming in at No. 8 and the University of Mary Washington at No. 17.
"When we play a top CAC opponent we have to be well prepared, both mentally and physically, and we have to play smart for a full 60 minutes," Nestor said. "Knowing the conference is so strong, it is hopefully preparing us for the NCAA tournament."
Salisbury opens the 2018 season on Saturday, February 17 at Stevenson University. The game is scheduled to start at 12 p.m.