SALISBURY, Md. – After making a run to the program's fifth national championship game last year, the 2013 Salisbury University women's lacrosse team has one thing on its mind – to close the deal and bring back the Division III women's lacrosse national championship trophy to the Eastern Shore for a second time. For the Sea Gulls, while winning the Capital Athletic Conference is the first goal, a successful season will feature a return trip to the championship weekend.
The 21 returning Sea Gulls gained invaluable experience in 2012, both from knowing what it takes to get to the final weekend of play and not wanting to go through the heartbreak of last season's national championship game loss. This team is a tight-knit family and wants to send out the six seniors with another national championship.
"We're feeling good going into this season," Head Coach Jim Nestor said about his squad that features returning talent at every position on the field. "This is the most veteran squad that we have ever had returning and having proved themselves we're looking forward to the season coming up, but we need to stay healthy."
This Salisbury team returns three Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association All-Americans, four members of the IWLCA All-Region team and five student-athletes named to the All-CAC First Team. There certainly is no shortage of talent on the team and the Sea Gulls' goal is to return home from Owings Mills, Md., the third weekend in May with a national championship trophy accompanying them.
The Sea Gulls annually rank near the top of Division III in goal scoring, as they did in 2012 and 2013 looks promising with plenty of production returning from last year's squad. The team led the nation with 537 points and averaged 15.43 goals per game last year, good for 19th in the nation. Returning are the top-two scorers from last year, seniors Katie Bollhorst and Lauren Feusahrens.
"Having those two back is a huge help," Nestor said about his leading top two offensive weapons returning. "Their leadership alone, knowing how to settle the offense and look at the momentum of the game, is going to help this year."
Bollhorst, the 2012 Capital Athletic Conference Player of the Year and IWLCA All-America First-Team selection, put up the second-most points by a Sea Gull in a season in program history and was sixth in the nation last year with 121 points. The Severna Park, Md., native dished out 72 assists – good for the third-highest total in Division III and the second most by any Sea Gull player in a single season.
Feusahrens had a breakout year in her second campaign in maroon and gold, leading the Sea Gulls with 73 goals last year. The Solomons, Md., native added 26 assists, giving her 99 points last year, placing her sixth on Salisbury's all-time single-season points list.
Along with a handful of newcomers, Nestor is essentially adding two players to this year's squad that he is familiar with, as senior Maggie Roundy and junior Shelby Nemecek return from injury. Roundy only played in two contests last year, and Nemecek missed all of last year, but both are expected to have a big impact in the Gulls' offensive third.
"We are a very well balanced team, up front," Nestor said. "There is no weight on any one player's shoulders to score. If we play the way we are capable of, we will score. Everyone will need to do their part so the offense is balanced."
Haker finished the 2012 season with 23 assists, good for third on the team.
The middle third of the field is where there is the most turnover for Salisbury, as all five of last year's seniors played the midfield. That is not to say there isn't talent in the midfield for the Sea Gulls.
Leading the group is senior Kara Koolage, who will be in the circle for draw controls for Salisbury this season. Koolage collected 28 draw controls last year, the top returner in that category for the Sea Gulls. The Annapolis, Md., native also contributed 19 points last season.
"Kara is a great overall player," Nestor said. "She is strong both defensively and offensively."
Also returning are sophomores Bethany Baer, Hayden Hutzell and Summer Washburn. The second-year trio picked up valuable playing time last year and will be counted on the fill the void left by the graduated seniors.
"Of all the spots on the field, this is the area where we are lacking veteran depth, but we are still five deep in the midfield with returning players," Nestor said. "We feel that we have a good stable of midfielders that will be able to contribute for us this year."
Baer showed her potential throughout last season and in the national championship game, leading the Sea Gull attack with three goals against Trinity College (Conn.) in the championship game. The Westminster, Md., native netted 25 goals for the Sea Gulls last year and looks to increase her production with added playing time.
Returning from injury is junior Halie Lear, who will be joined in the middle of the field by five new players – sophomore Elizabeth Anderson, and freshmen Jessica Crew, Samantha Duranti, Kylie Hanley and Katelin Talbert.
The maroon and gold return last year's top-ranked defense, with seniors Alyssa Hardesty and Kat Gartner, junior Meghan Toomey, sophomore Dominique Dipino taking their spots in the defensive third. Last year, the defense led the nation in scoring defense, allowing five goals per game. The next-closest defense, The College of New Jersey, allowed an average of 1.35 goals per game more than the Sea Gulls in 2012. Salisbury ranked 39th in Division III in caused turnovers during the 2012 season, forcing 9.39 turnovers per contest.
"We are very pleased with the leadership returning this year," Nestor said. "We have six defenders vying for four spots."
Salisbury returns junior All-American Ashton Wheatley in the cage and the Cambridge, Md., native is looking to continue her stellar play between the pipes. Last year, Wheatley posted a 5.75 goals against average, tops for any goalie on any level of women's lacrosse in 2012.
"If she plays half as well as she did last year, we'll be okay," Nestor said about the IWLCA Goalie of the Year. "She is so quick and so athletic, her athleticism allows her to take chances to creates turnovers. Having her back provides a big comfort level for us."
Once again this season, Nestor has put together a schedule full of tough opponents for his Sea Gulls. The coach not only wants his team to advance to the postseason, but to have played good competition that will prepare his team for win-or-go-home situations that they will see if the Sea Gulls advance to the NCAA tournament.
"We try to play the best teams we can, to prepare for the postseason, granted we get there," Nestor said. "But our main focus is taking it game by game, making sure we take care of the regular season, to have a chance to get to the postseason. We feel each game that we go into, we need to play our best. Playing top-10, top-20 teams, it will just help us as the season progresses."
Last season, the Sea Gulls played 16 contests with their opponent ranked in the top 20 at the time of the matchup. This season, Salisbury has eight opponents who are ranked in the IWLCA Top 20 preseason poll.
The CAC is strong again this year, with three member institutions ranked in the Top 20. Along with Salisbury, which opens at No. 2, the Sea Gulls will face-off against No. 9 York (Pa.) College and No. 13 University of Mary Washington in conference play.
As part of the non-conference lineup, the Sea Gulls will face No. 3 the State University of New York at Cortland, No. 6 The College of New Jersey, No. 10 Messiah College, No. 11 Catholic University of America, No. 14 Franklin & Marshall College and No. 15 Washington and Lee University.
Salisbury opens its season on Saturday, Feb. 23 against former conference rival Stevenson University. That contest is slated to begin at 3 p.m., at Sea Gull Stadium.