SALISBURY, Md. – After winning its 13th-straight Capital Athletic Conference title and making its 16th NCAA tournament appearance in 2015, the Salisbury University women's lacrosse team has high hopes for the 2016 season and will look to improve on last year's campaign.
"We're looking forward to this season," Head Coach Jim Nestor said. "We're excited to get back to playing and seeing how we're going to progress game by game, and hopefully we'll build upon each game, get smarter and better, and take it from there."
The Sea Gulls lose some firepower on the offense as well as some talent on the defense, but bring back a strong group of returners and newcomers.
"We lost a lot of NCAA post season game experience, a lot of those players played in three national championship games," Nestor said. "We are young in the depth department, all eager and hungry but lacking collegiate game-day experience.
Despite the loss of some key seniors from last season, leadership is a mainstay for Salisbury, and it comes from several avenues.
"Leadership definitely comes from our assistant coaches who played for us, as well as the senior class, but we try to put our players into leadership roles themselves throughout the season as much as possible to be able to lead by example."
The Sea Gull offense loses two of its top players at the attack position from last year in Kara O'Rourke and Kate Haker, as well as Shelby Nemecek, but Salisbury brings back three out of the four top scorers on the squad from last season.
"When you look at the offense, we have experience returning, but we're really going to need to step up and be a little more selfish at times and create more scoring opportunities," Nestor said.
One of those returners, the top goal-scorer from a season ago, is Lacrosse Magazine preseason All-American senior Megan Wallenhorst. Wallenhorst led the team with 34 goals in 2015, earning Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches' Association Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-CAC honors for her performance.
"I expect Megan to lead from behind the goal, controlling the offense," Nestor said. "Being a senior, her leadership will be vital and is something we are going to need from her on that offensive end. In the bigger games she can lead by example, she has been there before."
Freshman Lindsey Wagner will also see some time at the position this season. "She seems to have that lacrosse IQ going," Nestor said.
Coming back to play up top in the attack position is junior Hannah Young, who scored the second-most goals on the team last year with 30.
Despite losing Bethany Baer, the preseason player of the year last season, Salisbury has a strong core of players returning in senior Samantha Duranti, junior Gabbi Nieves, and sophomore Allie Hynson who will make an impact at the midfield position.
"They all have game day experience," Nestor said. "Those three are strong athletes that are able to get up and down the field and are doing well on the defensive end as well as creating scoring opportunities."
Duranti returns for her senior campaign to add depth, leadership, and speed to the midfield after tallying 10 goals and five assists for the Gulls last season.
Coming back alongside Duranti is Nieves, who notched 16 goals last season, which was good for fourth-most on the team. On the defensive end, Nieves caused 13 turnovers and picked up 16 groundballs. The Centreville, Virginia native also won the team's third-most draw controls with 25.
Hynson is another player that brings experience from last season at the position, after filling in when Baer was injured early in the season and competing at a high level. Hynson won 26 draw controls last season, which was second on the team.
Freshman Ryan Schrader, who has been consistently finding the back of the net in practice, is someone who will see some time in the midfield as well.
Kelleher is coming off a strong 2015 campaign, as she led the team in groundballs with 24, and caused a team-high 15 turnovers last season. The Ellicott City, Maryland native started in every game last year.
Koolage returns for her junior year after winning 27 draw controls, which led the team in 2015. Koolage also picked up 13 groundballs and caused six turnovers.
Miller, who saw 14 starts for the Sea Gulls on defense, picked up the fifth-most ground balls on the squad with 17 last season and also had eight caused turnovers.
"In regards to all three of them, I feel they are equally special to that defense and we're really going to count on them to keep the defense playing as a cohesive unit," Nestor said. "We are still trying to figure out who will be working into the defensive rotation.
One of those that might be working with them is freshman Morgon Von Schmidt.
"On defense, Morgon has done a nice job for us so far as we've been watching her develop," Nestor said.
Returning in front of the net for her sophomore stint is Gianna Falcone, who filled into the starting role in the fourth game of the season last year and became one of the top goalkeepers in the country in 2015. Falcone ended up with a 5.17 goals against average, one of the top averages in the country, while notching 86 saves and a 14-1 record. For her efforts in 2015, Falcone earned IWLCA First-Team All-Region, CAC Rookie of the Year, and First-Team All-CAC honors.
"Gianna's performance last season was outstanding," Nestor said. "Her athleticism and physical toughness allows her to make some incredible plays. We are looking for another good, solid performance from Gianna this season."
"She did a lot of great things over the summer making herself a better player, that we feel will help take her game to the next level."
Also looking to see some time in front of the net is senior Chelsea Weinstein, who appeared in five games last season for Salisbury.
Once again, the Sea Gulls are faced with a tough schedule, both with non-conference play and in the CAC. Salisbury is slated to take on seven teams in the IWLCA top 20, including six in the top 10, starting with a home contest against No. 7 Catholic University of America on February 27.
"Our out of conference schedule is always tough and we make it that way to prepare us for the conference as well as the NCAA tournament, they will know how to compete at the highest level and know what to expect from ranked teams," Nestor said.
Not only is the out-of-conference schedule tough, but the CAC schedule is getting more grueling each and every year. York College of Pennsylvania, which Salisbury faces in a road game on March 12, is currently No. 8 in the country, while teams like the University of Mary Washington and Christopher Newport are getting better every year.
"The CAC is getting stronger and stronger every year, and I would hope that we would get a couple more teams in the NCAA tournament," Nestor said.
With the season set to begin today against Stevenson University at 1 p.m., Nestor and the Sea Gulls are still 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."