MONTCLAIR, N.J. – The No. 1 Salisbury University women's lacrosse team is one step away from reaching its season goal, as its advanced to the NCAA Division III women's lacrosse national championship game with a 15-7 win over No. 6 Middlebury College Saturday afternoon. With the win today, the Sea Gulls will make the program's fifth appearance in the title game and remain the only undefeated team on any level of NCAA women's lacrosse.
"We never talk about being undefeated," Head Coach Jim Nestor said. "But if we play the way we're capable of (playing), it'll take care of itself in the end."
Once again, it was a combination of a potent offense and a stingy defense that keyed the Sea Gull victory. Coming into the national semifinal contest, Salisbury (22-0) led the nation in scoring defense and kept the offense of Middlebury (15-5) in check throughout Saturday's game. The Panthers had been averaging nearly 13 goals per game coming into the weekend but were held well under their season average.
The defense, anchored by juniors Alyssa Hardesty and Kat Gartner, sophomore Meghan Toomey and freshman Dominique Dipino, came into the contest only allowing 4.76 goals per game. Also helping out the defensive effort was senior Carrie Bray. While some of the low goals against average can be attributed to sophomore Ashton Wheatley making key saves, it is a group effort inside the defensive third.
"Coach always says, 'Offense wins games, but defense wins championships," Dipino said after the game. "We've always got each others' backs. Ashton makes great saves to save us sometimes … Communication is the key though."
Salisbury started out the contest by falling behind, much the same as it had in the first two NCAA tournament games. Elizabeth Garry scored the first goal of the contest 5:09 into the game, putting Middlebury up 1-0. Thirty seconds later, Emma Kramer netted the Panthers' second goal and Salisbury once again found itself in a hole.
"Coach prepared us for Middlebury but our communication wasn't where it should have been," Dipino said. "After those first few goals, we got our communication where it needed to be and we stepped up."
The Salisbury offense stepped up as well, neutralizing the Panthers' early advantage. Senior Amanda Holsclaw got Salisbury on the board with 22:43 remaining in the first half, cutting the deficit to one. Junior Lauren Feusahrens tied the contest at two apiece just 13 seconds later and Salisbury would not trail again after that point.
Freshman Bethany Baer netted the first of her two goals on the day at the 21:57 mark, giving the Sea Gulls three goals in 46 seconds and their first lead of the day. After Middlebury answered and then trading goals, junior Kara Koolage scored with 11:08 remaining in the first half to give the Sea Gulls a lead they would not give up for remainder of the contest.
Feusahrens scored the second of her five goals with 3:40 remaining in the first half, giving Salisbury an 8-5 lead going into the break. Garry netted her second goal of the contest to shorten the Salisbury lead to 8-6 before the Sea Gulls went on a 4-0 run over a 12:07 span to take control of the contest and assuring a spot in the championship game.
During that run, senior Allie Wheatley netted three of her five goals, which tied with Feusahrens for the game-high. After the Cambridge, Md., native's final tally, the Salisbury lead sat at 12-6 with 11:43 remaining in the contest. The senior added an assist, giving her a career-high mark of six points in the contest. Allie Wheatley also collected three ground balls, matching a career-high.
Keying the Salisbury win was the ability to gain possession of the ball, either on draw controls or forcing turnovers. The Sea Gulls held a 13-11 advantage in draw controls in the contest and forced 17 Panther turnovers. Leading the charge was Koolage, patrolling the midfield for Salisbury.
"Kara is relentless, she runs all game," Feusahrens said. "She comes up with huge draw control wins, back checks. She shuts down whatever they try to do."
Feusahrens capitalized on the hard work of the defense and midfielders once the ball was in the Salisbury offensive third, posting a game-high and career-high eight points, netting five goals and dishing out three assists. With her effort today, the junior passes Jen Mezzadra on the program single-season goal scoring list. The Solomons Island, Md., native now has 71 goals on the season, good for fourth on the single-season goal leaderboard.
The top-ranked Sea Gulls will play No. 5 Trinity (Conn.) College in the NCAA Division III national championship game, as Trinity defeated the State University of New York at Cortland, 7-5, on Saturday after the Salisbury game. Trinity will be the 16th team ranked in the IWLCA top 20 coaches poll the Sea Gulls have faced this season. So far, Salisbury is 15-0 in those games. Win number 16 is needed to bring home the program's second national championship. Game time is set for 2 p.m. at Sprague Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University.