SALISBURY, Md. – After claiming its second national title in four years, the No. 1 Salisbury University women's lacrosse team heads into the 2014 schedule thirsty for another.
The Sea Gulls concluded last season a perfect 23-0, the first undefeated season in program history and becoming the only team in Division III history with 23 wins in a single season. Avenging the one-goal loss in the national championship match in 2012 to Trinity (Conn.) College, Salisbury battled its way back to championship weekend to knock off the Bantams, 12-5, bringing the hardware back to the Eastern Shore.
While the Sea Gulls lose six players from the championship team, the squad moves forward with a core of young talent looking to make their mark on the program.
"We know last year was special," Head Coach Jim Nestor said. "With this year, we talked to the team about it being a new year, a new team. We need to have a new identity; not riding the coattails of previous years' success, but making their own success."
Returning to the team to create that new identity are three Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association All-Americans and four members of the IWLCA All-Region team and the All-Capital Athletic Conference team.
After leading the country in goals last season with 363 and finishing 11th in scoring offense with an average of 15.78 goals per game, the Sea Gulls head into the 2014 season returning four attackers that posted double-figures in goals.
Senior Shannon Carta (19 goals in 2013), juniors Kate Haker (27) and Shelby Nemecek (28) and sophomore Melissa Webster (11) head the offensive charge, totaling 85 goals last season for the maroon and gold. Senior Katelyn Blondino and newcomer Megan Wallenhorst will add significant minutes for the Gulls. Wallenhorst transfers in for her first season with Salisbury from Winthrop University. In her freshman year with the Eagles, the Ellicott City, Md., native led Winthrop in assists (29) and notched 34 goals for the team's second-best.
"We feel that we are going to be well balanced, and as we go along, we will see whose identity is a little above everyone else," Nestor said about the strong core of offense returning to the team this year. "I really think it is going to be game-by-game. Everyone will be two goals, two goals. It will be who has four goals that game or the five assists that game."
Leading the midfield this season is junior All-American and Lacrosse Magazine's Preseason Midfielder of the Year Bethany Baer, who capped off an impressive sophomore year with 40 goals and 19 assists for 59 points. In her freshman season, the Westminster, Md., native recorded three goals in the national championship game against Trinity.
"She is just a work horse and is so smart of a player making things look so easy at times," Nestor said about Baer playing the entire field. "Offensively, she is going to be one of our weapons, and defensively, she is going to be as strong as all of our lower defenders."
Concluding last season as the second-ranked scoring defense in the country, with a goals-against average of 5.22, the Sea Gulls return a lot of experience on the defensive end of the field, led by senior All-American Meghan Toomey. Joining Toomey on the backline is senior Anna Sparr, juniors Dominique DiPino and Laura Maskell and sophomore Allison Toomey.
"With our whole defensive unit that is coming back, we really think that is going to be a strength of ours," Nestor said. "We lost two great players, but we feel a good core is back."
Joining the strong core this year is freshman Kieran Kelleher, who looks to find solid playing minutes throughout the season.
Returning for her senior season is two-time All-American Ashton Wheatley. Labeled as the Lacrosse Magazine's Preseason Player of the Year, Wheatley enters this season as the reigning Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament after posting 39 saves in the road to another national title.
The Cambridge, Md., native has recorded 280 saves placing her sixth in program history. While sitting in second in most wins for the program, Wheatley needs 10 more victories to claim the top spot over former Sea Gull Ali Goetz.
"With Ashton in goal, it will just be a huge help to us with her experience and her abilities," Nestor said about the two-time IWLCA Goalkeeper of the Year.
Coming as no surprise, Salisbury puts itself to the test once again, as Nestor prepares his team for a hopeful trip back to the postseason.
"We are trying to play the best so we can be the best and measure ourselves against the best," Nestor said. "Hopefully, we will see them again later on in postseason and be a little more prepared. We have a big challenge ahead of us, and hopefully we are prepared for each of those games."
The IWLCA posted its preseason poll for Division III on Feb. 3, and the Sea Gulls are slated to play eight teams ranked in the top 20.
The non-conference lineup includes No. 2 the State University of New York at Cortland, No. 3 Trinity, No. 5 Franklin & Marshall College, No. 7 The College of New Jersey, No. 8 Colby College, and No. 20 Stevenson University.
With additions to the conference this year, the CAC becomes even more competitive than years past. Entering into the conference schedule this year is No. 16 Christopher Newport University, giving the CAC three top-20 teams, as Salisbury and No. 12 York College of Pennsylvania join the Captains.
"With CNU being in the conference, I think it makes it more challenging to be one of those top seeds; to be able to be hosting and be home," Nestor said. "It makes us focus more on another game that we really need to be prepared for."
The women begin their title defense on Sunday, Feb. 16, as Salisbury welcomes Roanoke College to Sea Gull Stadium for a non-conference tilt. The match is set to begin at 12 p.m.