GETTYSBURG, Pa. – The No. 2 Salisbury University women's lacrosse team is back in the national title game for the third-consecutive year, searching for its third national title in five seasons, after advancing past No. 5 Amherst College, 8-4, on Saturday afternoon in the NCAA Division III tournament semifinals at Clark Field.
"It was a great game," Head Coach Jim Nestor said. "When you look at the stats and see how balanced the game was and going back-and-forth, I just really thought we did a great job creating and finishing our opportunities. It was just a really exciting game."
Salisbury (22-1) started the game huge on the defensive end, allowing the offense to fuel off the early momentum to get on the board first. Winning the opening draw, Amherst (19-3) brought on the first attack of the game. Dropping down the eight-meter fan through an open lane, Lord Jeff Alex Philie lined a shot at the cage, but was turned away on one of many impressive saves for the game by senior goalkeeper Ashton Wheatley.
"My sister (Allie Wheatley) always said if I make the first save that's shot on me, we are golden for the rest of the game," said Wheatley. "It's definitely a mentality thing. If you get that first save, it just pumps you up for the rest of the game."
Changing the direction, Salisbury rushed down to its offensive end and just 50 seconds later blasted the first goal of the game. Senior Shannon Carta carried the ball around the backside of the net, rolling tight along the crease on the left side. Dodging an Amherst defender, the Annapolis, Md., native found a gap in the front of the crease for a high, right finish over Lord Jeff goalkeeper Christy Forrest.
Amherst and Salisbury would trade goals the rest of the way through the first half to give the Sea Gulls a 3-2 lead at the break. After the Lord Jeffs got on the board two minutes following Carta's opening goal, junior Bethany Baer had a notable series to get Salisbury the lead again. On an Amherst possession, Baer with a quick, clean swipe of her stick, connected with Rachel Passarelli's stick to cause the turnover and push the ball the other way. On the other side, junior Kate Haker wrapped around the back of the goal, finding a diving Baer down the eight-meter fan for the swift pass and low finish, giving the Sea Gulls a 2-1 lead.
Following another Amherst goal, the duo of Carta and junior Shelby Nemecek connected for their 22nd goal together this season and first of two for the game to give Salisbury the lead that it wouldn't lose the rest of the day.
At the half, Salisbury edged Amherst in shots, 7-6, while holding even in draw controls and groundballs with three and seven, respectively.
With no scoring in the opening 8:37 of the second half, Haker broke the dry spell with an unassisted finish to give the Sea Gulls a two-goal lead. Rolling tightly around the crease with her back to the defense, the lefty came in low on the front side of the crease for the quick shot past Forrest.
The Jeffs would answer back with a goal seven minutes later, but stifling defense and a sparked offense would put the Sea Gulls on a four-goal run to put the game away. A Carta-Nemecek hookup started the run less than two minutes after the Amherst goal.
Continuing the stretch was Haker and senior Katelyn Blondino. Haker carried the ball to the far right side of the field, waiting for an opening for a teammate to fall into for an opportunity. Blondino curled around the top of the eight-meter fan catching a pass from Haker in the process. Receiving the ball, the senior turned toward goal with an open lane and fired a high, left shot for the 6-3 advantage.
Haker would go back-to-back for the final two goals of the game for Salisbury, giving the Sea Gulls the biggest lead of the game, 8-3. The junior finished the game with a game-high three goals and two assists for five points to lead the Salisbury offense.
"Before the game, I told myself whatever happens, happens, and I'm just going to work as hard as I can," said Haker. "It was even better with the flow of our offense today; we just had it going. We were working off each other and it set up a lot of opportunities for everyone."
Salisbury saw scoring from five different players, as the Gulls outshot the Jeffs, 16-14, through 60 minutes of play. SU almost went perfect on clear attempts, 15-for-16, while winning 7-of-14 draw controls.
The defense, led by junior Laura Maskell, Baer and sophomore Allison Toomey, held the Amherst offense to just 14 shots, seven on goal. Causing seven turnovers of the Jeffs' 14 total, the backline eliminated three clear-attempt opportunities for Amherst, as it went 13-for-16 for the day.
"It's hard to get past our defense," said Wheatley about the line in front of her. "I think we made a statement today. We were going up against the No. 1 defense, but we showed that we work just as hard."
The women get set for another shot at the national title on Sunday and a chance to hoist the trophy for a third time in program history. Salisbury will meet up with a familiar foe in the championship game, as No. 3 Trinity (Conn.) College upset the No. 1 State University of New York at Cortland, 8-7, in the first semifinal matchup on Saturday. The Sea Gulls have played the Bantams in the past two national championships, falling in 2012 and claiming redemption in 2013.
"I think it's going to be a great game," Nestor said. "When you look at their games against Amherst and how strong they played, we are going to have to look at some things. They know us, we know them, and I think it is going to come down to draw controls and who protects the ball better."
The national championship is set to begin on Sunday, May 25, at 2:30 p.m., at Clark Field.