SALISBURY, Md. – When it comes to knowing how to reach the final weekend of the season, the Salisbury University women's lacrosse team has made it quite clear that it knows a thing or two on that front.
Since 2000, Head Coach Jim Nestor has guided the Sea Gulls to 10 Final Four appearances, including seven trips to the title game. Of those seven trips, three culminated in the long-awaited hoisting of the national trophy. Reaching the final game the past three seasons, Salisbury has become the reigning two-time defending champion, walking off of Gettysburg College's Clark Field in 2014 with the program's third title.
"The way we ended last season was incredible," Nestor said. "We peaked at the right time and everything came together for us. Everything fell into place and the girls played absolutely incredible."
Heading into the 2015 campaign with a senior class of nine, 'one more' national championship would send out the group with four trips to the final game and a three-peat national title victor, only accomplished by one other Division III team in women's lacrosse history in The College of New Jersey. Needless to say, the 'one more' mindset is how the Sea Gulls will compete every day this season.
"Obviously the big picture is one more championship," senior Shelby Nemecek said. "But at practice, one more sprint, one more rep, one more ground ball, one more goal. In games, that just might make the difference."
"It's about pushing you past your limits," senior Kate Haker stated. "You aren't just stopping at your limit, you are doing that extra thing."
Returning six of last year's top-seven scorers, the offensive end is well equipped for another productive season. Concluding 2014 with 446 points, good enough for 10th best in the country, 281 of those points were recorded by the six returners, led by Nemecek, who returned last year after a season-ending injury in 2013 to pace the Sea Gull offense and sit at No. 24 in the nation in goals with 69.
"I think any time you lose a season you desire something so much more and get a little more passion for it," Nestor said about Nemecek's lost season to injury. "That year has put that hunger into her to play as long as you can."
Joining Nemecek are two other senior attackers in Haker and Kara O'Rourke. Haker, a starter in 19 games last season, posted a career season with her left-handed quickness, finishing with 40 goals and 18 assists for 58 points, fourth best on the team. The Westminster, Maryland native especially shined in the national tournament, scoring 12 times and dishing out five assists, including a season-high four goals against Augustana (Ill.) College in the regional semifinals.
"I think it's going to be really important especially in the bigger games and making decisions," Nestor stated about having senior experience on the offense.
O'Rourke competed in all 24 games for the Gulls in 2014, finishing second on the squad in assists with 21. Working around the backside of the net, the Ellicott City, Maryland native will be working in sync with junior Megan Wallenhorst, who finished fifth in points (34) in her first season with Salisbury in 2014.
"Kara has just done an incredible job this year being down low. Right now, I feel like she is the glue back there," Nestor said.
Junior Samantha Duranti returns after starting in all 23 games in which she played last year, recording 24 points. Also competing for time on the field are junior Katelin Talbert and sophomore Hannah Young, who combined for 16 goals last season.
Leading the Sea Gulls into the 2015 season is possibly the most prolific player in Division III. Baer is a two-time First-Team All-American and the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association's 2014 Midfielder of the Year. Helping guide Salisbury to its third title and earning the tournament's Most Outstanding Player accolade, the Westminster, Maryland native has entered the start of her final season as Lacrosse Magazine's Preseason Player of the Year.
"When you talk about Bethany Baer, you talk about someone who has done it all since being a freshman," Nestor said. "She is just the glue of the team, which is what a great midfielder is."
Finishing second on the team in goals (48) last season, Baer rarely comes off the field, battling it out on the defensive end along with taking most draws. With one year left, she already ranks second in program history in draw controls (133) and seventh in ground balls (107).
"The players all look up to her," Nestor said. "When you sit back and watch her play, you just see how smart she is and how good of a player she is. The younger players respect that, and the veterans respect that as well."
Returning for her sophomore season and joining Baer in the midfield is Gabbi Nieves, who saw playing time in 22 of the 24 games last year. Nieves broke into the collegiate scene in her freshman season, playing behind Baer in the rotation where she totaled three goals and four assists. On the defensive end, she caused nine turnovers along with scooping 13 loose balls.
"As a freshman, Gabbi got a lot of playing time, so we are looking for her experience this year and more confidence on the field," Nestor said. "She's a great athlete who can get up and down the field, really quick on the offensive end and on the defensive side."
Also vying for field time this season are freshman Kelsey Kirk and sophomore-transfer Kacy Koolage. Kirk comes in from Severna Park, Maryland where she put in a great high school career, while Koolage transfers in from Division I High Point University where she recorded two points through six games played as a freshman.
The backfield received the biggest hit heading into the 2015 season, losing three starting defenders to graduation, injury and personal reasons, but through position adjustments and recruitment, the backline looks to be set for another run to the final weekend.
"We took a big hit on defense, but when we are talking about the players we moved down and the mesh of new players, I think it's a real solid core," Nestor said. "With the players we moved around, we feel like they just need that time to gel and be a strong unit."
Returning starters Maskell and sophomore Kieran Kelleher are joined by seniors Hayden Hutzell, who started in the midfield last season, and Anna Sparr, along with midfielders Baer and Nieves to combine for six experienced players to form a wall that looks to improve last season's 5.92 goals-against average, which ranked fifth best in the country.
"(Maskell's) vocal leadership is going to be key on the defense," Nestor said. "She has done a great job so far with the new players, as well as taking that leadership role with the loss of (Dominique DiPino)."
With the loss of Allison and Meghan Toomey from last year, the loss of senior Dominique DiPino to season-ending surgery several days ago made things more interesting on the backline. But for DiPino, the goal remains the same: win the national title. The senior will just have to change her mentality to a coaching figure rather than a playing figure.
"She is going to be on the sideline every game and when we call timeout, we are going to be asking for her input," Nestor said. "She is still going to have a big influence on this team even with her not on the field, especially on the defensive end to make sure they have good communication and are gelling."
Losing three-time Goalkeeper of the Year Ashton Wheatley to graduation, the void in the net looks to be filled by senior Alyssa Harmke, who has been the first keeper in behind Wheatley the past three seasons.
"We announced Alyssa as the starter, and hopefully she will be able to step into that role and keep that role all season," Nestor said. "She has been the most consistent in goal and that is something we are looking for most."
Protecting the net in 23 games in her career, she has recorded a 2-0 record while turning away 19 shots.
With three other keepers on the roster, playing time is looking competitive. Freshman Gianna Falcone comes into the program from Academy of Saint Elizabeth putting in great time in the net during preseason, while junior Chelsea Weinstein and sophomore Sarah Langenohl return to the squad after playing in several games last year.
No surprise when looking at the 2015 schedule, the Sea Gulls have lined up six games against top-20 opponents, while adding an additional three games against teams that are receiving votes.
"It's just a testament to us trying to play the best to see where we stand and we have to be prepared for them," Nestor said.
The start of the season is no slouch for Salisbury, taking on No. 18 Stevenson University at Sea Gull Stadium for the home opener on Tuesday, February 24. Not only are the Sea Gulls looking to remain undefeated against the Mustangs in the all-time series, but they are also looking at carrying over the consecutive home victories that has been going on since February 25, 2012. Currently at a 41-game streak, Salisbury is only behind one team in Division III history with the longest run, as the State University of New York at Cortland currently maintains a 54-game streak on its home turf.
Playing at home this season looks to be an exciting lineup with four of the eight games against current top-20 rivals, and two others against teams receiving votes. Along with No. 18 Stevenson, No. 4 Cortland, No. 7 The College of New Jersey and Capital Athletic Conference foe No. 13 York College of Pennsylvania all travel to Sea Gulls Stadium at some point this season. The other two squads that will faceoff in Salisbury this year that are just outside the rankings are the State University of New York at Brockport and CAC member University of Mary Washington.
The road sees trips to Washington and Lee University and Franklin & Marshall University as the toughest matchups, as the Generals rank No. 12 currently and the Diplomats sit at No. 8.
In the league, Salisbury has been named the unanimous No. 1 entering the season, but the CAC is looking competitive once again in 2015. York, Mary Washington and Christopher Newport University fall into the remaining top-four teams in the conference, all of those contests will be played in Sea Gull Stadium this year.
"Playing York in our first conference game can obviously be difficult because you don't have that much information or footage on them at that point," Nestor said. "But York, CNU, Mary Washington, and St Mary's, the traditional lacrosse powers in the CAC, we are always going to need our 'A' game and never look past anyone."
The CAC Tournament is set to begin on April 21 with the champion being crowned on May 2, a feat the Sea Gulls have accomplished 14 times, including the past 12. The NCAA Tournament follows with the first round being set for May 9, culminating with the national championship game on May 24 at PPL Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.