Recently voted by the league’s coaches to finish fourth in the PSAC, the Slippery Rock University women’s lacrosse team will open its 2019 season at home Friday.
Starting Friday afternoon against no. 22 Tiffin University, the Green and White will face a March gauntlet that includes six opponents ranked within the Intercollegiate Women’s College Lacrosse Association (IWCLA) Coaches’ Poll. Other than the Dragons, two more of these adversaries—Florida Tech (No. 15) and Florida Southern (No. 3)—will be part of the Rock’s non-conference lineup.
With a home matchup against Lake Erie that was scheduled to take place Tuesday being postponed due to inclement weather predicted in the forecast, Slippery Rock will leave for Florida for their next action.
Once home from what will be a testing road trip to the Sunshine State, The Rock will have its hands full in opening league play. A journey to no. 5 West Chester, defending its 22nd conference crown and returning seven all-PSAC performers, will be first. The team will then get a shot at Lock Haven, the team that knocked it out of the postseason last year.
On the heels of a record-setting 13-win campaign last spring in which its only defeats came to ranked in-league foes, the team has a new look as it welcomed a dozen freshmen onto the squad. The team brings back four of its top seven scorers from a year ago.
A noticeable loss from last year’s squad is goalkeeper Emily Bitka. Arguably the best goalie in Rock history, she was named as both the PSAC Women’s Lacrosse Athlete of the Year and as the program’s first IWCLA All-American since 2011. Replacing her in front of the goal mouth is sophomore Haley Barrett, who appeared in four contests as a freshman understudy.
“It’s really driving me to be better than her or to do just as good as she did,” Barrett said of Bitka, who she considers as one of her best friends. “I learned a lot from her and her legacy is definitely pushing me and making me want to work really hard.”
Having lost midfielder and leading scorer Tia Torchia too, SRU’s lone all-conference representative from a year ago will be sophomore Rachel Shaw, who will anchor the defense. She set program records for ground balls (54) and caused turnovers (35) for a freshman in 2018.
Also, ShyAnne Toomer returns in hopes of leading the team in scoring. The junior midfielder totaled 47 points last season, well enough for second on the team, and says she is more comfortable with driving to the net. She also feels she has improved on working off the draw from Torchia.
“I think having all of these mentors having passed down knowledge to me, and the different coaches I’ve had have been pretty beneficial for me,” Toomer said.
Other effective scorers are senior Kelly Muenster, junior Tori Penders, and sophomore Francesca Lindelow. Including Toomer, that quartet combined for 59 starts and 83 markers last season. Upperclassmen such as these four have been tasked with guiding the younger players.
“It’s a big swing. It’s a whole new team, in a sense,” second-year head coach Kelsey Van Alstyne admitted. “We’ve really spent a lot of time with goal-setting and figuring out our identity as a program.”
Because of the infusion of talent, the head coach said she started from the ground up in the offseason. The team worked on basic fundamentals such as stick skills and offensive and defensive concepts and focused on speed, agility, and strength conditioning.
About the youthful quality of the team, Barrett said, “We can use it to our advantage because not a lot of PSAC teams know what we have in store.”
“My expectation is that we are going to grow and learn with each game,” said Van Alstyne. “We could do something special this season.”
A victory against Tiffin would mark the 10th time in as many years that Slippery Rock won their season-opening matchup. The Dragons will step off the bus with a 2-0 record, including a road win against no. 23 Lock Haven last Saturday.