Save for the sound of sniffles, the stunned and somber locker room was still.
A mere five contests into the 2020 campaign, Slippery Rock University women’s lacrosse head coach Kelsey Van Alstyne had just relayed the word to her team; the season was over, the rest of the schedule nixed.
“Originally, I didn’t believe it,” junior defender Savannah Renner said. “It didn’t really feel real.”
“Sometimes life is really unfair, and this is one of those instances,” said Van Alstyne. “And we wish you could change it.”
The women entered the building sitting catty-corner to Bob DiSpirito Field that Friday morning expecting to play in their home stadium for the first time the next day. The team was 2-3, but it seemed as if this season would be different than the last, in which SRU stumbled to a 7-9 mark.
“We came into the locker room that morning with the best of hopes that we would be able to continue the season or at least play the game [against Seton Hill] on Saturday,” said senior attacker and co-captain Sami Gentzler.
A practice was planned from 10 a.m. to noon, Van Alstyne said, but shortly before, she had received an email from the league. The decision, Van Alstyne said, was sad, but understandable considering the circumstances. Half an hour before the team was supposed to be on the field, she sent a captain into the locker room.
“I think we were all pretty hopeful; because of the PSAC, we kept playing while other conferences had already cancelled,” Van Alstyne said. “At first it was like, ‘alright, we’ll keep playing,’ and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘I hope we get a few more games in.’ And then we were all kind of waiting.”
After being told the news, Van Alstyne said the team’s emotions weren’t hidden. Trying to process it, tears rolled down players’ cheeks.
“It was heartbreaking to hear our coach come in and tell it to us,” said senior defender Olivia Beach, one of four players who preceded Van Alstyne at Slippery Rock. “Once we heard her voice shaking, we kind of knew.”
“Everyone just instantly started crying,” senior midfielder ShyAnne Toomer said. “It’s just, you work so hard for so long for something and to have it [cut] so short, especially for the seniors, it was just very sad.”
“We kind of all just stood there a couple minutes, just to take it in,” Haley Barrett, the team’s starting goaltender, said.
In an effort to console the players, Van Alstyne offered two choices; go out to eat as a team or continue as planned with the slated practice. Almost without even talking, Gentzler said, the team agreed to gear up and go onto the field for old times’ sake.
The players pulled on their pinnies and tried to stay in good spirits, but the practice was bittersweet. It didn’t have the same normal intensity. The speaker was lugged out to blast music as the players chose their drills. Some of the field players dressed in goalie equipment and stood in front of the net.
“That was the last time myself and the other seniors would wear something that [connected] us to a sports team,” Renner said. “It made it feel more real, being there one last time on the field with all of our teammates. It was a good way to end whatever this whole thing was.”
Such practices had been taken for granted just weeks before. Like any other person, there are days where even Van Alstyne admits she doesn’t want to run a practice or direct a lift. She recited the clichés: “Play like it’s your last game” and “Never take a single moment for granted,” both of which she associates with the constant possibility of injury.
Toomer, a team voice, echoes this, saying, “we always complained because it’s hard to be a student athlete. You always complain about not wanting to go to practice or not wanting to wake up for a 6 a.m. [workout] or not wanting to travel six hours away for a game. But, I would definitely say to [enjoy] every moment and not take it for granted.”
“You should always leave the field proud of how you played,” Renner said. “This season, this very short season, taught me to always, and this is going to sound really cheesy, literally give your 100% every time. Because you never know when it’s over.”
“Make sure you’re putting your all into everything that you’re doing,” Gentzler advised. “Because you never know when it could be the last time you get to do it.”
If none other, Van Alstyne sees at least one positive in the situation.
“To have your whole season completely ripped away like that, I think it’s going to change a lot of athletes across the country’s perspectives,” Van Alstyne said.
With the season cut short, Van Alstyne and assistant coach Sarah Lamphier have stressed the full focus on academics to their players. The two have split the team in half and check in with players twice a week through Zoom conversations.
“Right now, our focus is, ‘Hey, we can’t play lacrosse, so let’s get the job done in the classroom,’” said Van Alstyne, who plans on sending workout packets to her players soon. “Going to online, we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable with what they need to do.”
A part of the leadership that Van Alstyne has looked to as the standard of her program is moving on, turning the tassels on their caps and graduating from Slippery Rock University this spring. Each Beach, Gentzler, Toomer, and two-year captain Tori Penders were a part of the 2017 team that returned to the PSAC playoffs for the first time since the program was reinstated a decade earlier. Barrett and Renner are both graduating a year early.
Across the board, Van Alstyne said the class brought a passion and dedication to the program, both athletically and academically.
“It will be a huge void moving forward as we lose them,” Van Alstyne said. “They were all in.”
“We just really embody what this program means,” Toomer said about her graduating class, adding that it demonstrated work in the weight room and the following of coaches’ guidelines.
Stuck behind 2018 PSAC Player of the Year, Emily Bitka, for the entirety of her rookie year, Barrett started each of the past 21 games in goal for SRU. She compiled a 9-12 record and 180 saves, the fifth-most in school history. This year, she led the team with 21 ground balls. Until she looked at credits to register for this spring semester, Barrett hadn’t yet considered graduating early. After this spring, Barrett wants to go to grad school but isn’t sure where yet.
“I don’t really think there’s a lot of words to describe that feeling,” Barrett said. “It was unreal getting it taken away from you. I was preparing for it to be the last time, then it was the last time too soon.”
Beach battled through knee injuries to finally get on the field her senior season, playing in 22 games in a green and white jersey. She started all five matchups this season. Van Alstyne described her as a capable and speedy defender and “ground ball machine.” In the fall, Beach will attend James Madison University to earn a masters of science degree in sport and recreation leadership.
“She really only got five games,” Van Alstyne said. “So you can look at that in one of two ways: ‘It’s really unfair’ or ‘I’m so grateful she got five games and got to play a ton and get that experience.’”
For Beach, the glass is half-full.
“Starting those five games of my [senior] year definitely made it all worth it,” she said. “Going through all the surgeries, tears, hard lifts, hard conditionings. It really shows how much a person has to work to get over injuries and make it from a walk-on to a starting player.”
Gentzler, a threat whose small stature helped her around the net, graduates having saw the field in 44 games, starting 18. She found the back of the net 23 times and assisted on another 15 goals. She plans to move to St. Louis and find a job in the integrated marketing communications field.
“I think [Gentzler] finally had that confidence to back up her skills this year,” Van Alstyne said. “And it was really cool to see her step up and lead our attack and try to call the plays and kind of be that upperclassmen we really needed on that end.”
Penders, a midfielder, started each of Slippery Rock’s last 57 contests. She finishes her career with 47 goals and four assists. Also, she claimed the sixth-most draw controls in school history. She brought with her an unfailing work ethic, Van Alstyne said, shown in her stats on the draw and in ground balls. Penders will graduate with a degree in Integrated Marketing Communications and a minor in Graphic Design.
“But the stats that wouldn’t show is, [Penders] was the first one down the field, defensively, every single time,” Van Alstyne said. “She would sprint off the field for a sub to the point where I thought she was going to collapse […] She always went to her absolute max effort. At practice, at lift, at everything.”
Renner, the other junior to graduate early, was stuck into the starting lineup early to fill in for an upperclassmen with off-the-field problems. From then on, the spot was hers, starting in a total of 28 games. She picked up 37 ground balls and forced 26 turnovers. Van Alstyne pointed out that she attacked everything with optimism. Renner hopes to coach someday.
“I swear to God, I could’ve handed her a tennis racket and she would’ve been like, ‘That’s fine,’” said Van Alstyne about Renner.
With what Van Alstyne noted as an analytical nature, Toomer led the team in each points, goals, shots on goal and caused turnovers in both 2019 and 2020. She leaves Slippery Rock ranking ninth in program history in points and eighth in draw controls. Toomer played in 56 games with the Rock. She hopes to start grad school, particularly an accelerated nursing program, at the University of Pittsburgh next fall.
“That kid was […] all over the field,” Van Alstyne said. “Defensively, she really liked to go to bait and go for those caused turnovers and those back checks. [She was] really strong on the draw [and] really strong offensively with both feeding and driving.”
Barrett points something out that people sometimes forget that student-athletes have lives outside of sports.
“It’s not just lacrosse that I lost out on,” Barrett said. “I lost out on my last year at school, my last year as a player, my last year going to classes and my last year with my friends that aren’t on the lacrosse team.”
Each of the seniors feel fortunate to have been a part of a culture that Van Alstyne stresses as being so important, some of them having dealt with a less unified squad led by the previous head coach.
Self-described as having been shy and quiet, Beach said, “it kind of just goes to show what Coach Van Alstyne can bring out in a person […] It means everything that I was able to contribute to something so positive and set the tone and standards for the coming years.”
“I can’t wait to see where they go next year and the years following,” Gentzler added. “I’m excited to come back for alumni weekend already.”
The disappointment that the team wasn’t allowed to finish what it started will, without a doubt, linger.
“I think that’s what hurts the most, too, is how much time and effort everyone put in,” Van Alstyne said. “And to not be able to see what was really going to happen […] It just puts even more of a chip on our shoulder. We had a lot we wanted to prove, and that we were going to prove, this year. Now we’ve got to do it more so next year.”