This spring is all about starting anew for the Slippery Rock women’s lacrosse team under Coach Kelsey Van Alstyne. Now in her fourth year, things look a lot different for the team as a whole and obviously this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is a challenge that Van Alstyne is excited for as the team finally looks to get back on the field.
“I was really stressed out when I had my baby, because I didn’t know what was going to happen with my program and by the end of the semester, I was very proud and excited at how much the team came together,” Van Alstyne said.
Van Alstyne had her baby girl, Adelynn, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and she said it was one of the most exciting things she had ever experienced. There was a point at which she didn’t know if her husband was going to be able to make it to her daughter’s birth, but he actually wound up helping in the delivering of their baby.
She returned from maternity leave in November of last year, but that left the team without any staff on campus since the former assistant coach, Sarah Lamphier, left for a new job in June of last year. And in her absence, she feels that the upperclassmen and captains stepped up big time.
“[This past semester] was a whole different experience for the girls with COVID-19 and what we were allowed to do and not having any coaches on campus, so it’s been pretty hard and there’s been some frustration, but there were also some positives to come out of it,” Van Alstyne said.
Luckily all the freshmen were able to be on campus and live together, something that Van Alstyne thinks will be really important to getting them back on the field and meshing together. Some of the players have were able to work out together at the ARC, which in the long run may mean a lot to a team that, like many others, is just getting to know each other again.
To add to that fresh start, there is also a new assistant coach, whom Van Alstyne has worked with before and someone she considers to be a close friend. Taryn Burkholder, who for the past three years was a head coach herself. She took over at Morrisville for Van Alstyne when she left and won the conference title (regular season and tournament) both years that there were full seasons before COVID-19 hit. Van Alstyne has recruited her before, and when the two of them have had a team together they’ve been able to make special things happen.
“The team was awesome, we have a group me chat and they were getting weekly pictures of my baby girl and we did very few zoom calls, because I decided this was my time with my child,” Van Alstyne said. “These are adult girls and they’ve been with me for three years and they knew what needed to get done, so it was very hands off and I’m not used to that.”
There are a lot of players who Van Alstyne expects to make a big splash this season, including one of her three captains, Katie Hart. Hart is joined by Emily Benham and Hayley Pimentel. All three of them will be expected to step into big roles this upcoming season. Benham recorded 12 points in only five games played last season and in 16 played in 2019, she tallied 23. Had the season not been canceled she had been on her way to a good season. Pimentel had 16 points in 2019 and two last year in four games.
“We have a great group of seniors and upperclassman. I think the nine juniors and four seniors will step into their leading by example role quite well,” Van Alstyne said.
Van Alstyne had thoughts of shortening her maternity leave, but after long consideration she decided that she wanted to take advantage of the time she had with her baby. When she returned to in-person, she had a lot more meetings with her players and was able to get back to a version of what she’s used to. But she feels that the players who stepped up last semester are a major reason for how smoothly things went, even though the circumstances were anything but normal.
“I think it’s everything, we do a lot off the field when it comes to mental health and working together, but I think that [those leaders] are very important to the culture of this team. And I think that what they’ve done will be extremely important to this upcoming season,” Van Alstyne said.
This season will consist of many new starts for this team, from new players to new experiences. And another thing that’s new for this season are the turf in the stadium, which the women’s lacrosse team will be the first to play on. They didn’t get to play on the field last season because it wasn’t finished before the season was canceled and they were scheduled to play on it the day after the season had been canceled. The team will also be wearing new uniforms, so by the time they get back on the field, they’ll have a completely different look than just 365 days ago.
The Rock will look to get back to the post season this year in an odd year. They missed out on the playoffs two years ago finishing 7-9 overall. That season was the first losing season that Van Alstyne had as a head coach, and last year the team started out 2-3 before things were shut down.
“I expect this team to look like a cohesive unit on both sides of the field. We have returners in every position except goalie, and I think having that experience all over the field will help us immensely,” Van Alstyne said. “We, like everyone else, are still learning what works best for us, but this group has a great work ethic and attitude and I think we will find our rhythm and stride quickly.”
Last time the Rock had a full season, Shyanne Toomer was the leading scorer with 35 points and Benham was second with her 23. But now, Toomer is gone as she was one of the seniors to leave. Toomer also led last year with 16 over the five games played and the team will miss her production, but players like Benham will be expected to take on bigger roles in a very uncertain season.
“My biggest hope for this season is that we get to play every game on our schedule, and that there is no COVID-19 outbreaks with us or with teams that we play on schedule and we can compete and hopefully make the PSAC playoff,” Van Alstyne said. “I hope it’s the closest thing to a normal season that we can have and that this attitude of being grateful for everyday continues, because it’s been some of the most enjoyable days of coaching I’ve ever had.”