Just as it’s been for everyone else, the past few weeks have been a learning experience for the Slippery Rock University women’s lacrosse team. The team is just getting back into the swing of things but, unlike other PSAC teams, The Rock is doing it under different circumstances.
In the fall, the team was faced with a problem that no other team had to face. There were no coaches on campus for most of the fall, so the team turned to captains Hayley Pimentel, Emily Benham, and Katie Hart in a time where they couldn’t really be together. The three players stepped up during this time and, because of that, they’ve already seen some success on the field.
“[Our captains] are a great representation of what it means to be a Slippery Rock student-athlete,” the team’s head coach, Kelsey Van Alstyne, said. “They’re really hard-working and dedicated, and I knew the team was in good hands with me not being around in the fall.”
Van Alstyne was on maternity leave with her first child and, in that time, COVID-19 stopped almost all in-person interaction between players. There were only voluntary workouts in the fall, but most of the team showed up for these workouts and, according to Van Alstyne, this helped the team build chemistry.
“We put a lot of emphasis on culture here, and I truly don’t believe that you can be successful if you’re not thinking about the bigger picture and if you don’t have a strong culture, and what they did off the field this past fall was amazing,” Van Alstyne said.
This chemistry led The Rock to a 16-9 win over Tiffin University in the season opener at home. In this game, The Rock had multiple players score more than one goal. Among those players were Pimentel and Benham, who both had hat tricks. Pimentel netted four goals in the game, all coming in the second half and the final two within eight seconds of each other. Benham scored her first and second in the first half, which contributed to a 6-1 halftime lead, and then scored her final little over a minute after Pimentel’s fourth. This game also featured Katie Hart’s first collegiate marker.
“I think it was groundbreaking to be honest, to go from not playing at all to stepping out and showing up against Tiffin,” Pimentel said. “It was a great way to open the season and it gave us a lot of confidence, and it showed us we can have amazing, outstanding games.”
Pimentel is in the midst of her first season being a full-time starter. She started out her freshman year only playing in seven games and did not start one. Her sophomore season was a breakout one, as she scored 14 goals and started eight of the 14 games she appeared in. This season, she already has nearly half of her sophomore season stats, with a half-dozen goals in only two games.
“It was great being on the field again and I think that we’re all playing with that ‘play every game like it’s your last mentality,’ and that’s our biggest nod of this season and because of that we’re working hard every day and we’re hoping to have a lot of positive outcomes,” Benham said.
Of the three, only Benham is not a senior. Through only one full season and the seven combined games from last season and the beginning of this one, Benham already has scored 30 goals. Her freshman year she had 16 goals and seven assists, which totaled 23 points. Those 23 points were second to only ShyAnne Toomer, who had 25 goals and 10 assists totaling 35 points. The difference is that Benham only started seven of her 16 games played, while Toomer started 15 of 15.
Van Alstyne believes that her three captains couldn’t be any more different, but their leadership also couldn’t be any better. Their approaches on how they lead the team are very different, but when they are all mixed together it helps the team get better as a whole.
“I think all of them are a little bit different personality-wise, which is great for this team,” Van Alstyne said. “Katie is the vocal leader of the team. Emily is our sole junior captain and she’s really stepped up in these three years and proved herself to be a leader. And Hayley brings a very different dynamic because she’s from Canada and she’s very keel and steady, and that helps balance out the team.”
Pimentel was stuck in Canada during the fall, and during that time she made sure to keep in touch with her teammates. All three captains mentioned that they believed that getting to know each player was the first step in the fall and they’d regularly have zoom calls to keep everyone connected. Pimentel has made up for that lost time quickly as her and Benham have been very good together in the first two games, and she hasn’t missed a beat.
Hart also hasn’t missed a beat, picking up right where she left off being the heart and soul of the defense. On and off the turf, Hart is the most vocal player on the team and her defensive play sets the tone for the entire team. Hart was excited to get back to PSAC play for the first time since a 14-6 loss to No. 22 Mercyhurst last season.
“It was really fun to play IUP, but it was very different because it’s the PSAC and it’s a whole different level, and we definitely saw where we need to tighten up and we’re excited for these upcoming games,” Hart said.
The goal during the fall remained simple for the captains: instead of focusing on the on-field stuff, get to know the new players coming in. There are essentially two classes that are just starting to get adjusted to the college game, and all three of them agreed that they wanted to just become friends with these new players before they focused on playing. And in the long run, they hope that this builds to the already strong culture the team has.
“We have a lot of underclassmen who have proven their abilities, and this is a year good year to build off of that and bring them up and mentor them,” Pimentel said.
The fall was also really difficult for the captains, and not only because there were no coaches, but also due to the fact that there were so many COVID-19 procedures. At points, they didn’t really know what to do and even got help from the field hockey coaches. But, given the circumstances, they feel that they did a very good job and helped set this team up for success this season.
They have many goals for this season, from building the culture to staying healthy. The biggest goal though is establishing Slippery Rock as the foremost team in the PSAC. Van Alstyne has repeatedly said that the PSAC is an extremely tough conference to play in, and her captains have also made it known. But they all consider it to be a challenge and they feel that they have a very good team that could be on top of the conference by the end of the season.
“Our overall hope for this season is to definitely play with an attitude and gratitude, and to build the culture and I think this is the best group we’ve ever had here,” Benham said. “I think we can be the best team in the PSAC, if we play to our strengths and if we do, we can make ourselves the team to beat.”
For Pimentel and Hart, this is the last ride and they want to go out with a championship. Like every other team, the goal is to win a championship and Hart, Pimentel, and Benham all agreed and emphasized their desire to be one of the best teams in the PSAC. But another main goal is to make sure that they’re being good examples for the future.
“We’ve gained everyone’s trust and [the underclassmen] look up to us and watch how we approach things, and we’ve pushed that on to them,” Pimentel said. “We have freshmen playing in the games and they’re doing really well, and that makes us really confident as captains because we can say that what we’re doing is working.”