Following the end of the 2016 season, the Slippery Rock University lacrosse team had missed the conference playoffs for the 10th straight year since the sport’s reinstatement in 2007. To make matters worse, the team was also graduating the only two goalkeepers on the roster, then-seniors Jordan Wagner and Taylor Balbierz.
Wagner had started every game in goal for The Rock for all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons and eight games during the 2014 season. She and Balbierz were the only goalies that saw any action between the posts for the Green and White since April 2014.
Luckily, less than seven hours away from SRU at the University of Albany, there was a sophomore goalie looking for her opportunity to play and ready to transfer when that opportunity arose.
Now Slippery Rock junior goalie Emily Bitka said that, if given the opportunity, she knew she could succeed.
“I had the opportunity to come in and make a difference and play right away,” Bitka said. “I had two years behind another goalie and I got to watch her play, I got to watch top-play lacrosse for two years so when the opportunity came up I felt ready to go.”
Bitka spent two years at Albany, seeing time in five games while making only two total saves.
Through 11 games with the Green and White this season, Bitka has put up some of the best numbers in the entire Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC). She leads the PSAC in goals against average (6.96) and is second in save percentage (51.1). Nationally, those stats rank seventh and ninth in all of Division II.
Rock head coach Emily Hopkins said that she did not know what she would be getting out of Bitka once she transferred here, but Hopkins said that with the senior-filled, experienced defenders The Rock had this year, she would have been comfortable starting any goalie.
“One of the things that we definitely knew we had going for us, even before we knew what was going to happen with Bitka transferring, is we knew that, even if we had an inexperienced goalie, we were going to have a very strong defense,” Hopkins said.
On the roster, SRU has three senior defenders who have all played at least 50 career games. Brittany Brewer leads the trio with 61 career games, Miranda Reininger is second with 56 and Morgan McLaughlin is right behind her with 53.
Hopkins said that adding a goalie who had collegiate experience to that mix has produced a good outcome.
“We knew we were going to be very strong on the defensive end having (Bitka) coming in,” Hopkins said. “With a lot of the intangibles outside of the saving itself I think instills confidence (in the defense) and makes attacks change their game up a little bit because she is such an active goalie.”
So far this season Bitka has played 585:51 minutes, making 71 saves (eighth in the PSAC). She also has 32 ground balls and has caused 17 turnovers.
Like Hopkins, Bitka gives a lot of credit to the defense that plays in front of her, saying that they force a lot of bad shots that still end up counting as saves for her. Despite this being her first year with the team, Bitka seems to have a good relationship with the rest of the players. According to Hopkins, the team has elected her a captain and Bitka said that the team made her feel right at home when she first got to Slippery Rock.
“I think the team helps me a lot,” Bitka said. “I didn’t know anyone or anything and they’ve helped me, showed me around, made new friends through the team itself.”
If Bitka can keep playing at the level she has been, making the playoffs becomes much more realistic. Slippery Rock is currently ranked fourth in the PSAC and the top six teams make the tournament. Nothing is a given, however, and the team will face a number of tough tests in the coming weeks before they can punch their ticket.