This past season, the Slippery Rock University women’s lacrosse team had what many would call their best year since the program was reinstated over a decade ago. The team surpassed the single-season wins record that it had set during the 2017 campaign while also making an appearance in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) playoffs for a second straight year. At The Rock’s forefront was first-year head coach Kelsey Van Alstyne, who made evident the school’s choice in a new varsity coach was the correct one.
Van Alstyne arrived in Slippery Rock following a tenure at Morrisville State College in central New York. “When I took over, it was a program that was more so run like a club than a legitimate program,” she said of the Mustangs’ Division III program. The credibility of the team changed in its’ first year under Van Alstyne’s guidance. The Mustangs secured their first North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) crown in 2015 and made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA playoffs. Two seasons later, Van Alstyne and her Mustangs went 13-6 and earned both their second conference title and another showing in the national tournament.
What made her second title at Morrisville even more impressive was the fact that six of her players hadn’t played the sport in high school, but were taught by Van Alstyne to play lacrosse. “In a way, I had to build it from the ground up,” stated Van Alstyne. “I really had to learn how to get the team invested into being committed to the big picture, the culture, the value, and everything we were trying to do.”
In a way, the experience at Morrisville also changed her philosophy on what is needed to build a program the correct way. Rather than purely stressing talent, Van Alstyne realized that the environment of a program helps a player flourish. “[My time at Morrisville] taught me a lot about, just, the whole picture of what a student-athlete really is,” she said. “If you can get them to buy into the stuff off the field, like the mission that you’re on and the values, then it easily translates onto the field.”
Under Van Alstyne, players thrived. Twenty of her student-athletes were named to All-Conference teams, and she had at least one major award winner in each of her three seasons in New York. The individual successes continued at SRU, where two of this year’s most key players, midfielder and leading scorer Tia Torchia and goalkeeper Emily Bitka were named to All-PSAC squads along with freshman defender Rachel Shaw. As one of the best keepers in the country this season, Bitka was also named as the PSAC’s Lacrosse Athlete of the Year in 2018.
The possibility of Van Alstyne coming to Slippery Rock was an idea even before she was included in the national coaching search conducted after last season. Her sister, who she names also as her best friend, had moved to the area six years earlier and has a pair of young children with her husband. “We always kind of joked, ‘Oh well when the job opens up, I’m going to go for it’ and then it did and it just all fell into place.”
Van Alstyne was excited to migrate to Slippery Rock and start the building of an accredited program in the conference she played in as a collegian. “Having played at Bloomsburg, I loved how competitive the PSAC was, and I knew that, if you could be successful in the PSAC, you can be successful at the national level,” she commented. “I want to win a national championship. I’ve wanted one my entire life and that’s a big reason why I do all the things that I do.”
Academics and veteran leaders such as Bitka and Torchia also factored in her decision to leave her home of the previous three seasons. In 2017, the Rock lost six games by a combined number of only ten goals.
“They were right there to being the best in the conference, thus being one of the best in the country. So from a lacrosse standpoint, it was a no-brainer,” Van Alstyne said of her decision to accept the position. “Then you have to think about the school. Kids want to have to come to the school that you’re at and that’s something I struggled with at Morrisville. A lot of kids didn’t want to go to an Ag-Tech school in the middle of the Syracuse area.”
Van Alstyne’s transition to SRU was a smooth one, and the fact that her girls bought in helped all the more. “I was welcomed with open arms for sure. Not only from the team, but by the campus, which is really great,” she said. She built relationships with her players not only on an athletic level, but on a personal one as well. “I do a lot of individual meetings and goal-setting and we have a lot of conversations about big-picture stuff and life,” she explained. “I think that gave them the ability to know me a little bit better and vice-versa.”
This approach, along with many others, was picked up from the many coaches and role models that Van Alstyne had in her athletic career. She stressed that she’s tried to take as many lessons as she could from the people she’s been around, especially her father, a high school boys’ varsity lacrosse coach for the past 21 years. “I basically try to spend as much time as I can looking at people who know what they are doing and taking lessons from every single experience that I’ve been a part of. That’s really led me to be really open and honest and transparent with my team.”
A former strength and conditioning assistant at Cornell University, Van Alstyne introduced a training program for her team that began in August. Her players were taught proper running mechanics that would aid in change of direction and deceleration, and were also given a lifting regimen. “Lifting from the top to bottom, I really took it as a lot of them had never lifted before,” she stated. “So it’s just a program that really focused on the whole body and making sure there were no imbalances and kind of getting everyone to a good level.”
The construction of a lasting culture is dear to the head coach. “I just really want to create a culture and a program where, after you graduate, you’re still a part of it and you still want to come back and be a part of it,” she expressed her hope. “You’re still invested in the success of the team and the program even when you’re out doing your job.”
She also wants to leave an imprint on each of the girls she coaches and help them like her mentors had for her. She said, “I think that [all the coaches I’ve had] helped set me on the path that I’m on now and helped me figure out what I want to do with my life. And I owe so much to them and I want to be able to be that role model and person for all of my players that come through this program.”
Of the record-setting season, Van Alstyne said, “I can really walk away extremely proud of what [assistant coach ]Sarah [Lamphier] and I were able to do in our first year […]It was fun and we loved coming to work and we loved going to practice with these girls. We loved gamedays, whether we played great or bad,” she said before putting emphasis on her players’ efforts. “I can’t say enough about how hard those girls worked and what they put in. They have set the bar so high for every group coming in after and I’m really excited to see what we can continue to do.”