At this time in 2019, the Slippery Rock University women’s lacrosse team was coming off of its best-ever season. The program had combined for 25 wins in the previous two years, but the roller coaster dipped quickly. The team finished 7-9.
“I think, honestly, there was a little bit of a lull, like a little bit of a reality check,” third-year head coach Kelsey Van Alstyne said. “Like, ‘Wow, I did not think after our best season ever, we would be below .500.’”
To say the least, the team’s offense struggled last season. Out of 13 teams, it had the league’s lowest shot percentage (.332) and least goals scored (133.) In comparison, reigning PSAC-champion West Chester found the back of the net 363 times, good enough for a goals per game average of almost double that of The Rock’s. Slippery Rock also had the third-most turnovers in the conference (408.)
As a result, Van Alstyne stripped the offense down to the “bare bones basics” in the fall, ridding the attack plan of several sets and motions that were employed last season.
“We have two or three plays this year and we’re going to run them really well,” Van Alstyne said. “We’ve completely revamped and rethought the way we run our offense.”
Each of The Rock’s eight leading scorers from last season return. ShyAnne Toomer, now a senior midfielder, led the team with 25 goals and 35 points. Emily Benham, who last year was one of three freshmen that saw considerable playing time, scored 16 goals of her own.
The trio of Benham, midfielder Katie Dlugosz and attacker Molly Buettner combined for 28 starts and 51 points as rookies.
“It’s really difficult to be like, ‘Hey! Welcome to college, I need you to start and be our leading scorer,’” Van Alstyne said. “Most programs don’t want to tell three freshmen that they really need them to [take on a large role so early]. You want them to have a year to develop.”
Senior Sami Gentzler, who totaled 19 points and placed 28 of 37 shots on goal in 2019, and junior Hayley Pimentel, who scored 16 goals, will lead the attack.
“The midfield is deep,” said Van Alstyne. Along with Toomer, it will feature fellow senior Tori Penders, the team’s leader in draw controls in 2019, and junior Francesca Lindelow, who held fourth in shots last year. Charleigh Rondeau, a freshman from Buffalo with an ice hockey background, has impressed Van Alstyne with her grit in the draw circle. Freshman Jamie DiCarlo, an anticipative midfielder Van Alstyne said, will spend time on the attacking end.
Led by junior, two time All-PSAC defender Rachel Shaw, who led last year’s squad with 54 ground balls and 36 caused turnovers, the defense has experienced returners. Junior Savannah Renner was one of five players to start all 16 of Slippery Rock’s games last year. After dealing with knee injuries, senior Olivia Beach will see time on the field this spring.
The team’s defense has also been reimagined. Instead of last year’s high-pressure zone that required midfielders to cover a large area of land, a new zone will be more “packed in” to crowd the middle for teams who like to feed entry passes.
“We’re still running something that most teams don’t see, but we’re not flying out to the 25 over and over and over,” Van Alstyne said, touching upon the fact that most teams run a man-to-man style of defense.
Again, junior Haley Barrett will start the season in goal. She started all 16 games in her sophomore year, making 137 saves.
“I’ve learned that, in this conference, anyone can take it any day,” said Van Alstyne of the PSAC. “Don’t underestimate anyone and hope that everything that we do off and on the field translates into success.”
This season will be the first in which the conference is split into two divisions. Residing in the West, Slippery Rock will face 2019 playoff teams Mercyhurst, Indiana (Pa.), and Seton Hill twice each. The Rock will also have home and away games with Lock Haven, Gannon, and Edinboro.
“It’s a great opportunity if you aren’t successful the first time against them and something doesn’t work, you actually get to make adjustments and turn around and come back and implement a new gameplan,” Van Alstyne said.
Van Alstyne points out that, realistically, factoring in regional postseason play, a handful PSAC teams could see each other four times in a season.
“NCAAs only take 16 teams, and four come from our region,” she explained. “Our conference is predominantly stronger than the other conference that they pull from, so it’s typically four PSAC schools. For some reason, when they go to the NCAAs, it’s basically a rematch of the PSAC semifinals.”
The Rock will open play at the University of Findlay Feb. 22. Depending on whether or not the new turf at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium is installed in time, the team’s home opener against Georgian Court University on March 1 may be relocated to Westminster College. Its game three days later against Tiffin might have to be played at Grove City College.
“In order to be even better than we were then, and to get back on track, it just all needs to click all over the field,” Van Alstyne said. “And only losing two seniors from last year, ideally, we should just continue to grow in all facets of the field.”