DELAND, Fla. – As one of the oldest team games played in America, it is only appropriate that the inaugural Stetson University women’s lacrosse team will play its first match against a team of players representing some of the original founders of the sport.
The first year Hatters program will play against the Haudenosaunee National Team, which represents the united Iroquois tribes of upstate New York, on Saturday evening as a part of the Champion Challenge at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista. Stetson will play on Field 16 at 7 p.m.
Other teams in the event include the U.S. National team, the English National team, Rollins College and national powers Northwestern and Syracuse, who met for the Division I national championship last spring. The Team USA men’s national team will also compete in the event along with men’s teams from Notre Dame, Jacksonville and Loyola.
Stetson coach Nicole Moore, who has been in Florida for a just a year, building the Hatters program from scratch, said the women’s game is very different from what the men play.
“Substitutions are like hockey, on the fly,” Moore said. “One thing about our sport that is different from others is that, on the whistle the players have to stop. Lacrosse is a very fast game and, when played correctly, it is a beautiful game. It is a game of finesse.”
While the sport has been played in this country since at least the early 1700s, it is still in its infancy in Florida. In addition to Stetson, varsity women’s lacrosse is played at Jacksonville, the University of Florida, Florida Southern, Rollins College, Saint Leo and the University of Tampa.
In 2012 there were 90 schools playing Division I women’s lacrosse, and that number will continue to grow in the coming years.
Stetson will be joined by another first-year program, Mercer, along with Jacksonville, Kennesaw State and Howard in the first season for the Atlantic Sun Conference to offer a women’s lacrosse championship.
Like any first-year program, Moore has more questions than answers when it comes to her young team. She saw much in the fall to like about the squad, but there are many unknowns.
“The thing I like is definitely our heart and our hustle,” Moore said. “I think we really grew in the fall. There are still a lot of things we need to work on, specifically with our Lax IQ about all of the facets of the game and our skills. The thing that really stood out was the heart and desire, which was evident in all of the hard work they put in. We really started to see the team come together in the fall.”
Moore said the challenge during this first season will be to keep the players focused on the small goals and improving from game-to-game. Results on the scoreboard will be secondary to making strides in getting the program off to the right start.
“We do have a couple of transfers, but the challenge of coming in and playing your first collegiate game is like no other,” Moore said. “It will be up to us, as a coaching staff, to have the teams focused on individual goals for each game. We do have a smaller roster, which will affect how we play in games and how we prepare for games.
“What I expect, and what I hope that fans will see, is a group of young women who are working toward their goals together as a team. I also hope they see the heart of this team, no matter what is on the scoreboard. In our program, our kids will play by the rules. We will not be a ‘win at all cost’ program. They will respect the rules and their opponents. Any shady play will not be a part of this program.”
Moore came to Stetson from the University of Vermont, where she served as an assistant for the last two years. She also spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Temple after her playing days at the University of New Hampshire.
She brought additional credibility to the Stetson program last fall when she hired Brittany Dipper as her assistant. Dipper just completed a stellar playing career at the University of Maryland where she helped the Terps to national titles in both lacrosse and field hockey. She was in goal as the Terrapins won four consecutive ACC titles.
“Brittany Dipper has been an amazing addition to the lacrosse family here at Stetson,” Moore said. “She was brought in mainly to work with our goal keepers because she was a phenomenal goal keeper at Maryland, but she has really picked up the ball and run with it. She does a great job in the office and on the field.”
The Hatters will enter their inaugural season with 21 players on a roster that includes a senior, two sophomores and 18 freshmen. Only the two sophomores, Samantha Akl and Elisabeth Blackwell, have collegiate lacrosse playing experience. Akl and freshman Mary Kate O’Sullivan were named to the A-Sun’s preseason newcomer watch list for this spring.
“It was hard to single out just two players,” Moore said of the picks. “Our team is filled with heart. They are a team that works hard and gets along well together. I think they are taking this experience and running with it.”
Akl is a transfer from Limestone College in South Carolina, but is a native of Port St. Lucie.
“Sam came in as a transfer with some experience at the collegiate level. She is really striving to be a leader. She pushes herself to get better by working hard, doing extra wall-ball, and she is focused on what this experience is and she is trying to get the most out of it.”
O’Sullivan, who is from Naples, Fla., made an impression during the fall when the Hatters played in some fall ball tournaments.
“Mary Kate came in after being a very good player in high school, but she surprised me with how coachable she is,” Moore said. “She can be quiet at times on the field, but she is a work-horse. She is always working and asking questions about things she can do to make her game better. She puts in the effort we ask her to do. We see her, along with our goalies, as an anchor for our defense and our midfield.”
The two freshmen goal keepers are Caili Guilday from Wallingford, Pa., and Whitney Meyers from Ponte Vedra Beach. They will have a chance to quickly become fan-favorites during the first season of play and have the advantage of having a national champion goal keeper to work with.
“Whitney and Caili play very differently, but are both solid goalies,” Moore said. “They can standout and be fan favorites when they come up with saves. It is really too early to tell who will standout at game-time and become fan-favorites. I think that when the fans start to learn our team, they will fall in love with them.”
Blackwell is another player with previous college experience. The Naples native played as a freshman at Long Island University-Brooklyn.
“Lizard has a commanding presence in our defense,” Moore said. “She is a transfer that will help bring experience to our program, especially the defense. She has the potential to really shine and to shut down attackers.”
While the stars of the team may be difficult to point out now, Moore said the size of the Stetson roster will dictate the Hatters’ style of play to some extent.
“When you have a larger roster, you are able to send lines out, especially in the midfield, but with a smaller roster like we have, we won’t be able to do that,” Moore said. “Our style of play will need to be a more settled. Obviously, if the fast break is there, we will go for it, but we need to be smart with our opportunities and make sure that we are careful with our substitutions in order to keep the freshest legs out there.”
The players on the field will not be the only members of the Stetson lacrosse program who will be experiencing the game in an entirely new way this year. Moore will be a head coach for the first time and Dipper will be experiencing the game from the sideline for the first time.
“The challenge is that now I will have to make decisions on the fly much quicker than when I was an assistant coach,” Moore said. “I am the leader of this program and it is important that the things I put out there are the things that we will follow, whether we are winning or losing. My time as an assistant prepared me for this and I feel confident. I know that I am going to lead this program with heart and integrity and I hope that our players will follow that example.”
The Hatters will have the advantage of playing 10 home games during the 2013 season and will jump right in as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference. Stetson was picked to finish tied for second with Detroit in the preseason poll.
“This year will be interesting in the A-Sun,” Moore said. “You have three programs that have played against each other for the last couple of years in the NLC and then the newcomers with us and Kennesaw State. Preseason polls are preseason polls. I think you will see a lot of competition in this league.
“I think it is a huge advantage to have a lot of home games. Only having had about four months to put the schedule together, I feel blessed that we were able to get 10 home games in our first season. The main thing is that our kids won’t have to miss a lot of class. Our kids will be able to get into a routine and that should give us somewhat of a home field advantage.”
The regular season schedule opens with seven consecutive home games before a trip to Gainesville for a showdown with the Florida Gators, which was a Final Four team last year. Another home match will be followed by a trip to California for a pair of games before the start of A-Sun play. The Hatters will close the year with four consecutive league games before the A-Sun Tournament in late April.
But, the focus for now is getting ready for a tough matchup in the exhibition game this Saturday.
“I am really glad that we were able to pick up this game because it will give us some great game competition before we go into the season, but also because it will be a great experience for the team,” Moore said. “We will try to let them know what to expect and what the game will be like.
“There will be some great caliber teams there and this will be a great opportunity for us to share that stage. This game will be about us. It won’t matter what the score is, it is all about getting our team prepared for our first game, against Liberty.”