WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – With 15 winning seasons in 23 years, the Eastern Connecticut State University women's lacrosse program has enjoyed a history of success since its elevation to intercollegiate status in 1996.
Following the loss of nine starters from last year's team which won 11 of 18 contests and reached the Little East Conference playoff championship game for the 12th time in 17 years, however, this may or may not turn out to be one of those memorable seasons.
Although the Warriors play six of their final seven matches in Little East play beginning Saturday at long-time rival Massachusetts Dartmouth – where they have won over 75 percent of their regular-season LEC games – it will take more than a herculean effort to reach the .500 mark by season's end.
After ten matches, the team remains in search of its first win of 2019. To be sure, the schedule has not played in its favor, with seven of the ten contests being contested away from Rick McCarthy Field. There have been a few close calls – a 17-11 loss at Smith College to open the month of March and a recent 13-8 setback against Worcester State University in a game where the Warriors refused to fold by scoring the final four goals over the last eight minutes to trim an 11-goal deficit to a respectable five.
Now in her 13th season, head coach Christine Hutchison has fielded many teams over the years which were dominated by upperclassmen – especially the last two years. She admits that the transition to a younger group for her and for the team this year has not been completely smooth.
"We have mainly underclassmen and just a couple seniors, so it's just a big difference for the younger players to work hard on their own rather than having a huge upperclassmen group pushing them," admits the head coach. "We were used to having all of those seniors the last two years, so now there are only three of them."
With a team thin on starting experience that includes only nine returning healthy position players from a year ago, the Warriors have struggled in the second half this year. Over the final 30 minutes this year, they have been outshot and outscored nearly 3-to-1. Opponents have won nearly twice as many draws in games this year and have collected an average of nearly seven ground balls more per game. A team which cleared at 68 percent a year ago is down ten percent this spring.
But while it's been an uphill struggle through the first five weeks of the regular season, the enthusiasm and desire of a young team to improve every day at practice has not waned. Which bodes well for the future of a program dominated this season by underclassmen who will benefit in the years to come by this year's experience.
Although the team chemistry has not shown benefits yet on the scoreboard, sophomore Olivia Donahue (Avon) feels that the team began to bond on the spring trip to Florida over spring break, when the Warriors played Bridgewater State University and Vassar College. "Once we went to Florida, we bonded and really got to know each other – that's when everything sort of came together and we talked about how we need to pump each other up and how we need to motivate each other to do well."
Hutchison says that although the team has struggled, this year's players have been void of off-the-field issues and have brought a new personality to the team.
"We had to work through a lot of stuff in the past two years, but this year they really get along – they like each other on and off the field, so that's refreshing. They really enjoy being around each other. Practice is always difficult, but they have fun, and then at games if they are losing, they are not hating each other because they are losing, they are just frustrated, basically, at this point."
Last year's entire starting defense and the cohesiveness that it developed was wiped out due to graduation. This year's defenders are slowly developing.
"It's not that this year's defenders are not talented, they just haven't played together," says Hutchison. "And when they don't communicate as well as they need to, they don't play as well. When they get that knowledge and that amount of minutes time built up, they are a very talented group, individually, so I think once we kind of get to that next level of everyone having the playing time they're going to get better really fast."
The contest against UMD will be a new experience, however, for the majority of Eastern's team, as only three players from that game – senior goalie Jessica Purick (Riverhead, NY), senior midfielder Michelina Pinto (Groton) and junior midfielder Tristan Kijak (Windsor) – return to the starting lineup. Pinto is this year's top returning scorer, but the team sustained a significant setback with the recent season-ending loss of injured attack Alyssa Powers (Ellington), last year's third-leading scorer.
Only two returnees saw time off the bench against UMass Dartmouth last year -- sophomore midfielder Alexa Jacobson (Marlborough) and junior midfielder Stacey Brodeur (East Lyme). Both Jacobson and Brodeur have started all ten matches this year, Jacobson is among the leaders this year in ground balls and Brodeur one of the top players in draws.
Joining the aforementioned players in starting roles this year are senior midfielder Erin Sheehan (North Branford) – who missed virtually all of last year with injury -- junior midfielder Meg Bartley (Somers), junior attack Madison Renaud (Somers), first-year sophomore transfer attack Sydney Hogan (Northford), Donahue, and sophomore defenders Zoe Robert (North Stonington) and Illiana Stavens (Waterford). All of them have taken on regular roles this year for the first time. Donahue was used primarily to back up Purick in net as a freshman.
"If they could have that spark that they kind of need at the end when it's tied or close, they could have the possibility to win because they are talented enough", stresses Hutchison."That's kind of our next step – which I saw at our last game – when we were down by a lot and we were like 'we are going to fight for this'. We have a big game on Saturday," notes Hutchison. "We need to win this game (which will likely have LEC playoff implications), and the players know that, so I don't know if that pressure is going to hurt us or whether we're going to say 'okay lets go,' and make a push to the next level."
Recently, the team has also been strengthened by the additions of two-sport athletes Aiyana Ward (Waterbury) and Bryce Makula (Guilford), both of whom have made significant impacts in their two appearances to date.
The Warriors have history on their side Saturday in their Little East match at UMass Dartmouth, winning 23 of 27 in the all-time series. Last year against the upset-minded Corsairs, Eastern emerged with a 16-14 victory on the final day of the regular season that guaranteed the No. 2 seed in the LEC playoffs and a first-round playoff bye.
History also shows that a losing regular season is not always a precursor to a quick exit in the post-season. In 2013, the Warriors won the LEC playoff championship as the No. 5 seed after losing seven of their final eight regular-season games before eliminating three higher seeds on the road, including #1 Plymouth State University in the semifinals and #2 University of Southern Maine in the title game.
"We have good, solid lacrosse athletes and if they could all just play good solid lacrosse they would do very well against our upcoming competition," points out the veteran coach. "I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, and I think the girls work hard, so our expectation is to make our conference tournament -- whether it's in last place or first place. I don't know if it makes any difference -- we just need to make it."
Sports Information staff member Tierney Hogan'21 contributed to this story.