By Ricky Pollitt
Not too many freshman see playing time at the collegiate level when joining a sports team; especially when the team is a back-to-back national champion in Division III women’s lacrosse.
However, goalkeeper Gianna Falcone is not like most freshman.
Sporting recent three-time national goalkeeper of the year Ashton Wheatley’s number 46 jersey, the Florham, New Jersey native has become a force to be reckoned with as the final line of defense for the Sea Gulls.
“You can’t ever take anything for granted,” Falcone said. “I’m playing with some of the best players in D3 college lacrosse, and they help me get better each week.”
The goalie position was a question mark coming into the 2015 season. Salisbury lost Wheatley to graduation, and would have to rely on a group of players who had seen limited action for the Sea Gulls.
At the start of the year, Salisbury went with Alyssa Harmke; a senior who had played three seasons behind one of the best goalies in the nation. Sea Gulls’ head coach Jim Nestor had confidence in Harmke but knew she would have to play spot on in order to keep her starting spot.
“The competition for the [goalie] spot was great,” Nestor said. “There’s always going to be a battle for that spot.”
Salisbury opened their season with a home matchup against rival Stevenson. After trailing 7-0 at halftime, Nestor made the decision to pull Harmke and gave Falcone her first action in the cage.
Little did anyone know, the Sea Gulls were getting their first glance at their goalie of the future.
Falcone played lights out in the second half, only allowing two goals by the Stevenson offense. Her ability to shut down the opposing offense helped spark Salisbury’s attacks, and the Gulls were able to come back and claim a 10-9 overtime victory.
“When [Falcone] got the start she really didn’t play like a freshman,” Nestor said. “When it comes down to it, she knows how to make those tough saves and put her team in a spot to win.”
In her first career start against York College, Falcone made 11 saves to set a new milestone in her career before erasing that tally against Brockport the following week with 12.
As the season progressed, Falcone continued to catch the attention of not just Salisbury fans, but lacrosse fanatics all across the nation.
With 7 saves through 16 games, she has blossomed into the nation’s best, maintaining a 4.92 goals-against average; which is top in the country, and a .559 save percentage ranking third in the nation.
“I have to attribute it all to my team. Their support and everything gives me the confidence to be better,” Falcone said. “I don’t take any of the credit.”
Falcone did receive credit though, from representatives from the Capital Athletic Conference. She was awarded Rookie of the Year for her outstanding play in the cage this season.
The freshman keeper also put her name on the conference’s first team, where she was joined by teammates Kara O’Rourke, Megan Wallenhorst, Anna Sparr, Bethany Baer, and Kate Haker.
In the CAC tournament, the freshman only allowed seven goals and tallied 10 saves.
“The whole team coming together, and becoming one with the defense has allowed everyone to work together well and have good communication,” Falcone said.
At the start of the season, the goalie position was not the only one that was uncertain going in. Salisbury lost a number of defenders to graduation and injury, which forced younger players to step up along with Falcone.
Paired with seniors defenders Sparr and Laura Maskell, Hayden Hutzell and Kieran Kelleher have helped solidify the defensive wall that the Sea Gulls have.
“If we play together as a whole and not as individual players then we do a lot better,” Falcone said. “It all comes down to the passion and the heart, and I think we have that.”
The unit averages 5.46 goals per game, and has not allowed more than five goals in eight of their last nine matches.
With the offense struggling at times this season, due to injury and lack of chemistry, Nestor has relied on Falcone and his defense to keep Salisbury winning during big games.
“We need to put more points on the board, but our defense is holding them to five or six goals a game which is helping us out a lot,” Nestor said.
Allowing only 60 goals this season, Falcone looks to carry her success and confidence over into her first NCAA Tournament.
Despite her young age, Falcone has become a leader of one of the most successful defenses in Division III. With her in the cage, Salisbury is confident they have what it takes to get back to the national championship and bring home the program’s fourth title.
“We just have to do what we’ve been doing all along. We have to practice and make sure we’re all there supporting each other,” Falcone said. “As long as we all work together, we can get it done.”