By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: The Salisbury defense uses a double-team to steal a possession against Catholic. Feb. 24. Emma Reider photo
In 2017, the strength for Salisbury University women’s lacrosse was their experience on the defensive side of the ball. Now in 2018, the team will adjust to a younger positional group as their four defensive starters in the field graduated.
That 2017 defense finished 11th in NCAA Division III in goals allowed-per-game with 6.23. The losses feature four of the top-six players in caused turnovers, including Kieran Kelleher, Margaret Lens, Kacy Koolage and Kayla Miller.
With the old-guard now gone, new faces move in to take their places. Many of those players are sophomores.
“Obviously, we have things to learn,” SU junior defender Martha Hutzell said. “From last year, our players have already learned a lot because all of our main players have also learned from the seniors last year.”
Hutzell has suddenly become a veteran in the defensive field of play with the losses in front of her. The Ellicott City, Md. native recorded 14 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers in 2017, seeing playing time in seven starts and 17 appearances.
SU Head Coach Jim Nestor notes Hutzell’s transitional ability as her key asset. Joining Hutzell throughout the midfield will be senior middie Allie Hynson to help direct traffic overall.
“That’s where Allie in that midfield area really is going to have to do a great job helping to sure things up and making sure we’re all on that same page,” Nestor said on Hynson strengths in helping a young defense.
One area of emphasis Hynson will also aid on is with possession. She led the Sea Gulls in draw controls a season ago with 41. This season she will feature in the category again alongside Hutzell as the two look to keep the ball away from opposing offenses.
For the second week of the season, Hynson was named the CAC Defensive Player of the Week. An advantage of having more experienced players to cover the midfield is on the ride for clearing, which could be a key for the Sea Gulls to slow down opponents.
“Once they got the ball in their defensive end and had to come back, we were defending them so hard that we got five or six turnovers right in the midfield,” Hynson said about the second half at Stevenson.
The Mustangs ended the game 18 for 30 on the clear, missing nine clears during Salisbury’s come back in the second half. The strong midfield can aid the newer defenders moving up in the order.
To start the season, sophomore defenders Anna Wehland and Kendall Bannan will anchor the defensive unit in front of the cage. Wehland made 21 appearances last season, while Bannan played in 18 games.
That experience in games as freshmen will aid the unit as they continue to work in new faces as the season goes on.
“Just from the first game, they got it immediately. I think we play really well together,” Hutzell said.
Coaches in the Cage
While overall defensively the Sea Gulls lose sizeable experience, it is the opposite inside the cage. Both senior Gianna Falcone and sophomore Skye Graham are back for Salisbury.
Falcone has featured as the main starter the past three seasons for Nestor in the cage. The Florham Park, N.J. native has a career goals against average mark of 6.19 with 319 career saves.
Behind Falcone last season, Graham made 12 appearances including two starts. However, in 2018, Graham has impressed Nestor and the coaching staff, as the head Sea Gull depicts an even battle for the starting spot throughout the season.
“I think right now those two are going to be battling for that spot and a lot of playing time,” Nestor said. “But with that senior down there and what she’s seen over the years, we’re expecting her to be doing a lot of communicating and directing traffic for us.”
The advantage for Falcone is her leadership and experience playing with many SU defenses over her career including runs to the NCAA Regional Finals each of the last two seasons.
The veteran goalie takes the competition in stride and views it as a way to improve on the field for both herself and Graham.
“It’s about doing the best we can every day at practice,” Falcone said. “It’s a good competition everyday between Skye and I because it forces us to play our best game every single day.”
“It motivates us to do better, and we motivate each other. It’s the same thing with our defense. We’re not going to play well if our defense doesn’t play well.”
While Falcone did play the entire game vs. Catholic, each goalie played a half at Stevenson in the season opener. It was a rough start for the SU defense and Falcone, giving up seven goals in the first half. However, a few changes and Graham coming in the second half caused a switch of momentum in the game.
The system should prepare both goalies in case situations arise later in the season, such as with injuries. It also offers two additional voices and leaders to the younger defense.
Nestor has been proud of what he has seen from both Sea Gull goalies.
“I think they’ve done a great job with just basics and coaching,” Nestor said. “If we’re stopping and they’re out there, they’re telling the defense what they’re seeing. They’re even helping our shooters, ‘what are you talking about with that shot. You made it too easy.’”
One additional advantage is the mentoring of the third goalie on the roster, freshman Sylvanna Polito of Elwood, N.Y. While Falcone will graduate after this season, Polito and Graham could be the duo fans become used to over the next few seasons.
As previous legions of Sea Gulls have in the past, the current seniors and experienced Sea Gulls will provide the foundation for the next leaders of the SU women’s lacrosse program.
“The younger players are absorbing everything we’re telling them and putting it into their game, so it’s working very well,” Falcone said.