Cal Poly women’s lacrosse were out for retribution as they found themselves battling against a familiar opponent during its final game at the Women’s Division Intercollegiate Associates National Championship — Colorado State.
In last year’s championship game, the Rams beat seven-time champion Cal Poly by scoring the final six goals to overcome the Mustangs 8-5 in overtime. Yet, this year was a bit different; the squads weren’t competing for a championship, but for seventh and eighth place.
During the past two trips to nationals, the Mustangs have witnessed the vast improvement of the competition, finishing second and eighth out of nearly 170 club teams.
“All the other teams have improved drastically,” said junior midfielder Amber Curry, noting that the sport is catching on in the West Coast. “Last year when we lost, there was a new pressure that showed us that we could lose; with no dominating (team) it made everybody push that much harder.”
The Mustangs goalie Paige Spalding went down in writhing pain after stepping awkwardly during a midseason game. It was worst-case scenario for the junior and her team, tearing her ACL and MCL, an injury “that really put us on our heels,” head coach Mike Windall said. It took the team months to find and train a new goalie, Spalding said.
“We didn’t have the experience (at goal that) a nationally ranked teams needs to have going into nationals,” junior midfielder Bonnie Burtis said. “The offense could only do so much.”
The club changed from an aggressive first-half team to a second-half squad because they were consistently playing from behind due to the instability at goal, Curry said. Cal Poly played attacking defense prior to Spalding’s injury, but were forced to adapt a protective defense to aid its adjusting goalies, she added.
“It was a whole new dynamic we had to work with and affected our game plan,” Curry said. “We were always playing catch up, but (doing so) established leadership.”
Freshman defenseman Stephanie Shaffer and senior midfielder Ashley Hemmen split time at goal during nationals, two key assets that threw off the team’s dynamic in their abscence, Windall said. Yet Burtis said Hemmen thrived under pressure, surprising the competition after minimal training by earning All-Tournament honors and gaining the respect of her opponents, one of which came up to her and acknowledged her stellar play.
“She gave up everything for the team,” Spalding said. “That right there says more about a team than winning.”
Hemmen said she was impressed her team could compete with Division 1 players and was excited to undertake the leadership role of goalie and hopefully inspire her team.
“It was hard because we do have a younger team that hasn’t had national exposure,” she said. “A bunch of D1 players played on club level and we were able to compete.”
After finishing the season 7-3, No. 5 Cal Poly began the 16-team national championships by defeating No. 12 Georgia 15-14, a close first-round competition the Mustangs weren’t accustomed to, Burtis said. The Mustangs were forced to play from behind during the next three games against improved national competition, a formidable task.
“A lot of these teams are coming out to beat us, we have a long history of being the best so they are fired up to play us,” Burtis explained. “For us it was just another game; we tried to work on that mindset, approaching games knowing that this team wants to kill us.”
The Mustangs will focus on maintaining consistent training during the offseason to improve their play, Curry said.
“We really hadn’t had to push ourselves in the past,” she explained. “Now (the competition) is keeping with their training programs throughout the year, so we must incorporate more things to prepare for the season.”
According to Burtis, a parent of a University of Michigan player came up to Cal Poly defenseman Laura Hopson’s mom after the Mustangs lost its third game 8-10 to commend Cal Poly.
“Cal Poly raised the bar so high that no team could ever reach it for seven years, and now they are finally starting to get there,” the opposing team’s parent said.