With core intact, WLAX looks to take next step

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Junior Jill Vacanti runs through a tunnel of her teammates as she is announced as part of the starting lineup on April 8, 2016, against VCU.

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Junior Jill Vacanti runs through a tunnel of her teammates as she is announced as part of the starting lineup on April 8, 2016, against VCU.

By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor

The core of the team and the aspirations for Duquesne women’s lacrosse have stayed very much the same, although the leadership has undergone big changes in the offseason.

“Really, the expectation is the same,” first-year head coach Lisa Evans said. “[Atlantic] 10 tournament, advancing in the tournament and kind of picking up right where we left off. We are working on the little things this year.”

If they can earn their way into the A-10 tournament, it will be the seventh straight postseason appearance for the Dukes.

Last year, Duquesne entered the A-10 tournament as the No. 3 seed but suffered a first-round loss on its home turf at Rooney Field to the eventual runners-up, the Richmond Spiders, on an overtime goal by Natalia Chaney. There is no doubt the early-exit was not what the Red & Blue had in mind, but it might be the motivation necessary to push a talented group of returners over the top.

Headlining those returners are senior midfielder Tess Drotar, senior attacker Kaelin Shaw and junior attacker Jill Vacanti. The trio accounted for 107 of the team’s 176 total goals and seven of the squad’s nine game-winners from the 2016 season. In fact, the Dukes are bringing back their top five point-getters from last year’s group.

The biggest changeover will be between the pipes as junior goalkeeper Emily McMinimee looks to fill the shoes of former A-10 All-Conference performer Jenna Bishop who finished with a 22-17 record and a 9.48 goals allowed average in her time on the Bluff.

McMinimee saw action in just four games contests in 2016 and recorded nine saves to her 14 goals allowed on the year. But, she will look to find success in 2017 with her increased opportunity on the field.

Evans said she will rely on McMinimee, Drotar and senior defender Kelsey Blackburn to be the leaders for her team this year. The latter two will wear the captain bands for the Red & Blue this season.

With a solid foundation returning, the Dukes have high aspirations for this season. That is also due to newcomers and breakout players that may soon become key pieces of this team.

Evans expects freshman midfielder Rilee Bradshaw out of Middletown to make a relatively immediate impact when she hits the field. With the graduation of captain midfielder Meredith Micho, there is likely a starting spot for Bradshaw to win in the remaining weeks of preseason practice.

Along with Bradshaw, Evans expects sophomore attacker Haley Matthai and sophomore midfielder Sarah Kolhoff to have breakout seasons in year two.

Matthai notched eight goals, scooped up 14 ground balls and dished out an assist in her rookie campaign. Meanwhile, Kolhoff finished fifth on the team with 15 goals and additionally won 22 draw controls and 15 ground balls.

Even with the change up top from 109-win coach Mike Scerbo to his assistant Lisa Evans, the goals for Duquesne remain relatively the same, and therefore, Evans looks to make minor adjustments.

Evans wants to break down the game for her players to ensure they know how the game works in order to give her players a mental advantage. This will surely come in handy against the high level of competition that Duquesne will face this season.

The Dukes will play a pair of top 20 teams in No. 7 Penn State University and No. 15 University of Massachusetts, which has now won eight straight A-10 championships. The Red & Blue will also face off against The Ohio State University and the University of Louisville, which both received votes in the top 20 preseason polls.

Duquesne will also play a tough slate of competitive conference foes who will all be looking to dethrone UMASS. In the A-10 preseason polls, voters slotted the Dukes at No. 5 behind UMASS, Richmond, Saint Joseph’s and George Mason.

Undoubtedly, the Dukes have higher aspirations than placing fifth in the A-10, but they will have to prove their abilities on the field. That journey begins on Feb. 22 on Rooney Field when the Dukes take on the nationally ranked Nittany Lions.

“We just want to play hard for 60 minutes, try to do our best and slow their big horses down,” Evans said. “They are extremely athletic and they are really quick, so that is what we have been working on transitionally.”

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