With the first recruiting class of the Elon University women’s lacrosse team reaching its senior season, head coach Josh Hexter does think about the final go-round on occasion. But he doesn’t see his team focusing on it.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that it’s their final year,” Hexter said. “But at the same time, we’ve built such a culture that we focus on staying in the moment, and competing in the moment. I don’t think about it much, and I don’t think they do, either. I’m incredibly proud of our senior class and all the work that they’ve put in. And the leadership and culture they built from scratch is pretty special.”
And, as the Phoenix enters its fourth year as a program and its third in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the goals are very clear for Hexter, senior defender Lane Huger and the whole team: win the CAA championship.
Elon tied for third in the conference last year with a 3-3 record in the CAA and a 10-7 record overall, but lost all three of its CAA regular season games and its semifinal game against eventual conference champion Towson by two goals, something that still irks the Phoenix.
“There are a few losses that stick out,” Hexter said. “Clearly, those are all winnable games, and we have to do a better job of concentrating on the little things in practice and that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Huger added, “It was a heartbreaker last year, but that really pushed us. We’re so hungry this year. We want to work to be in that CAA tournament.”
But Elon was able to get a signature win in the third year of the program, defeating then-10th-ranked Duke University 7-6 in Durham. Elon’s 2017 schedule is bound to challenge Elon throughout nonconference play, as the Phoenix faces seven teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, including two conference opponents in Towson and James Madison University.
The Phoenix hosts Duke and travels to reigning national champion the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teams Elon has played all four years. But Elon will also see four other Atlantic Coast Conference schools, traveling to the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech while also hosting the University of Notre Dame and reigning Big South champion Winthrop University.
But for Huger, the key won’t be depending on who is across the field. Elon is just ready to play its game.
“We don’t focus on the opponents, we focus on us,” Huger said. “On the field, it’s not about them, it’s about us doing the little things — ground balls, talking on the field. We don’t ever play the team, we play with the girls next to us. It doesn’t matter if they’re No. 1 or unranked, we’re going to play our game and focus on us.”
Part of Elon’s game will depend on senior goalie Rachel Ramirez, who has played all but 32 minutes and 34 seconds in the team’s 50 games in program history. Ramirez reigns as All-CAA First Team goalie, having previously been the All-CAA Second Team goalie in 2015 and Atlantic Sun Conference First Team goalie in 2014.
“Rachel’s so important,” Huger said. “As our goalie, she’s the quarterback on the field. She’s been awesome. For four years, she’s been out there working hard every day.”
Hexter added, “Rachel is great. But it’s a team sport, and Rachel needs the defense in front of her to do their job, and the defense needs Rachel to do her job. If they can do that, we should play really well.”
Joining Ramirez as a two-time Preseason All-CAA honoree and a 2016 All-CAA First Team player is junior attacker Stephanie Asher, who was third in the CAA with 2.24 goals per game, finishing her 2016 campaign off with 38.
She has led the team in goals in each of her first two seasons and started every game during that span. But for Hexter, the accolades mean nothing.
“I pay no attention to individual awards, especially preseason honors,” Hexter said. “We haven’t played a single game yet, so who knows. The only thing that’s important to me is holding up the CAA championship trophy at the end of the year, not the individual stuff.”
Elon seems to be in as good of a position as ever to lift that trophy — and the other schools in the conference seem to agree, as Elon was predicted to finish third in the preseason poll. It’s the highest preseason post Elon has occupied in its four years as a program, and something Huger said is a testament to the culture with the team.
“We all understand that everyone has a role on this team — not just the seniors, but we’re all so connected,” Huger said. “I’m a firm believer that team chemistry is what builds your program, and without that, I don’t think you can be successful.
“We’re all close on the team and we’re all friends on and off the field, but we really push each other. There’s a respect on the team that you’re going to push the girl next to you even if she’s your best friend. We’re going to get each other better every day.”
The culture that Huger described is something that stands out to Hexter all the time, who noted that he frequently gets compliments from club and high school teams that know of Elon. And for seniors like Huger, that culture will be the key for the success of the team.
“We are so excited [for this season],” Huger said. “The four years have gone by so quickly — way too quickly. But we’ve built so much in four years. We’ve really done excellent in the four years, and we’ve started a culture that’s going to last a lifetime.”
Kyle Amato, contributor, contributed reporting.