Elon University women’s lacrosse look to have a turn-around season in 2019 after going 4-11 last year. The road to return to form for the Maroon and Gold will be one of new challenges and opportunities.
The team has been ranked No. 3 in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) according to NCAA preseason polls.
"Our team has incredible work ethic. They actually just love it," said head coach Josh Hexter. "The way that they compete against each other in practice every single and in the weightroom and in running. It's just constant hard work."
Hexter enters his sixth year with Elon’s women's lacrosse and will be coaching his 200th career college game when the Phoenix take the field against Campbell University on Feb. 9. Hexter, who was hired in spring 2012, is the first head coach for the team and has led the program to a .506 record (43-42) and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2017.
The 2018 season was the worst statistical year of coach Hexter’s tenure. The team went through a brutal schedule and secured only one win in the non-conference part of its schedule while battling six top-25 ranked opponents, getting the team off to a 1-8 start it could not recover from.
This year the Phoenix has its work cut out again when it comes to scheduling. The team will face seven teams that competed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament including the No. 2 seed University of North Carolina Tar Heels and the No. 6 seed University of Florida Gators. Also the team will have to face the reigning NCAA champion James Madison University Dukes at least once given they are in the same conference.
While some programs choose to soften their out-of-conference schedule in an attempt to pick up confidence-building wins, Hexter believes in the opposite approach.
“We want to schedule the hardest competition we can, within reason, so we can really test ourselves everyday and see how good we are,” Hexter said. “At the end, if you want to be a final four championship team, you need to play these teams every day to get used to that.”
But the challenges go beyond the strength of schedule in 2019. The Phoenix will be playing without its leader from last year, senior attack Stephanie Asher. Asher ended her career as Elon’s leading goal scorer, points scorer and draw controller. In 2018, Asher was one of the team's captains and the unquestioned leader of the offense. She single-handedly contributed over 28 percent of Elon’s goal scored last season — 39 of 135.
Losing Asher will require adjustments in both strategy and leadership. The answer to the void could come in the form of the midfield duo of sophomore Quinn Daly and junior Melissa Birdsell.
Daly has already been recognized as an honorable mention for the preseason All-CAA team after being named to the CAA-All Rookie Team in 2018. She is the quintessential two-way midfielder with her ability to score, as evident by eight goals, as well as her ability to cause turnovers and control possessions with ground ball recoveries.
Birdsell has had a big impact on the team's point production throughout her young career. In her first season, Birdsell earned 17 points and was named Offensive Rookie of the Week April 24, 2017. As a sophomore, Birdsell scored 16 goals and earned 23 draw controls, second on the team to Asher in both categories in 2017. She has been around to see the impact of great players like Asher and is confident in leadership for the upcoming season.
“I think our leadership has been phenomenal this year and it’s just been a buildup from every year and I think it’s been fantastic to see our growth this year with it and with the leadership we have,” Birdsell said.
Beside Asher, another notable loss for the team comes in net. Tori Cipollone was a veteran goalkeeper who started 13 of the 15 games played last year and tallied 87 saves. But a new face on Elon’s campus could change the game for the Phoenix.
Paulina DiFatta transferred to Elon in fall 2018 after playing two years at Fairfield University. She is coming off of a career defining season. In 2018 DiFatta set the Fairfield record for saves with 211 and a .512 save percentage. For these efforts she was named to the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) All-Rookie Team.
Although DiFatta is accomplished in such a short time at Fairfield she does not like looking back at the past. She compared her career to a journey and is simply looking forward to the next chapter.
"I think I wanted a new scenery so I transferred here and I love it so far," DiFatta said. "The coaches bring an amazing atmosphere and these players work so hard and I’m so honored to be apart of this program, it’s such a respected program. So I’m really excited for this season."
With the returning talent and a strong work ethic, the team has the potential to return to form and make another run in the CAA tournament. Hexter preaches a day-by-day mentality and a focus on smaller, overlooked aspects such as loose balls and rides. Because of this, Hexter noted he has no long-term goals for the season.
“I think if you try to set expectations you can short yourself. We can say we want to be in the final four all we want, but if we’re not doing all the little day-to-day things and the process of that,” Hexter said.