Elon University women’s lacrosse looks to have a turn-around season in 2019 after going 4-11 last year. The road to return to winning form for the Phoenix 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 they compete against each other in practice every single day and in the weight room and in running. It’s just constant hard work.”

Hexter entered his sixth year at the helm of Elon’s women’s lacrosse with a win against Campbell University on Feb. 9 — the 200th career game he has coached. As the first head coach for the team, Hexter 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 leg 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 with scheduling. The team will face seven teams that competed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, including the No. 2 seed University of North Carolina and the No. 6 seed University of Florida. The team will also have to face in-conference rival and reigning NCAA champion James Madison University at least once. 

The team won its opening game at Campbell to get its season rolling on the correct foot but dropped the home opener to No. 14 University of Virginia. 

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 every day 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 last year’s leader, senior attack Stephanie Asher. Asher finished 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 more than 28 percent of Elon’s goals 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 rookie 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 effect of great players such as Asher and is confident in leadership for the upcoming season. Birdsell has already chipped in a goal on the season, getting her first tally of the year against Campbell.

“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. 

Another player that has seemed to step up for the Phoenix in this early season is sophomore midfielder Mae McGlynn. McGlynn has been fierce around the net so far, racking up eight goals, including five against Campbell in the season opener. 

Besides 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 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.

Though DiFatta became so 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

“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 a part 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 make another run in the CAA tournament. But Hexter knows that wanting to be a team that makes a team and training to become a team that makes that a reality are two very
different things.

“We can say we want to be in the Final Four all we want,” Hexter said, but he knows that to get to that point, the work has to be
done now.