by Sean Begin
Last season, the Central Connecticut women’s lacrosse team reached the high point of program history, recording a record nine wins overall but, more importantly, tallying seven (also a record) NEC victories, good for second place in the league, and their first appearance in the NEC tournament.
Following the end of that highly successful 2013 season, head coach Kelly Nangle resigned in order to take the same position with Liberty University in Virginia. Enter Laura Campbell, hired in August to replace Nangle as the women’s lacrosse head coach.
Campbell coached prior Division I schools at American University and Marist College. She appeared in each school’s respective conference playoffs, winning a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship with Marist in 2010, earning that team its first ever NCAA tournament appearance.
Campbell will enter her first season at Central without three All-Conference players (seniors Betsy Vendel, Ali Roche and Mackenzy Ryan all graduated last year), but returns two other All-Conference players, as well as Central’s second ever All-Rookie player.
“We’re just looking to continue that upward trend, really, and continue to be competitive in conference,” said Campbell. “I think we have everything in place to do so. The girls are very, very excited of what we can achieve this year.”
The transition between coaching staffs can be a difficult process, but the silver lining in Nangle’s quick yet abrupt departure was the time it allowed for Campbell to not only be hired, but spend time building chemistry with the team.
“It certainly has been a transition,” said Campbell. “I think in the fall we worked out all of those kinks and it was an adjustment for everybody. Now we’re certainly on the same page and we’re in a great place.”
The team last season was one the better defensive teams in the country. They ranked 10th in the nation in caused turnovers per game with 9.5. The team’s 17.94 ground balls per game was good for 16th in the nation and they were 27th in scoring defense with 9.06 goals against per game.
For Campbell, the return of senior midfielder Amanda Toke provides some much needed leadership both on the field and in the locker room. Toke was second on the team last season in both caused turnovers and draw controls as well as a leading scorer on the team.
“Toke is just a hustler through and through,” said Campbell. ‘She makes plays that can just change the momentum of the game. Those players are very, very exciting and they’re crucial to have on the team. She’s certainly a leader; she’s a captain for us this year.”
The Blue Devils will need Toke’s leadership and jack-of-all-trade’s lacrosse skills if they expect to duplicate last season. Youth, however, will play an important role.
Elyse Malecki was named to the All-Rookie team last season, just the second Blue Devil freshman to receive that distinction. Malecki finished just behind Toke on the team last year in points (25) and goals (22) while starting all 17 games.
“Elyse is young but she’s one of those players who can make changes pretty quickly,’ said Campbell. “That’s exciting to see because those are the types of players that the sky is the limit, really, when they can make adjustments on the fly.”
Despite her raw talent, with only one season under her belt, Malecki still has some growing and learning to go through.
“She’s one of those players that we really want to work on her consistency,” added Campbell of her young player. “She sometimes has the tendency to shoot right to the goalie or not make good decisions with that. So we’re really just working on her composure inside, and she’s doing a good job.”
Such composure will come with added game time experience which the young attacker will certainly see this season.
Campbell’s last returning All-Conference selection is goalkeeper Morgan Tullar, who stopped 139 shots last season in her first as the Blue Devil’s full time keeper. She posted a goals against average of 8.89 per game while recording a program record nine wins.
“Morgan is a very smart goalie,” said Campbell. “She knows what adjustments she needs to make. It’s just one of those things sometimes where we need to be on her so she doesn’t get complacent and get into some bad habits. I think she’s doing a really good job of being a leader back there.”
Tullar is backed up this season by freshman Kristin Stolen, one of seven freshmen on the team this season but Campbell like what she sees in her young players, particularly in their adjustment to her system.
“I think they adapted a little quicker because they weren’t necessarily adjusting from any other coach,” said Campbell. “The freshmen are a skilled group. They challenge our upper classmen daily in practice. And that competitive environment is really just making us better.”
The change from Nangle to Campbell allowed for a different perspective of who can play what positions, resulting in some changes for some players.
Junior Jess Sudock had played midfielder for the Blue Devils the last two seasons, but has recently (within the last two weeks) made the transition to defender. Already, though, she’s taking to her new role well.
“We bumped her back to defense because her footwork is solid and she’s adapted to that phenomenally,” Campbell explained. “Her 1v1 defense is one of the best on the team now. She’s just a force. It’s unbelievable [how quickly she’s adjusted].”
Campbell added some unfamiliar teams to the Blue Devil’s non-conference schedule this season in order to give the team playing time against strong teams, in order to better prepare them for conference play.
Monmouth, the two-time reigning NEC champion, left the conference following the end of last season, leaving the Blue Devils the highest ranked team from last season, and a conference wide open for the taking,
“Like I told the girls, it [the championship’s] ours to lose this year. The only people who are going to lose it are ourselves and if we allow that then that’s on us. But we can beat anyone in the conference, so it’s exciting.”
The lacrosse team kicks off the season on Feb. 22 at home against La Salle.