Begin season with third coach in as many years

 

Playing women’s lacrosse at the University of Saint Mary has been anything but easy.

Low roster numbers, inopportune injuries and a multitude of coaching changes has led to some very rollercoaster-like times, but thankfully for the Spires, their young women are as resilient as it gets.

They also love the sport.

So, that’s why, after a 4-9 season (1-5 in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference play) which saw so much promise that could have easily equaled a winning record happen if not for four one-goal losses, they are at it again as the 2018 season begins Saturday at Rockhurst, an NCAA DII program.

They open up their home slate Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. against Missouri Baptist.

Leading the way will be the team’s third coach in the same number of years – Rainey Whitworth – who comes to Leavenworth by way of Southern Virginia University, an NCAA DIII program where she played from 2014-16 and coached at last season.

She replaced Ellen Raih. She didn’t see herself leaving her alma mater, but then this opportunity came and she couldn’t say no.

“I would never have thought I’d be here, but I love it, it’s a great place,” Whitworth said. “I like what we are doing lacrosse-wise out here. It’s growing and there is a need for people who know the sport, have a passion for it and are going to stick around. Let’s grow the game, let’s sell the school and you can come out and be a part of a great group of girls. Saint Mary will definitely be a presence in the future.

“I had been part of a program and worked at a program that was very similar. The place was where we were in and the girls we had to go after were such a specific type of girl – it was religious place and high academic. I was on the field for the first game in (Southern Virginia) history. We didn’t even have a stadium … we have facilities, we are so close to Kansas City … you’ve got Legends area to go and do things. I don’t think this is that difficult of an area to recruit to.”

Whitworth worked hard to impress upon her players that she would be here for the long haul and knew going in that it was going to be a “complex” challenge due to the changes in coaches, multiple times and all of the known battles.

Over the past two seasons, USM has struggled to have enough numbers to even finish a game due to the scant roster numbers and then the injuries that would follow.

“The biggest thing is that we are a resilient group of girls,” junior midfielder Karissa Proctor said. “We are a small team and that’s brought us so much closer together. We have a lot of chemistry on and off the field and we continue to persevere year after year. There is a few of us who maybe are a little more resilient than others and had to help other girls through it and over time we have built up and gotten used to it and know that this is how it is and what we have to do.”

Now they have to do it for another new coach.

“First year coming in, it was hard and we got through it, but each year we saw a lot of growth, which made it easier,” Proctor said. “Then you bring a new person and you have that transition period and that’s a challenge. But with each new coach, we did grow. We’ve seen a lot of different coaching philosophies which has actually been good for us. We saw the men’s philosophy … then we had a coach who had playing experience and brought those skills from the game and last year was a huge developmental year for us. It’s about evolving from what we have already developed. From each coach it has been a smooth transition and we are moving upward.

“They are similar coaching mindsets and now it’s just a little more intense than in the past, so it’s been a gradual building each year.”

Junior goaltender Kayla DuBlois, who on more than one occasion stood on her head with some phenomenal performances in the cage, believes the team improved as a unit when Raih took over the program for Matt Kimsey who was coaching both men and women’s squads at USM before taking over the former beginning last spring.

“Last year we did a lot better because our coach had a lot more time to focus on us,” DuBlois said. “I think this year will be even better and stacking on top of last year. (Whitworth) has pushed even harder than we’ve been pushed before.  

“Having that bond with the team and being together for so long it’s even better. Last year we were pretty mentally prepared, but we are even better this year.”

Whitworth now hopes to build on the development the team saw under Raih.

“It doesn’t matter how much you know, it matters how much you care, and they care,” Whitworth said of her roster that could see about 16 players. “That love for that game and that drive is there and everyone has that common denominator. They are a tight group. They seriously want to be better, to be pushed, collectively and individually. I appreciate how much they have adjusted and bought in. We are in good physical shape and have good endurance, that mental mindset we are still working on … that kind of grit.

“I feel this group of girls can seal the deal and in this conference, they will be a force. We are focusing on the draw and making sure are draw is equipped and our circle girls are on board. Our strength has been our goalkeeper and our defense is really, really a unit. They slide quickly and trust each other. On offense, we have the individual players that if we do what we need to do off the ball, we will be able to do what we need to do for those girls who can penetrate. Overall, our level of ball handling has increased. We just have to make sure we are strategic.”

Proctor added that many girls do not have extensive lacrosse playing experience but their love for competition and the team will make things happen.

DeBlois says that players still have to play regardless of coaching changes and roster battles, and this team is a meat-and-potatoes crew that brings it no matter what they have to deal with.

They are also driven to make it to the KCAC Tournament’s field of four after missing out the last two years despite being the hosts, which will happen again in May. 

“I can’t explain to you how frustrated I have been in the past having to go up and work in the press box and watch those girls play on our field,” Proctor said. “We lost to Benedictine by one and to watch them play and not be out there, hurt a lot and it’s a great motivator. We aren’t going to take no for an answer this year.”