On a bright, early Friday morning in the fall, five months before the first game of its inaugural season, the Saint Rose women’s lacrosse team worked out plays on the home field.
Head Coach Kaitlin Gaghan doubled as attack, cradling the ball and moving it swiftly while advising: “Play it out!” “See the ball in front of you!” “Ball left!” Periodically, she blew the whistle to pause.
“Make sure if the ball is moving, you are also moving,” Gaghan said. “I’d like to see more ground balls. Otherwise, I really like the work we are doing. Get back into it.”
From the Hudson Valley, Long Island, western New York, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Florida, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, 18 female athletes with choices about where to study and compete had recently come to Saint Rose to join a new intercollegiate lacrosse program.
The team – 16 first-year students and two sophomores – represents many decorated high school teams. Collectively, the players had earned numerous honors. Now, they are starting their college careers in a program that will take time to build. They will play in the highly competitive Division II NE10 Conference. They will develop their skills without the guidance of experienced, older teammates.
But the athletes who started in the fall will also get to write the first chapter of the program’s history. Most will have four years to do it.
“I admit it’s a little nerve-wracking,” said attack Jamie Marando, her eyes fixed on the drills as she spoke from the sidelines. “We’ll play schools that have played together and conditioned together for years, where it’s routine.
“But, after being here a few weeks, I think we’ll be able to stand up to the competition,” she added, as teammates repeatedly rushed toward and away from the crease. “We are all really serious. And it’s exciting to start something new.”
The team, which plays its first game on February 22 (the first home game follows on February 29) represents not only the 19th Golden Knights program but a vibrant, new demographic.
As anyone who follows high school or college athletics knows, lacrosse has quickly expanded beyond elite prep schools to middle-class towns and urban communities. The women’s game, in particular, is exploding. The governing body, U.S. Lacrosse, says women’s lacrosse, which started 150 years after men’s, grew more than 30% from 2006 to 2017, fastest of all women’s intercollegiate sports.
Along with lacrosse, the newest Golden Knights were drawn to Saint Rose by academics. Coach Gaghan, who has a master’s degree in secondary education, said education degrees, in particular, are a draw for aspiring coaches.
For Maggie Brent, the draw was forensic science. An attack from Boca Raton, Florida, Brent scored 50 goals, caused 20 turnovers, and earned numerous athletic honors in high school. While eager to play college lacrosse, she also sought a school where she could prepare for a career at the FBI.
“I was heavily recruited, and the whole idea of being part of a brand-new program sounded exciting. I knew most schools in the North had a lot of talent,’’ said Brent. “But the Saint Rose forensic science program is actually what helped me make my final decision.”
Like many teammates, she is also buoyed by the chance to introduce the College community to a game that is distinct from, rather than a carbon copy of, the men’s sport. Both games involve a stick with a pocket, and a hard rubber ball that must be cradled during play.
But the differences are great. Most apparent: men may check, or strike, one another, while women may only check opponents’ sticks. Players say that what might appear to be a limitation is actually what makes their game so engaging.
“Since we’re not hitting each other, we actually have to be a lot more accurate and controlled. And we do a lot more running,” noted first-year student Alexis Farr, an attack from the Watertown area. “Our sport is not as well known, so I love that I’ll get to set people’s view of it.”
To Coach Gaghan, the various challenges – including the need to strike less and run more – demand a “high lacrosse IQ.”
A Long Island native, Gaghan began competing in seventh grade, going on to play midfielder
For Division I Quinnipiac and Division II Long Island University-Post for three conference championships and two national title matches.
Before joining Saint Rose in 2018, she served as Pace University assistant coach and Greenwich (Connecticut) High School coach – winning conference coach of the year.
As the very first person associated with the Saint Rose program, Gaghan selected the uniforms (traditional kilts), ordered sticks, oversaw how the lines were laid down, and hired Assistant Coach Hayley Sabol, a four-year starter for Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Most important: She recruited players, a job that meant also becoming an encyclopedia of Saint Rose academics and culture.
Long car rides to watch candidates in distant regions could be fruitless. But the road trips to games and tournaments also revealed scrappy and exciting players who were not on her radar. They stood out for strong stick skills and a willingness to take a long view.
“We’re looking for selfless play and gritty play, and for those who are willing to work harder than others,” Gaghan said. “We’re not just growing a roster. We have a six-year projection to be very competitive – competing to win.”
By Jane Gottlieb