Vikings Reflect on First Women's Lacrosse Season
By Matthew Stokes
BerryVikings.com Staff Writer
More than a year before his team would play its inaugural regular-season contest on a balmy February afternoon at Ford Field, Berry women's lacrosse coach Shaun Williamson was busy laying the groundwork for his new program.
Williamson, who was honored as the National Coach of the Year at the NCAA Division II level by WomensLacrosse.com in 2008, took the job in Aug. 2009 and wasted no time in getting to work. When he was not scouring the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States for potential student-athletes, Williamson spent countless hours working the phone lines in an effort to schedule the 2011 season. He said he sought to arrange a schedule that would offer his team plenty of challenges but also put it in a position where it could taste success.
"[We had to make] sure that our schedule was competitive, but not to play a bunch of teams where we're not going to have any opportunity for success," Williamson said. "[We also wanted to] have some teams that we…aspire [to be] like so those [players in their] first year learn by getting beat by some good teams and learning what Division III lacrosse is."
In an effort to sell prospective student-athletes on the program, Williamson said he stressed that Berry is a great institution with a beautiful campus, and that the players would have an opportunity for immediate playing time. Williamson said he also called attention to his proven track record at Lees-McRae College and Belmont Abbey College.
By the fall of 2010 the team began practicing. Rising sophomore midfielder Kaylee Lane said the fall was "pretty tough" because Berry was brand new in the world of women's lacrosse and was playing scrimmages against teams that had been together for several years, such as Tennessee Wesleyan and Sewanee.
"When we played Sewanee, we lost by quite a few goals," said rising senior midfielder Jenny Miller. "They pretty much ran all over us."
Williamson said Berry was a young team that got intimidated very quickly in that scrimmage. Also he said the lack of practice opportunities worked against his team.
Williamson said the small roster during the fall was another challenge for Berry.
"Our numbers were about [15 athletes] or so. We had two [players] that…got here and went through a day of practice, [and] decided that…playing college lacrosse wasn't going to be for them so they ended up quitting," Williamson said. "That worked us down to 13."
Following the fall season, the roster expanded as six soccer players joined the team. Having a group of players without any prior lacrosse background presented some challenges, but Williamson said it gave him the chance to do plenty of teaching.
"The only [alteration having athletes without lacrosse knowledge] did is [it required] more patience on things…patience as far as going over things more than once or twice," Williamson said. "From an actual coaching perspective, this might be my best season of my nine-year career [thus] far just because of the lack of experience on the field, and the production we got out of that."
Williamson said he anticipates that all of the teaching the coaching staff had to do this past season will gradually shift from being their responsibility to the players' job as the programs develops.
During the months between the fall season and the season opener in February, the team made a conscious effort to incorporate these six players into a team that had already built some relationships in the fall. Rising junior defender Alex Garza said early January was particularly an important time for this group.
"No one was in school so we had to bond with each other because that's all we had," Garza said.
By the last week of February, the season had commenced and two weeks into it the team's results were less than glowing. The Vikings had been rudely introduced to college lacrosse, losing their first four games, including two by five or more goals.
Williamson said he would attribute the team's rugged start to a tough schedule as well as the fact that players were still improving their grasp of the team's offense and their understanding of lacrosse in general.
Lane said the players decided that they needed to come together and work as hard as they could to have a winning season. And the team accomplished that goal, going 8-3 in its final 11 contests to complete its first season with an 8-7 record.
Williamson said a major adjustment that the group made during the season was altering its defensive approach.
"We made some defensive changes. We started pressuring a lot more, and I think it caught some teams off-guard," Williamson. "We started putting it into play when we [faced] Sweet Briar."
The Vikings went on a four-game winning streak to conclude the season, including a 17-15 win over Birmingham-Southern in the finale. Going into that game, Berry was 7-7.
"The girls had some pressure on them," Williamson said. "It was either win it, have a winning season, or lose it [and] end up one game under .500."
Beating Birmingham-Southern on its opponent's Senior Day was a sweet ending for Miler, Garza and their teammates.
"It was such a great feeling of relief," Miller said. "I also felt like there was something to look forward to for the next season [because] we [have] so much potential."
"People honestly thought [the team] was going to be a joke, and that we were going to get annihilated every game," Garza said. "Honest to God, no one really gave us a chance, and everyone wrote us off as another team that Berry wanted to start."
Williamson said having a winning season in the inaugural campaign puts Berry's program on the map, and it says the team will have an opportunity to battle for conference championships right away if things keep progressing on the same path.
Garza said she looks forward to the future of the team.
"The program can only go up, and I know it will only go up."
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