Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
As the lacrosse season gets underway, the message for both of Berry’s teams is one of reconstruction. With majority underclassmen rosters, the men’s and women’s teams are focused on building something new to reach their objectives.
The men’s team saw a lot of change over the summer, with 11 seniors graduating and 14 freshmen coming in. Head coach Curtis Gilbert said that the turnover means it could take a while for the team to get back to its best.
“That was the largest class we’ve graduated, ever, and it was pretty much our entire offense,” Gilbert said. “A lot of those guys are in the record books. Two of them are in the record books for having played the most games. We got used to having guys that understood the system, understood the expectations and the commitment to wearing the B and winning some games, and now we’ve had to go back and teach the young guys what it takes to be a Viking, how to play lacrosse, the standard in our program. What we realized in the last few days is that we assumed they knew some stuff and had already absorbed it, but they haven’t, so we can’t really assume anything moving forward.”
Gilbert said a lot of responsibility now falls on the upperclassmen who need to adapt to their new role on the team. After spending the past three years pushing those older than them to be better, Gilbert said the seniors have had to learn to pull the upperclassmen up instead, while still looking to improve themselves. Those changing leadership roles are one of several areas where the team is now looking to reinvent itself, according to Gilbert.
“We’re just trying to put the new puzzle together,” Gilbert said. “We had a lot of pieces taken out of our puzzle for last year, and they dumped a whole bunch of new pieces, random pieces, so we’re really just trying to work these new pieces and paint a new picture, but we’ve got to find out where these new pieces fit. We’re kind of in that process now, but the expectation is that we’re going to be able to find a spot for all of these pieces to our puzzle and paint a great picture to be back in championship weekend. If we can figure it out then we can be in the championship game, so that’s kind of where we’re at.”
Despite the changes the team is undergoing, the objective remains the same as always: to win the program’s first ever Southern Athletic Association (SAA) championship tournament. While the season got off to a rocky start with a heavy loss to No.1 Salisbury, Gilbert said that game served as a wake-up call as to what the team was doing wrong and has motivated them to get back to the grindstone and work that little bit harder.
“I think we thought we were pretty good, we got punched on the chin, so now we’re trying to go back to the basics,” Gilbert said.
For the women’s team, the first few weeks have been just as challenging as the men’s but for very different reasons. With head coach Brittni Hall on maternity leave, assistant coach Katherine Athens has stepped up as temporary head coach. Having only joined the Berry program last fall, Athens has had to adapt quickly to her new surroundings, and though the season did not start the way she would have wanted, she is happy with what she is seeing from her players.
“Our first two games didn’t go the way we technically really wanted them, but we grew from one game to the next and that’s what you want as a coach and as a program,” Athens said. “You always want to be growing; it’s all about the up-climb and hopefully we’re peaking at the end of the season right before playoffs so we’re ready to rock-and-roll right into playoffs.”
Not only has Athens had to step up as temporary head coach, she has had to do so with limited resources available to her. Berry’s 15-player roster is already small, as women’s lacrosse is conducted with 12 players on the field, and with two players out injured, the team has had to play its first two games of the season with only their backup goalkeeper available as a substitute. For Athens, however, that added difficulty was just more reason to be impressed despite the results.
“We did not have any field subs, which is another reason I was really proud of our team, of their fight and their consistent effort throughout the entire game,” Athens said. “Never giving up, continuing to fight for each other, it’s a really proud moment when you see that heart in your team and that desire to keep pushing forward no matter what the score is, giving your best every moment of the game.”
Senior midfielder Miranda Smith also noted that fighting spirit and said it is a noticeable difference from her previous seasons.
“In years past we would just give up mentally, we would let the frustration get to us and we would completely shut down,” Smith said. “Last game I don’t feel like any of us gave up, and after making mistakes we still fought all the way towards the end. Yes, those mistakes led to more mistakes, but even after watching the game film I didn’t see any of us stop hustling.”
Team unity will then be key to maintaining that commitment on the field, according to Smith.
“This year we want to focus on team unity,” Smith said. “Because in any team you can focus on skills as much as you want, but people can hate each other and that would never work out, so we’re trying to focus on team chemistry on the field and off the field.”
Athens said that the small numbers should help build the team chemistry as the players and coaches develop the family culture that will be crucial to their chances of a successful season. Despite a poor record last year, Athens said she is optimistic about Berry’s chances and has set for goal to win at least half their games.
“We want to do better than we did last season for sure, but we want to go above and beyond,” Athens said. “It’s about belief and about that hard-work and that dedication, day-in, day-out, staying in the grind, and we want to be over a .500 team. Some people may think that may be hefty, but we’re fighting every game to get that W and I’m excited to keep pushing forward and get those through this year. I have a lot of hope, a lot of belief in this team, in these women. Even though we are small numbers we got a lot of fight in us and we’re working towards our vision to move forward.”
Athens said that optimism comes from the belief that anything can happen once the game starts.
“I don’t care if you’re ranked, I don’t care if you’re the lowest team in DIII, it doesn’t matter,” Athens said. “It matters who wants it that day and who’s going to work the hardest for it. I think it’s the beauty of sports: it’s anybody’s game on any given day. That’s the kind of hope that we want to keep having as we’re going into every game. It’s a fight, it’s zero-zero when you start the game and it’s what you’re going to put into every moment.”
The next women’s game will be against Brevard College this Saturday, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m. in Valhalla Stadium. The men’s team will then play their first home game of the season the following day when they host Colorado College at noon.