Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor

Berry’s women’s lacrosse team won a scrimmage against Emmanuel College 9-8 at Valhalla Stadium on Sunday. Camille Schemed | Campus Carrier

As Berry’s lacrosse teams prepare to start the 2023 season, team members and coaches seek a year that will put the teams on the conference map after years of rebuilding team culture.

The men’s lacrosse team opens their season on Sunday with an away game against Salisbury University, ranked no. 1 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III.

Senior team member Davis Cooke, who plays attack, said that his team sees this game an indicator of how much they have improved over the past three years.

The last time the Vikings played Salisbury was 2020, when the team’s current seniors were freshmen and the team had just graduated a large senior class. The Vikings fell to Salisbury by a crushing 3-27 loss.

Cooke said that he and his fellow seniors, all but one of whom got playtime against the D-III powerhouse three years ago, look forward to their chance at redemption.

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best,” Cooke said. “I’m really excited to have another shot at them.”

The Vikings’ 2019 season, which began with a close 7-9 loss to the D-III powerhouse, ended with a loss to Rhodes College in the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) conference championship. That is also the last time the men’s lacrosse team made it past the first round of the championship tournament.

No Berry men’s lacrosse team has claimed the title of SAA champion in the program’s history, but Cooke said he wants to be on a team with the players that finally catapult the program into the NCAA’s D-III post-season, whether it is this year or three years from now.

Cooke said the team’s performance against Salisbury is an indicator if they have returned to a championship level of play.

“You see [softball] going into the college world series or basketball going into the tournament,” Cooke said. “We really want to be a part of that winning culture at Berry, and being able to win that conference championship is the first step in that.”

In addition to injuries sidelining key seniors last season, Head Coach Curtis Gilbert said that the team was challenged by division and finger-pointing among players.

Gilbert, who is in his 10th season coaching Berry men’s lacrosse, said camaraderie of seasons past is already evident in 2023, enjoying one another’s company on and off the field and buying into the team’s culture of being open, welcome and supportive of players facing adversity.

“I see where they’re at right now, and I hope that translates to wins,” Gilbert said. “I think you’ve got all the right camaraderie, but you’ve got to put the ball in the net or keep it out.” 

Cooke said that this cohesion is thanks in part to the freshmen quickly adopting the team’s culture of brotherhood in addition to bringing talent, both of which have been goals of Gilbert over the past three seasons.

Cooke said that reinforcing the importance of the team culture values to younger players is the role he adopts in making sure the team’s rebuild continues.

“Whether it’s why we open doors for people on campus or why we do certain things on the field, trying to help them understand those things so that when they’re in my shoes they can do the same thing for the freshmen [then],” Cooke said.

The men’s lacrosse team is starting the season with another new face, assistant coach Koby McMahon, who joined Berry’s staff in December from Hood College in Maryland, who Gilbert said is adjusting well.

A recent innovation in concussion technology is an addition to the men’s lacrosse team, as well.

The “Q-Collar,” a device cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2021, seeks to prevent major brain injury by keeping a tablespoon-and-a-half more blood in the brain to cushion it from the inside and precent jostling, according to Gilbert. 

The device is now a team-issued piece of equipment and a non-negotiable for wearing on the field, Gilbert said, like shoulder pads and helmets. 

One player already experienced a concussion during fall practice while wearing the Q-Collar, but three to four per year are typical, according to Gilbert.

While the team has not lately experienced a high incidence of concussions, Gilbert noticed the technology being used by professional lacrosse players and decided to invest in it as a preventative measure. 

“If there’s any safety equipment out there, why not give it a shot,” Gilbert said.

Also new this spring is a fundraising partnership game that will take place in Lexington, Kentucky, in early March. The team hosts a fundraiser game at the end of their fall practices that, in seven years, has raised over $52,000, Gilbert said.

The “Beat Cancer” tournament against Transylvania University and Baldwin Wallace University will be the first time the team has participated in a game to benefit charity during regular season play.

The women’s lacrosse team, which finished last season with the most wins in five years, defeated Emmanuel College in a scrimmage last Saturday by a score of 9-8.

Their away game against Piedmont University on Wed., Feb. 8, kicks off a non-conference schedule that Coach Brittni Hall expects will also include many one- or two-point games.

Hall said that while this year’s record might reflect more losses, she purposefully planned challenging games earlier in the season. Hall hopes to build up her team’s mental resiliency before a conference schedule that’s expected to be as tough as last year, when the team finished fifth in the SAA, partially due to tough games.

“It’s really going to push us to the test of, what do we do if the game is on the line,” Hall said.

Haley Larsen, a junior and team co-captain, said she wants to end every game this season knowing that she and her team left everything on the field.

“I think when we finished last year, we looked back at some games that were like ‘I wish we would have, I wish we could’ve been,’” Larsen said. “I just hope we leave every game knowing we gave it our all.”

Their toughest competitions this year will come against Rhodes and Sewanee, the conference’s historical top two. Hall believes her team can finish second or third, if not first, by not letting themselves get rattled.

The Vikings’ most-anticipated games this season is conference rival Centre College, who they play March 3. Berry began last season by upsetting Centre, the number two-ranked team in the conference.

This was the first defeat of Centre in program history, in a game that Hall said exemplified the success she believers her team is also capable of this year.

“If we just have fun and put everything we’ve got on the table, we can do really great things,” Hall said.

Larsen cited their game against Oglethorpe as another personal game, as the Vikings’ former assistant coach, Taylor Watkins, is the new head coach of the Petrels.

Jade Cox, a former star lacrosse player at Birmingham Southern College, has joined Berry’s staff this semester as a full-time interim assistant coach, after working part-time in Fall 2022.

Larsen said that Cox, who is primarily focused on coaching offense, has relatability as a recent college graduate, familiarity with the conference and excitement about the team that make her a great addition.

This is the second season that all classes on the team were fully recruited by Hall, who has been in her position since 2017.  

Larsen said that over her three years, the team has brought in an increasingly large number of and more talented freshmen. Having more high-caliber players means more substitution opportunities, which Larsen sees as a big plus for performance quality in recent years.

Hall credited seniors Shelby Green, Kristina Jones and Riley Norris with helping to maintain a standard quality culture of loyalty during their four years, one that this year’s freshmen have embraced, as well as coming in fast and strong.

“Everyone is really pushing each other to a higher level,” Hall said.

Posted by Campus Carrier

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