By Jonathan Davidson
Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
"I look at this program as a staircase. Every year we want take a step up based on who are personnel is, no matter what. That's what we're going to do this year, we're going to continue to move forward."
Those words are from Campbell women's lacrosse head coach Dawn Easley as the Camels will soon embark on their fifth season in Buies Creek. Gone are the final group of players that lettered on Campbell's very first team in 2013. They helped build a winning legacy at CU, but returning for the Camels this season is a group of talented players that are hungry for even more. The foundation has been built, and now it's time to take the next step up.
Coach Easley and her staff have challenged this Camel squad to "get gritty" this the season. The theme emphasizes playing hard every single second that you are on the field. The desire to put in the hard work to be able to get gritty and fight for every draw, every ground ball and make the big plays necessary to have success.
"I feel that we have reached point that we have realized that everything won't be perfect," said Easley. "They want to get over their mistakes quicker, and by doing that they work harder. The most talented teams aren't always going to win. So what it comes down to is the will to fight for every single play. Our team wants to do the dirty work. They want to do the small things that not everybody else is willing to do and those small plays can result in big wins."
When you lose a large contingent of players that were so prominent on a team the first question that always gets asked the next season is who will step up and take a leadership role? The most elder statesmen on the team, seniors Merredith Bechler, Erin O'Hara and April Reinhart, is the first group that come to mind. The Camel seniors have thrived so far as the leaders of this team, but don't expect just that group to step into leadership roles.
"Our leadership has been great so far this season," Easley stated. "Erin is a major factor on the defense, Merredith is a huge voice and April helped create the culture. But we also have some voices in our junior class starting to step up like Kayla and Megan (Reilly), Mackenzie (Koeller) and Carter (Koontz) have taken leadership roles as well. We are teaching them how to be leaders, how to embrace that role and what means for the team. I am really excited about it."
Should we expect tempered expectations this season? Not a chance. The Camels' number three selection in the Big South Conference preseason poll is the highest in program history. The league's head coaches don't expect any drop-off this season and nobody else should as well.
"We are still here to win and to make a name for ourselves." said Easley. "That's our goal every single year. We want our team to play well while meeting our expectations defensively, offensively and on the draw. When those goals are met, we'll see success."
Looking at the Camels' 2017 squad in depth, one of the biggest strengths that stands out is an experienced defense led by O'Hara, who was recently named the Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. CU has taken on a commitment to working on individual defensive techniques throughout the fall and the preseason; something they feel will strengthen an already strong unit featuring veteran pieces.
O'Hara is the first ever Camel to take conference preseason player of the year honors into a season. A three-time All-Big South selection, O'Hara started all 19 games last season and picked up a team-high 29 ground balls to go with 13 draw controls and eight caused turnovers.
Other defenders returning to the Camels' back line include Reinhart as well as Megan Reilly and Amanda Chasin. That trio combined for 67 ground balls and 32 caused turnovers last season. Also entering the fold is freshman Allison Waldhauser (Perry Hall, Md.).
"Erin is our most sound defender," said Easley. "She has set big goals this year for herself and the team while putting in the extra work to meet those standards. Erin is going to be even more of a feisty player back there creating plays and opportunities for our defense. Megan is the smartest player that we have. She can read an opposing offense in the moment and has the ability to adjust so opposing coaches can't get a hold of our defensive schemes fast enough.
"Amanda is still a young player but she has grown so much in her ability. She's feisty, aggressive and she works very hard. Allison is a very sound player as well. She has really come into her own and found her place on our defense. I'm really excited with her growth as a player."
The final line of defense is Campbell's goalkeeping unit. For the first time in program history the Camels will carry three goalies on the roster, and all have potential to make an impact this season. Bechler is the incumbent starter after manning the cage for the majority of the minutes over the last two years. However, the coaching staff isn't quite ready to just hand the job back to Bechler with two talented underclassmen in the fold.
Sophomore Kylie Haarhoff saw 297 minutes of action in the cage between 11 matches last season. She totaled 22 saves with a .314 save percentage and posted a 9.71 goals against average. Freshman Alex Salim joins the program out of Islip, New York after helping her prep squad win a division championship in 2013. Bechler finished with a 12.32 goals-against average between 19 games last season, which stood fifth in the Big South and 82nd nationally. She made 93 saves and compiled a .350 save percentage, which both stood in the top 100 nationally.
"Merredith is obviously our most experience goalie," said Easley. "She brings that to the table, she understands what's going on and she's our best communicator. Kylie has increased her development 100 percent over the last six months. She's showing that she's ready to step up to the plate when needed. Her biggest strength is that she's a little more consistent than the rest of them. Alex is feisty and makes big plays. She is not afraid to get dirty and do work."
Arguably the most important unit on any lacrosse team is the midfield, and the Camels are no exception. Depth is the unit's strength and it will allow Campbell to play a faster paced game this season. Headlining the returning midfielders is preseason All-Big South selection Melissa Placek.
Placek is coming off a banner freshman season that ended with an All-Big South second team nod. She scored 13 goals with four assists and ranked second on the team with 61 draw controls and averaged 3.21 draws per game, which sat seventh in the Big South and 46th nationally.
"We expect Melissa to produce more on the offensive end this season," Easley stated. "She shines on the defensive end and in transition, but we do expect her to step up and score more goals this year."
Koontz, a junior, brings the most experience to the midfield while sophomores Sarah Paul, Rose Prizzi and Sami Smit will look to add contributions and increase their roles in their second campaigns. The coaching staff is excited about its freshmen midfielders, Sam Carey (Abindon, Md.), Mackenzie Griffith (Westminster, Md.) and Maia Walters (Onley, Md.).
"I'm expecting our freshmen to get over their freshman jitters and start playing like sophomores quickly," said Easley. "They had a great fall, now we are looking to them to stay away from those freshman mistakes."
Campbell's attack lost the most depth from last season, 62 percent of its scoring to be exact. However, the Camels do return some big pieces and will look for a complete team effort for scoring this season. The game of lacrosse as a whole will see a major shake up with the instillation of a full-time shot clock. There will be a 90 second limit for teams to put a shot on goal each possession. The game will be faster and even more competitive.
"We're going to look to everyone for goals this year," said Easley. "We are replacing one or two people with five or six people, a team effort. With the shot clock, our biggest challenge will be learning how to adjust quicker and faster. With the faster game we will have to know what the pace of the game and teach our girls to be patient and push a little harder based on the clock."
The Camels' returning scorer is junior Kayla Reilly, who was also named to the All-Big South preseason team. She recorded 56 points on 27 goals and 29 assists last season and led the team with 39 ground balls and 18 caused turnovers. Koeller, a fellow junior, will transition to attack this season after playing as a midfielder the last two years. She scored 17 goals and had two assists in 2016. Coach Easley envisions those two players to rival another prominent offensive duo from seasons past.
"We had Kayla and Mackenzie work together in the fall and they created a lot of opportunities and a teamwork dynamic," Easley stated. "Kayla has really embraced her new role (as the prominent scorer) and I do feel that she was overshadowed last season. She has waited a long time for her moment to show everyone who she is. Now we are letting her step out and I think it's just a matter of time before that happens."
Three newcomers will enter the fold this season in the attacking third of the field. George Washington University transfer Ellie Allen joins freshmen Katie Matz (Henrico, Va.) and Tina Ricci (Severna Park, Md.) to add depth and scoring options.
The Camels will kick off their 16-game schedule Saturday, Feb. 4th on the road with a tough test at Elon. The Phoenix are coming off a 10-7 campaign and were picked to finish third in the competitive Colonial Athletic Association. Attacker Stephanie Asher and goalie Rachel Ramirez headlined four All-CAA preseason selections for Elon.
Overall, it's an exciting time for Campbell lacrosse. Fans will get to see virtually a new game with the addition of the shot clock. For the Camels, this group has taken on the responsibility of carrying on a winning tradition and taking it to new heights not seen by the previous groups. They are up to the task, and their continued gritty work effort will contribute to success on the field this season. We just have the pleasure of watching it unfold.