Women’s lacrosse embraces underdog mentality

Gators incorporate strong first-year class into early season success

The Allegheny College Women’s Lacrosse team opened their season 1-1 with an 18-5 victory over Thiel College and an 18-9 defeat at the hands of University of Mount Union. The Gators will look to stay competitive through a three-game home stretch at Frank B. Fuhrer Field against non-North Coast Athletic Conference opponents.

The Gators enter the 2020 lacrosse season as the No. 6 ranked team within the NCAC, a mark that Head Coach Ashley Hughes, ’08, said will fuel the team throughout the season.

“The preseason poll is basically everyone votes on how it finished off last year, so I wouldn’t say that it is by any means a true representation,” Hughes said. “In a good way, it’s motivation for us. I’m eager for us to have the opportunities to test the waters and prove that we’re not a No. 6 team.”

Team captain Rhiannon King, ’20, echoed Hughes’s sentiment about the team’s preseason ranking, and said that the team will look to prove their talent throughout the season.

“In the (NCAC) preseason poll, we were ranked (sixth), a little lower than we wanted to be,” King said. “Sixth was a little bit of a shock. Coach (Hughes), keeps saying, ‘It’s the season of underdogs,’ so we’re just looking to show up, show out and prove that we are a really good team.”

When describing her team and team captains King and Steph Shakespeare, ’20, Hughes said that the doubt the team faces after a disappointing 2019 season defines the team’s mentality early in the season.

“Underdogs,” Hughes said. “That’s kind of the theme of the season for us. We’re going to go into every game with a little chip on our shoulders knowing that we’re going to be underdogs in most of them, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come out on top in a lot of them.”

We’re looking really strong as a cohesive unit. We play really well together and we mesh really well together. A lot of the team, including the (first-years) that came in, have a high lacrosse IQ and picked it up really fast.

— Steph Shakespeare

Despite the loss to Mount Union, Evi Malagise, ’21, tallied her second hat trick of the season in the loss and has six goals and three assists in the team’s first two games. Grace Baginski, ’23, has scored five goals on the season and Senna Perelman, ’23, has contributed four. Baginski and Perelman are part of the first-year class that has impressed the captains and coaches through the first games of the season.

“We have some really great (first-years) that are just determined to score goals,” King said. “It’s really great to have our younger players be confident in their abilities to be able to show up.”

Shakespeare said the class of 2023 has already contributed to the success and teamwork of the Gators.

“We’re looking really strong as a cohesive unit,” Shakespeare said. “We play really well together and we mesh really well together. A lot of the team, including the (first-years) that came in, have a high lacrosse IQ and picked it up really fast.”

For King, the atmosphere of the team has been especially positive so far, and she said that the team will only progress and achieve more as the season advances.

“We’re just a big group of best friends,” King said. “In my three seasons prior, I feel like we connect better on the field than any of the years past, and that comes down to our off-field chemistry. We all work well together and anticipate each other’s moves. We’re a young team, so especially as the (first-years) get their legs under them and adjust to the competitive level of college play, it’s only going to grow and we’ll get better.”

Hughes, who returned to coach at her alma mater in 2013, was a prolific lacrosse and soccer player for the Gators from 2005-08. She received First Team All-NCAC nominations from 2005-07 and a Second Team nomination in 2008. She left the Gators as the team’s all-time leader in goals (125), assists (54) and points (179), but has since been passed by four players that she has coached.

As a former Gator student-athlete, Hughes is uniquely suited to understand her players’ perspectives on and off the field.

“We put a lot of pressure on our student-athletes to strive in the classroom,” Hughes said. “Allegheny is a very rigorous institution, and that places a lot of additional pressure on student-athletes along with the amount of travel.”

Allegheny Women’s Lacrosse has produced multiple All-NCAC players, and Hughes credits the team’s long-term success to the college’s recruiting process.

“I’ve been fortunate to coach some talented athletes that have come through,” Hughes said. “Allegheny does a really good job of selling the overall experience, and they know they’re going to walk away with a good academic opportunity moving forward, and that allows us to recruit some talented players.”

As a Division III liberal arts school, an Allegheny College education is one of the significant appeals to the women’s lacrosse program, but it also leads to certain expectations and demands during the recruiting process, according to Hughes.

“As a coach, I’m pretty diligent in what we do and organized in making sure that from the recruiting process until they actually step foot on campus here, they know what the expectation and standard is,” Hughes said. “We take our time in the recruiting process to make sure that we’re getting the right student here from an athletic, academic and cultural fit.”

As a fourth-year student-athlete, King was recruited by Hughes and understands the challenges and opportunities facing the team from an academic standpoint. She said that she relies on the team and the structure it provides to help her navigate the complexities of being a Gator.

“(Being a student-athlete) definitely means hard work, learning how to manage your time and priorities,” King said. “My team is my family, so they’re my biggest support system here.”

The Gators will face Buffalo State University at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 7, at Frank B. Fuhrer Field. The team will look to improve its non-conference record with five more matchups before its first NCAC game on Saturday, March 28, against Kenyon College at Frank B. Fuhrer Field.

Coming off a 6-11 2019 season, Hughes said the Gators enter 2020 optimistic that they can utilize their underdog mentality to rebound back into the NCAC tournament.

“Last year was a really disappointing season for us,” Hughes said. “There were a lot of things not clicking on and off the field. Our seniors did a good job coming back, wanting to conquer some of those deficits we had last year. I think overall, knowing that we wanted to have a big reset this year, I’m hopeful that we’ll get back to where we traditionally are and find ourselves in the playoffs with a winning record. I’m really excited.”