February 23, 2016

UConn Women Winning with One Good Nee

by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

When reigning Big East Defender of the Year Lauren Kwasnowski injured her knee in the fall, it only raised senior goalie Shannon Nee's importance to the UConn women's lacrosse defense.

Nee has started every game of her career. She learned the ropes as a freshman playing behind a senior-laden defense in 2013. UConn made its first and only NCAA tournament appearance that year.

"All of them graduated, and I had to take a bigger role sophomore year," Nee said. "That forced me to take more of a leadership role. Now with being the only senior defender on the field, I've had to go back to that sophomore role and boost up the underclassmen and stay positive."

Nee can lead vocally, and she can lead by example. She has done both to help UConn jump to a 2-0 mark. She made 12 saves Sunday in the Huskies' 12-10 upset of James Madison that landed them in the No. 18 spot in this week's Nike/Lacrosse Magazine Top 20. Nee's heroics included a highlight-variety save in which she recovered in a split second to kick her leg up to hip level and block the Dukes' final shot attempt.

"With every game that Shannon has played, she's grown and matured so much," UConn head coach Katie Woods said. "She has a lot of fun playing. Where she thrived was the game was on the line, and she stepped up huge and loved the intensity of that competitive moment. She just played, didn't think. She's so smart, and she reads the game really well and reads the attackers. She adds a totally different element for us. It's like an ace defender back there."

Katherine Finkelston and Jacqueline Jordan scored four goals apiece and five different players collected assists as the Huskies pulled away from a 5-5 halftime tie.

"As seniors this year, we're the ones that have to put away close games," Nee said. "We're a very senior-heavy team. Last year as juniors, we were almost there. We lost by one goal multiple games. Early on, we can see we're able to finish."

UConn lost four one-goal games last year in an 11-7 season in which they reached the Big East tournament championship game before falling to Florida. The Huskies beat the ranked Gators when they visited Storrs, Conn., during the regular season. UConn was 6-0 at home last year and has been tough at home against visiting Top 20 teams.

"Freshman year, it was Notre Dame," Nee said. "Sophomore year, it was JMU. Last year, it was Florida. We're [4-0] playing ranked teams on our field. It's a sense of pride. It's our field, so we want to play our best at home in front of our family and friends and the other UConn athletes. We play right next to the Werth Champions Center, where the women's basketball team plays. We want to show that we're up there too. We're defending the UConn athletic title. We want to play our best there."

UConn's win over James Madison gives the Huskies early momentum as they try to make noise in the big picture. Combined with No. 3 Florida's upset over then-No. 2 North Carolina, the Big East had a big weekend nationally.

"For us as a conference, we want to compete against the best teams and we want to win as many games as we can for the strength of the conference," Woods said. "It's exciting to see, and I'm excited to see how things shake out with the conference once we get there in April.

"With every year, and with how lacrosse is growing, there's so much ahead of us, which is exciting in terms of growth and development of our conference. The teams in our conference, everyone is getting better and that's good to see, especially when it comes to competing on a national level."

Nee is one sign of the growth of UConn. Lightly recruited out of Lancaster, Pa., she fell in love with the university on her visit. It was the only school that was looking at her as a top goalie. Two other Big East teams were considering bringing her in as their second goalie. Nee came in, beat out a senior and a sophomore and never has left the starting lineup while fortifying the Huskies defense.

"I didn't want to get expectations too high," Nee said. "I came in and I did extra work. I worked my butt off to get where I was. First game, they put me in. Second game, they put me in. I had to maintain it, because I didn't want to lose what I had."

Nee was the Big East Goalkeeper of the Year last year and is a three-time IWLCA All-Northeast First Team honoree. She earned an invitation to the U.S. women's senior team tryout last summer, an opportunity that has helped.

"These are shots I don't see all the time," Nee said. "We don't play a lot of these players. We play Syracuse once a year. It's such a great opportunity to be able to play the best players in the world."

Nee backstops a UConn defense that has changed its look to suit the strengths of the players on the field until Kwasnowski returns possibly next month. UConn has leaned on its depth on defense early while starting two juniors and two sophomores.

"We've had some players step up and do some really great things," Woods said. "Obviously, Lauren is such a great addition to our defensive unit and is such a leader back there. It's been really neat to see her take on a different and challenging role and help some young ones step into the spotlight. They've done some good things. It's been good to see."

After a 21-0 win over Quinnipiac in the Huskies' season opener, the defense got the test it needed from James Madison as it pulled away for the win.

"We got a little better defensively in the second half and clamped down on certain things," Woods said. "We knew if they were down, they were going to look to create those drives and looks. I thought our defenders, especially obviously Shannon, they did phenomenal in stopping their top drivers from driving."

Nee, who ranked 15th in Division I last year in save percentage, knows it's her job to keep everyone calm and collected while living up to her own high standards.

"Freshman year we had a very strong senior defense which really gave me the opportunity to grow and experiment," Nee said. "I knew they trusted me. Over the years, my confidence has grown. Getting all these awards, it's given me confidence."

"The fact I got in a lot of games and played in an NCAA game freshman year, it's made me more composed," she added. "I haven't been a captain the last couple years, but I've been in a leadership role as goalie. Last year, I didn't get pulled from a game. Freshman and sophomore year, I would give up a bunch of goals and get pulled. Last year, if I had a bad half I could get it back at halftime. I didn't get pulled. This year should be the best."

Nee feels the same about the team's chances. She said this year's preseason was the best UConn looked in her career. The commitment to offseason conditioning and of a hungry senior class showed.

"We have confidence and control of the team," Nee said. "We're getting the team to follow us. Our freshman year, the seniors were strong and they got us to follow them. All the underclassmen know where we want to go. We made it to Big East championship last year, but we want to win. We made it to NCAAs freshman year, but we want to go back again and go farther."

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