March 9, 2011

Limestone's Run of PSAC Foes Bodes Well for Playoff Hopes

by Mark Macyk |

Racquel Prager is one of three New Yorkers playing for second-ranked Limestone, but the Saints have more recently turned to recruits from the South.

You don't have to be Lewis and Clark to know lacrosse geography is a little skewed. The Northeast is the center of the world. The Mississippi River might as well be the Pacific. Texas would someday make a nice addition to the country.

Only in the world of Division II lacrosse could Erie, Pa., and its Snow Belt climate, be called southern. Drawing the map like this has made Gaffney, S.C., a hotter spring break locale than Cancun.

Limestone, which moved up to No. 2 in the latest IWLCA poll, defeated No. 7 Mercyhurst, No. 9 Gannon and Shippensburg last week. Those three PSAC teams are a combined 4-0 against everyone else.

These wins are about more than southern pride. Like Limestone's Conference Carolinas, the PSAC is in the Southern Region. Playing the Pennsylvania schools early and often does wonders for Limestone's strength of schedule and its hopes for a return to the NCAA tournament. The non-conference games are huge tests for the Saints, who have lost only one conference game since 2008.

"Those are the teams we need to play," Limestone coach Scott Tucker said. "The PSAC is a very strong conference. [Strength of schedule] is a big determiner."

Another key to these Keystone State showdowns is that Limestone gets early looks at the teams it will likely need to get past to reach its goal of the NCAA championship. The Saints have never made the final, but have been a goal away twice. For the past two seasons they've been eliminated in one goal games by teams from Pennsylvania: 12-11 in the 2010 NCAA quarterfinals against West Chester and 13-12 in the 2009 semifinals against Lock Haven. A Pennsylvania team has won the South region nine out of 10 times.

The Saints want to be on the winning side of close ones in May, but are getting good practice in March. Against Gannon, they trailed by two at the half but scored five of the first six goals in the second to win 8-7. Freshman Jessica Aguanno scored the eighth goal with 21:48 remaining and the Limestone defense took over from there. The Saints outshot Gannon 6-0 in the final 16 minutes.

That final stand was exactly what Tucker wanted to see.

"Right now the things we're working on are just better making better decisions... putting together 60 minutes," Tucker said. Three days earlier, Limestone beat Mercyhurst, 12-9, but allowed eight second-half goals. On Monday, Limestone beat Shippensburg 11-7 and allowed only three second-half goals.

The Saints will get their own spring break trip this week, but the PSAC work continues. Limestone meets defending South region champion West Chester in Salem, Va., on Thursday.

Like their early season opponents, many of the Saints' players come from the North. The top three scorers, Chelsea Treat, Racquel Prager and Brittany Howard are New Yorkers. But evidence of the sport's southward growth is present. Aguanno is from Florida. The Smith sisters, juniors Morgan and Laura, hail from Greer, S.C., less than an hour from campus.

Tucker said the addition of southern players and increase in competition in leagues like Conference Carolinas will help the case for expanding the NCAA tournament in 2013. Ideally the map would be carved into four regions: Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, West and South.

Until then, Limestone will remain an attractive opponent for southern schools of all definitions. After conference play wraps up in April, the Saints will head to central Pennsylvania to take on Lock Haven. A few weeks later they wrap up their regular season against Rollins, from Winter Park, Fla.

It's a necessary task in Limestone's quest to be national champion, a title that becomes more and more "national" each year.

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