April 20, 2011

Carolinas Conquered, Can Saints Seize South?

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Raquel Prager, pictured here in Limestone's Conference Carolinas semifinal victory over Queens, would go on to score six goals in the Saints' championship game triumph of Pfeiffer.

After weeks of eking close victories, the No. 3 Limestone women's lacrosse team could finally relax. The Saints won their fourth consecutive Conference Carolinas tournament Sunday, taking down No. 15 Pfeiffer 15-5 in the championship game in Charlotte, N.C.

The end was far less nerve-wracking than the regular season meeting, when the host Saints survived a scare before winning 7-6.

"We put the whole thing together on Sunday," said Limestone coach Scott Tucker. "A full 60-minute game, which we hadn't had since West Chester."

West Chester being Limestone's signature victory, a 16-10 win over the defending South Region champs in Salem, Va., 38 days before the conference championship. The Saints stayed undefeated in between, but certainly made things interesting with tight wins over New Haven, Merrimack, Pfeiffer, Queens, Belmont Abbey and then Queens again, 10-8 in the CC semifinals Saturday.

In the semifinals, the top-seeded Saints and fourth-seeded Royals were tied at six at the break, but Chelsea Treat scored in the opening minute of the second half to give Limestone the lead for good. A defensive struggle ensued, Rashelle McLellan made nine of her 12 saves in the second half, and the Saints held on.

"Our goaltending was exceptional," Tucker said. "I don't know where we'd be if [McLellan] hadn't been playing as well as she has."

Limestone kept rolling the next day against Pfeiffer, extending a 5-2 halftime lead to the 10-point final margin behind Raquel Prager, who scored four of her game-high six goals after the break, and Jessica Aguanno, who scored all three of her goals in the second half.

"We did a lot of [isolated] offense the first time against them," Tucker said. "We didn't look to those second and third options. The offense is starting to look for those."

McLellan finished with nine saves as Erin Growney, Melissa Nakasuji and the Saints' defense held Pfeiffer to five shots in the second half.

Limestone's complete game couldn't have come at a better time. The Saints may have wrapped up their fourth straight conference tournament, and eighth straight regular season title. But the elusive prize, that first NCAA championship, still remains.

Saturday's trip to No. 4 Lock Haven (13-1) should help show whether that is attainable.

Lock Haven beat Limestone by one goal last season and in the 2009 playoffs; Limestone beat Lock Haven by one in the 2009 regular season.

"I don't think we've had many games against them that were by more that one or two goals," Tucker said. "It's been a big game for us the past couple of years."

No. 6 West Chester (12-2), the only other team to beat Limestone in the past two seasons, spoiled what was shaping up to be a battle of the South region's last two unbeatens. Lock Haven fell at home to West Chester, which eliminated Limestone by one-goal in the 2009 NCAA tournament, 13-12 on Friday. Still the top seed, and the first round bye in the NCAA tournament that comes with it, could be on the line.

After Lock Haven, Limestone gears up for the postseason with games at Lenoir-Rhyne (6-8) and at home against No. 9 Rollins (11-3). The Saints appear to be a postseason lock, but they won't take the rest of their schedule lightly. Stranger things have happened.

"At this point we go into Lock Haven thinking this is our NCAA quarterfinal game," Tucker said. "We're excited, but the big thing is the season's not over. We have a couple of really competitive teams that will make a direct impact on the standings. We're taking every game from here on out as if its the conference championship."

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