February 23, 2012

St. Joseph's (N.Y.) Building From Scratch, Learning Quickly

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

The new Division III St. Joseph's women's lacrosse team visited the U.S. Naval Academy as part of the program's opening slate of games last weekend.
Image courtesy St. Joseph's 

If you Google “St. Joseph’s women’s lacrosse,” the first search result is for the Division I school in Philadelphia. Next up is St. Joseph’s of Maine and then Mount St. Joseph, from Cincinnati.

It’s not until the second page that an item about St. Joseph’s, N.Y., detailing the first-year Division III program’s role as “Santa’s Helpers” bringing Christmas gifts to unprivileged kids, appears.

But, based on its location, smack dab in the middle of Long Island’s South Shore, and its coach’s reputation – having won four New York State high school championships -- this new St. Joseph’s could move up the rankings, both Google and otherwise, someday soon.

St. Joseph’s opened its lacrosse era in one of the toughest ways possible Sunday, heading to No. 17 Mary Washington. The Golden Eagles lost 12-2. The next day they lost 8-7 at Wesley. These followed three scrimmages, the last of which St. Joseph’s won.

“We went from walking off the bus and getting smacked in the mouth to actually looking fairly decent in the end,” said coach Bob Vlahakis, who previously helmed Shoreham-Wading River High School on Long Island to four state titles. “A better script I couldn’t have written.”

The opponent wasn’t ideal, but President’s Day weekend was the only one available for a long road trip. And to a new team, a long road trip, and the bonding that ensues, is entirely necessary. Vlahakis had coached two of Mary Washington’s players, freshman Corinne Wiederkehr and sophomore Megan Gersback, at Shoreham, so it seemed a logical start.

“I just said let me show these kids where we want to get to right off the bat,” he said. “The night before I talked them about competing and a David versus Goliath kind of thing.”

At first it looked like David forgot his slingshot. St. Joseph’s fell behind 4-0 and Vlahakis called an early timeout.

“I kind of went into them like I would a veteran team,” Vlahakis said. “I just wanted to see what the kids wanted to do with the program. I said ‘You’re playing scared. You shouldn’t be.’”

Caitlynn Webber responded soon after, scoring the first goal in program history on a free position midway through the first half. Mary Washington led 10-1 at halftime, but the second half score was just 2-1. SJC Goalie Erin O’Connor made 23 saves.

“Their SID [sports information director] said ‘I think she set your school record,’” Vlahakis said.

She obviously did. It was their first game. It was because of O’Connor that St. Joe’s was able to field a varsity team this year. Vlahakis said if he was not able to find a suitable goalie, the team would be club.

Last spring he posted fliers and blasted the school’s list serve with emails. Their first meeting had 18 players. Just six of those are still with the team.

Eventually, a team came together. Webber is a freshman who Vlahakis recruited after playing against her Eastport-South Manor High School team. The same goes for Webber’s ESM teammate Lisa Terry, who scored five goals against Wesley.

"I told them I'm gonna lose more games this season than I had for the past six. ... If I could take it, I expect them to."

-- St. Joseph's coach Bob Vlahakis 

Many had never played the sport before. Senior captain Michelle Gulino was the goalie on St. Joseph’s soccer team. Senior captain Alyssa Cordano played her high school lacrosse at nearby Connetquot. Freshman Nicole Lyman anchors the defense. She too came to St. Joe’s for soccer.

Said Vlahakis: “One of my soccer players, who’s only had like five practices, sprinted out like five feet over the restraining line to grab the ball, not knowing she couldn’t do that. We could show you the rules video, we can tell you, but until you do it you’re not going to know. I said ‘I don’t think you’re going to do that again, right?’ Lesson learned.”

They’re fast learners. The Golden Eagles are dreaming big.

“My other soccer middie is really fast and a really good player,” Vlahakis said. “After the Mary Washington game she said ‘Coach, I’m sorry. I’m going D-I lacrosse.’”

St. Joseph’s continues its inaugural season Sunday at FDU-Florham. It opens its brand new $14-million athletic complex on March 3 against Western Connecticut. 

There will surely be more losses along the way, but Vlahakis doesn’t expect his players to get down.

“I told them that I’m gonna lose more games this season than I had for the past six seasons,” Vlahakis said. “If I could take it, I expect them to. The wins and losses are not going to be a part of the equation.”

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