April 18, 2013

TCNJ Rolling On Despite Spark's Absence

by Mark Macyk LaxMagazine.com

TCNJ junior Lauren Pigott is one of four Lions to top the 30-goal barrier this season.
© Kevin P. Tucker

They’re The College of New Jersey, so they’re no doubt aware of Bruce Springsteen’s warning: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Maybe that's true — the Boss is rarely wrong — but TCNJ sure is going to try anyway.

It’s been a different sort of season for No. 9 TCNJ (10-4), which has lost four games to four teams currently ranked in Division III’s Top 7. It was going to be different even before senior Alex Spark — who still leads the team with 44 goals, despite missing nearly five full games — injured her ACL against Rowan. The Lions were young, with just three seniors, and graduated All-Americans Leigh Mitchell and Kathleen Notos.

So, after Spark went down, it could have been easy to write off this season as a rebuilding year on the road back to TCNJ’s glory days. But Sharon Pfluger looked at her team, did some math, and came up with what seems like a pretty simple solution.

“I just said to the girls, ‘We need one more,’” Pfluger said. “If seven of you can contribute one goal, one more ground ball, and Alex was averaging 4.5 goals per game, that can only make us stronger.”

It’s a strategy that’s been embraced by the entire team. When junior Lauren Pigott, one of four Lions to top the 30-goal barrier this year, was asked how the scoring void would be filled, she rattled off half of TCNJ’s lineup before concluding: “I don’t think it will really come down to one person.” 

“It’s forced everyone to step up,” added senior Jillian Nealon, who leads the Lions in assists and points.

Indeed, with Nealon (34 goals, 25 assists), Pigott (31 goals, four assists), Jen Garavente (37 goals, 11 assists) and Erin Waller (15 goals, 12 assists) the Lions offense is still born to run and rising at the opportunity.

“You definitely feel more responsibility in as much as its a challenge,” Pigott said. “But it’s also an honor. You feel the pressure, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Those contradictions are part of the reason why the Lions will enter next month’s NCAA tournament as Division III’s most unpredictable wild card. Their four losses — to No. 2 Salisbury, No. 3 Cortland, No. 5 Gettysburg, No. 7 Franklin & Marshall, have come by a combined 12 goals. They’ve also won 10 games by an average score of 17-5. The Lions haven’t beat a Top 10 team, but they’re an opponent no one wants to draw in May.

“We don’t like to lose,” Pigott said. “The losses have been hard. But we can look back and say we were close with this team.”

Added Nealon: “We can learn from them.”

Even against Franklin & Marshall, the Lions' first full game without Spark, TCNJ was within one goal with six minutes remaining. And while it did lose to Salisbury, 11-5 on Saturday, TCNJ held the Sea Gulls to their lowest scoring output of the season and matched Cortland and F&M for the closest deficit.

“There were a lot of close calls,” Pfluger said. “I look at it and I can point to the moment and say, ‘That’s us. We can control that.’”

Make no mistake, the Lions are still capable of throwing that speed ball by opponents. They rolled past Rutgers-Camden 15-1 on Tuesday to complete another unbeaten NJAC season. This will be the last year that the NJAC title comes without an added prize. When Stockton joins next year the league champ will get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Spark could also potentially be back next year. She’s academically a senior, but only played lacrosse at TCNJ for three years. They'll cross that bridge when they get there.

For this year at least, TCNJ will still have to earn a Pool B bid the hard way.

In 2011 TCNJ earned that by going unbeaten in the regular season, before falling to Bowdoin in the final four. Division III hasn’t had an unbeaten national champion since Franklin & Marshall in 2007.

“We’d like an undefeated season,” Pigott said. “But we’ve seen that how you play in the postseason is what’s important.”

It’s an enlightened way to look at things. At the very least, when the NCAA tournament rolls around, the Lions won’t be dancing in the dark.

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