May 22, 2014

Lavelle Thrives as Cortland's Shut-Down Specialist

By Mark Macyk | | Twitter | May Madness Home

All-American defender Jessica Lavelle and the rest of Cortland's seniors will be making their fourth semifinal appearence in four years this weekend. (Darl Zehr Photography)

The accomplishments of great defenders all too often go unnoticed. In the case of Cortland’s Jessica Lavelle, those accomplishments sometimes go unnoticed even by the defender herself.

“It’s funny,” said Lavelle, a two-time All-American and the 2013 IWLCA Defender of the Year. “I still don’t expect it. When I play against a great attacker and she doesn’t score, it’s so exciting. It’s like, 'Oh my god, did I just do that?' It keeps it interesting.”

She may not always believe it, but more often than not, Lavelle does shut down her opponent. And this weekend, Lavelle will get at least one more chance to shut down a great offense when Cortland meets Trinity, which has defeated the Red Dragons by two goals in each of the past two Final Fours, in the NCAA semifinals at Gettysburg.

While Lavelle’s college story will end this weekend on a lacrosse field in Central Pennsylvania, it began years ago on a basketball court in Central New York. Lavelle had been a basketball player her whole life and she didn’t pick up lacrosse until ninth grade, years after the majority of her high school teammates at Fayetteville-Manlius began playing the game.

She didn’t have the stick skills for offense, so the Hornets put her on defense, where her basketball acumen helped her thrive. But the college lacrosse offers didn’t exactly pour in. Because, again, it’s often tough for a defender to get noticed, especially when she’s late to the recruiting game. Lavelle reached out to Cortland coach Kathy Taylor, who had formerly helmed the program at FM.

The coach said she’d be happy to have her, on one condition.

“She she’d have a spot for me,” Lavelle said. “I just needed to have a little better stick skills.”

Which Taylor probably could have left unsaid, because Cortland works on stick skills every single day. So that improvement was inevitable.

Lavelle’s career has been more than Taylor could have hoped for. She currently leads the Red Dragons with 44 caused turnovers and 38 ground balls and is the lynchpin of the country’s fourth-stingiest defense (5.6 goals per game). And here work is not going unnoticed. Lavelle was recently named an All-American for the second straight season, and last year she became the first defender ever to be named SUNYAC Tournament MVP in the event’s 17-year history.

The only accomplishment that has eluded Lavelle is the NCAA title. Despite being so close every year, she still hasn’t even gotten a chance to play for one. After the 2012 NCAA semifinals, Lavelle drew the job of the post-game press conference with the media. Then a sophomore, she was remarkably upbeat. She talked about how rare it was for a team to get that opportunity, how much fun they had and how there was always next year. She put the great little things about the Final Four, those things that all too often go unnoticed, in perspective.

But as a senior, Lavelle’s tune has changed a little bit.

“Every year our coach says to take it all in because you’ll never know when you’re going to be back,” Lavelle said. “But the seniors feel like we are not losing. There’s no, ‘we’re just happy to be here.’ We have a goal this year. It’s to win a national championship and we’re not leaving without one.”

It’s the kind of confidence that can’t be ignored.

“It’s our mental game,” Lavalle said. “It’s the confidence going in. That’s what we almost lacked the last couple of years. We came in nervous, not thinking we were good enough. This year we believe, and when you believe great things can happen.”

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