May 22, 2014

WD3: Newcomer Amherst Serene Before Semifinals

By Mark Macyk | | Twitter | May Madness Home

After missing all of her junior season with an injury, Amherst senior Krista Zsitvay has piled up a team-high 43 goals this year. (Amherst Athletics)

Amherst will be the lone team among the NCAA semifinalists this weekend at Gettysburg that was not in the Final Four a year ago. But don’t expect the Jeffs to be nervous. In fact, they might just be the calmest group of them all.

In her spare time, when she’s not guiding her team through the treacherous NESCAC, Amherst coach Christine Paradis is a certified yoga instructor. Her team has subsequently become big advocates for mindfulness, visualization and pregame meditation.

“We’ve been very focused on staying in the moment and not getting too caught up with the trophy part of everything,” Paradis said. “We do visualizing and breathing and meditation and a lot of things to help calm the nerves down. I don’t think they’re stressed at all. They’re just totally excited. Right now, this is just fun.”

And while Amherst, which won an NCAA title in 2003, isn’t nervous, maybe the other three semifinalists should be. The Jeffs lost just two games (both by three goals to Trinity, which will also be at Gettysburg) all season and survived maybe the tournament’s toughest quarterfinal matchup with an 8-5 victory over TCNJ. They also come into the weekend riding Division III’s No. 1 defense (5.47 points per game), despite playing in the NESCAC, which at one point this season had nine teams in the Top 20.

Amherst, which won a program-record 19 games this year, has competed well in the NESCAC in recent seasons, but it wasn’t until a one-goal victory over Middlebury March 29 that the Jeffs knew they belonged among D3’s top teams.

“We hadn’t been in that position psychologically,” Paradis said. “Oh, we’re better than this team, but can we execute and not have any of the lulls or blips in motivation? We managed to do that. We started feeling a level of confidence that we could deal with the pressures of tight games.”

The success has brought Amherst back to a level that it had not been at since its incredible run of five straight Final Fours from 1999-2004. A big reason is Amherst’s five-person senior class - Annelies O’Dea, Caroline Holliday, Elizabeth Ludlow, Krista Zsitvay and Alex Philie - all of whom are captains.

It’s a group that’s been through a lot and accomplished even more. Holliday missed almost five weeks with a femoral stress fracture this year, but still managed to put up 27 points. Zsitvay missed all of her junior season with an injury, and didn’t play much as a sophomore, so her 43 goals have been the breakout performance. Philie, the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year, remains the team's rock with 58 draw controls, 39 ground balls and 33 caused turnovers.

The Jeffs also run deep. Thirteen different players have recorded goals this season.

“You’re at practice and you see that players who would potentially be starting for other teams are playing against your starters and pushing your starters,” Paradis said.

That depth will be tested this weekend with a semifinal showdown against  an athletic Salisbury team that has lost just once in the last two years. Not the Jeffs are worried. They'll just keep on doing their thing, and blocking out the noise.

But it turns out that the Amherst parents had been doing a some visualization of a different kind this year.

“I think about a month ago some of the parents started booking hotels for the Final Four,” Paradis said. “Now we’re here. All the hard work paid off."

Looking Ahead

NCAA Semifinals
Saturday at Gettysburg

Trinity vs. Cortland, 1 p.m.

It’s Round 3 of the NCAA semifinal prize fight between these two heavyweight programs. Trinity won the first two rounds by a pair of two-point decisions, but Cortland is looking to deliver the knockout blow this time around.

“We want revenge,” said Cortland’s All-American defender Jessica Lavelle. “We can’t fear going into a game against them. It’s about time we beat them.”

Trinity defeated Cortland 8-6 in last year’s semifinal and 7-5 the year before. In past meetings Cortland, which averages 16 goals per game, has struggled against Trinity’s backer zone. This time around, at the very least they’ll be prepared.  The Red Dragons spent the week prepping for it, with an assistant coach acting as the roamer and Lavelle and the rest of the defenders falling into the other roles.

Trinity experienced a rarity early this season when it lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008. But the Bantams ended the season on fire, and have won 10 in a row since losing to Salisbury on March 18. Cortland defeated Salisbury during the regular season and has already defeated three of the NESCAC’s best, Middlebury, Colby and Tufts, this year. Trinity knocked out the SUNYAC’s Fredonia two rounds ago. Trinity is trying to win its second NCAA title in three years, Cortland is trying to get to the championship game for the first time.

“We know it’s going to be a battle,” Lavelle said. “We know Trinity wants it. We just have to get to the ground balls first and get possessions. If we do those things, we can be ok”

Amherst vs. Salisbury, 4 p.m.

Amherst and Salisbury will be meeting for the first time since 2007. Salisbury, which is playing in the Final Four for the seventh time in eight years, started making its run into the national spotlight just as Amherst receded out of it.

In a game like this, where the opponents aren’t all that familiar with each other, you’ll tend to see the teams going with what they do best and letting the rest sort itself out.

“We’re pretty excited,” Paradis said. “It’s a situation where we’re more focused on us, I think. Doing the things which we’re working on, taking away their strengths and just coming up with a solid gameplan.”

But often the best gameplan in the world is useless against Salisbury, which can outrun every team and also boasts Division III’s most dynamic goalie, Ashton Wheatley, who ranks 13th in Division III with a .521 save percantage.

This will also be matchup between two of Division III’s Top 5 defenses. Salisbury averages just six goals against per game. The Sea Gulls have gone 2-0 against the NESCAC thus far this season, with wins over Trinity and Colby. Amherst eliminated Salisbury’s CAC league-mate York, 12-3, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

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