Stony Brook University’s women’s lacrosse team is consistently one of the best in the nation. Five years ago, that would have seemed like a pipe dream.
Through 2009-2011, the team had posted an 11-35 record. Ever since former Stony Brook Director of Athletics Jim Fiore hired Joe Spallina to take over the head-coaching job, the women’s lacrosse program has found annual success. The team has gone 80-17 during Spallina’s five-year tenure.
“I think the biggest thing when you take over a program that’s not successful is changing the culture and the approach of the athletes, the day-to-day operations and the way things are being run from top to bottom,” Spallina said. “I focused more on what made me successful prior to coming here.”
Spallina led the Adelphi University women’s lacrosse team to three consecutive NCAA Division II national championships prior to joining the Division I level with Stony Brook.
“[Spallina’s] a great coach now and in his past history,” senior defender Alyssa Fleming said. “I knew I would get along with his coaching style. He makes you work your hardest and gets every ounce out of you.”
Stony Brook has built a solid program that focuses on defense, which has helped it win three straight America East titles. In that span, the Seawolves have statistically had the best defense in the country each year, as they’ve allowed the fewest goals per game total.
Stony Brook’s defensive proficiency has allowed it to focus on generating more offense from the likes of junior attacker Courtney Murphy, sophomore attacker Kylie Ohlmiller and junior midfielder Dorrien Van Dyke.
“We’ve become a much better team on draw control,” Spallina said. “When we win the draw, we can control the ball and play at our own pace, which has allowed Murphy, Ohlmiller and Van Dyke to get more touches on offense.”
Murphy led all Division I players with 85 goals in the regular season and Ohlmiller (38 goals, 37 assists) had the second most points in the America East conference. Van Dyke had 45 goals and 16 assists.
“All of our attackers are incredible,” redshirt senior defender Maegan Meritz said. “Just when I think [Murphy, Ohlmiller and Van Dyke] are at their peaks, I see them do crazy stuff.”
Stony Brook’s location provides Spallina with an advantage in terms of recruiting top-tier players, since lacrosse is a staple of Long Island.
“We haven’t made it a secret that we love Long Island kids and they’re a huge part of our success,” Spallina said. “On my way home, I pass five high schools that play high-level lacrosse. Those girls have an opportunity to play lacrosse in their backyard at Stony Brook.”
In addition to talent, character is the most important aspect that the program looks at when recruiting players.
“I think the biggest thing for us early on in our recruiting is that everyone wants the five-star lacrosse player,” Spallina said. “We’re okay with taking the three or four-star lacrosse players with a five-star work ethic and work on developing them into a five-star player.”
Murphy has become one of the team’s five-star lacrosse players due to her offensive capabilities. Spallina was impressed by her abilities and sent her an email during summer after her sophomore year of high school in hopes of recruiting her.
At first, she had actually wanted to go to school as far away from home as possible. Murphy’s father made her check out Stony Brook and listen to Spallina’s pitch.
“Once I got here and listened to the plans and promises [Spallina] was making me, it was pretty impossible to turn down,” Murphy said. “Currently, I think staying on Long Island was the best decision I could have made. I get to come home every Sunday and get my laundry done and Coach has lived up to all the promises he made me.”
Even though the team has found success every year during Spallina’s tenure as coach, his players see this year’s squad as the best that they’ve been a part of.
“I feel like every year, we’ve been getting better and better ever since [Spallina] came,” Meritz said. “I think it’s the most talented team we’ve had. When everyone works together, it’s the strongest team.”
Spallina believes that what sets this year’s team apart is its experience, rather than its attitude or skill level.
“Last year, the girls endured a lot of great experiences, like beating top-five teams,” Spallina said. “With great power comes great responsibility, and being able to live with that pressure, we’ve been able to adapt to that this year.”
The team does have a higher skill-level than it did a few years ago, which has blended with the girls’ experience.
“When Spallina first got to our team, we had to rely heavily on hard work and desire,” Murphy said. “Now that we’re able to recruit higher profile players – when you mix that with our work ethic – that is what makes us capable of competing at such a high level.”
The team had a rough start this season, going 2-3. All of its losses were to ranked opponents in Florida, Northwestern and USC.
“We had a rough start in the beginning, but we’ve moved on past it and learned from it,” Fleming said. “Those experiences are going to help us in the future.”
The losses have helped the team learn its lessons and rebound. Since the loss to USC, the Seawolves have won seven straight games.
“Our team is heading into this last stretch of games extremely confident,” Murphy said. “We hope to carry this confidence and winning throughout the rest of the season and into the postseason.”
There’s a high level of chemistry and unison on the team, which helps it overcome hurdles.
“The team genuinely cares about each other,” Spallina said. “When they step on the field, they’re united, and there’s no individual goal that trumps the team goal.”
Establishing the goal of becoming national champions was once a tall order for a team that Spallina had to take over in a scorched-earth fashion. The support that he’s received from Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron has been instrumental to the program’s growth.
“It’s been a great thing that we started almost from scratch; we’ve become media darlings in the sense we’ve kind of come out of nowhere,” Spallina said. “Heilbron has been phenomenal. He texts right after games, he pays attention and cares. That attitude from the top resonates down to our players, and it’s a great culture.”
Mertiz says the team’s success comes with a target on its back.
“We always have a ton of people who aren’t going to be on our side, so we’ve just got to prove them wrong,” she said.