When Stony Brook University begins its spring sports season, there will be few narratives that exist independently of the America East’s recent decision to ban the school from postseason contention.
The Seawolves’ women’s lacrosse team, though, is in a unique position. Not only are they barred from the playoffs, but they’re also good enough not to care.
That’s because even though the Seawolves cannot earn the program’s ninth-straight America East title, the honor already felt subpar for a head coach and roster that is accustomed to greatness.
So rather than chase a playoff sweep that was almost a given, Stony Brook will begin its 2022 season right where it left off: on the cusp of a national championship. Winning the conference title normally gives the Seawolves an automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament, but they are still virtually guaranteed to reach the tournament with an at-large berth barring an unforeseen decline.
“We’ve never been concerned with the America East or the playoffs,” head coach Joe Spallina said in an interview with The Statesman. “Our goal is to be in the NCAA Tournament and to be a high-level team to win a national championship with our non-conference schedule.”
Before Spallina, who is now a five-time America East Coach of the Year, took over the program in 2012, Stony Brook had never even competed in a conference championship game.
Since then, they have gone 55-3 against conference opponents in the regular season and have gotten closer to winning a national championship than any other Stony Brook team in school history. Last year, the Seawolves held a two-goal lead against No. 1 UNC with eight minutes remaining in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament until the Tar Heels rallied to win 14-11.
The effect of coming so close to winning it all is obvious when speaking to the team. The ‘scrappy upstart’ mentality that characterized the beginning of Spallina’s tenure no longer applies. Stony Brook is a national powerhouse, and its players expect to be viewed as such.
“We’re Long Islanders. We’re tough and we’re gritty and we’re angry,” goalkeeper Charlie Campbell said. “And of course, that works great on the lacrosse court because you’re not going to be able to make it if you’re not the toughest team.”
The UNC loss marked the end of the line for longtime stars Taryn Ohlmiller and Ally Kennedy, who retired with the second and fourth-most points in program history, respectively. Though the returning roster lacks the same amount of star power, Spallina is known for getting top-level results from unexpected sources.
“There’s no set way of [replacing players],” Spallina said. “The biggest thing for us as coaches is to empower them, be able to give them as much knowledge as they can hold. We try to put them every day in a position of unconscious, high-level decision-making. And it really helps our team be harder to scout but also to play at a really high level.”
That uncertainty was reflected in Inside Lacrosse’s preseason rankings, where the Seawolves are ranked No. 6 in the country but have no players chosen as First or Second-Team All-Americans. Midfielder Rayna Sabella was the roster’s lone representative on the Third Team.
To put it another way, everyone knows Stony Brook will be good; they just don’t know what players will step up. Regardless, Spallina has no plans to reveal his hand too soon.
“I think we have some young players that the country is not aware of yet that are gonna be big-time nationally,” Spallina said.
Attacker Kailyn Hart and midfielder Ellie Masera, both named to the 50-player Tewaaraton Watch List and last year’s America East All-Rookie Team, will likely be among those new team leaders.
Hart recorded 27 goals and 14 assists in 18 starts last season. Masera appeared in 18 games but started just three, scoring 17 goals and earning an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team.
Now entering her third year with Stony Brook, Hart already sees the stirrings of more emerging stars.
“[The freshmen] are really hard-working,” Hart said. “We have a work ethic that no one else can compare to. And I really think that the freshmen are bringing great competition to each position whether it be defense or some middies moving to defense and just making us better every day.”
Stony Brook also added two transfer students, Campbell and midfielder Kyla Zapolski, that should be immediate contributors.
Campbell comes from the University of Virginia, and thus is no stranger to the marquee stage Stony Brook plays on. A sixth-year player with a locker-room-ready personality, her 8.39 saves per game ranked third in the ACC last season.
“Protecting people is what I do,” Campbell said. “And I don’t care how much blood I have to shed, how many bones I have to break in order to protect my teammates and my goal. So I think that sort of rabid ‘mother bear’ instinct is probably my greatest asset, because even if the bone’s sticking out, if I’m not called off the field, I won’t go.”
Zapolski left conference rival Albany after earning two First-Team All-Conference selections. Her 50 goals last season were the most in the America East by a non-Stony Brook player.
Stony Brook opens its season at No. 3 Syracuse on Feb. 20 and will face three other ranked teams over the next month: Florida, Northwestern and Princeton.
The lack of an automatic qualifier makes this season’s non-conference slate more important than ever, but the team is already feeling locked in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been with a group of people that are just so passionate,” Campbell said. “Our captain’s practices were more intense than some games that I’ve had. Being with that sheer joy and other people realizing what a gift this is … was something that I’ve never really experienced before.”