After dominating the America East Conference (AE) for a decade, the No. 6 Stony Brook women’s lacrosse team has established itself as one of the best teams in the country. Over the past 11 seasons under head coach Joe Spallina, the Seawolves have gone 175-33. They are currently riding the longest active conference-game winning streak across all NCAA Division I sports.
Stony Brook is coming off back-to-back runs to the NCAA quarterfinals, both of which ended in losses to the North Carolina Tar Heels. Now members of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Seawolves will look to get over the hump this year and capture the national championship.
Last season was business as usual. The Seawolves finished with an impressive 16-3 overall record, going 6-0 in conference play. Despite being banned from the AE playoffs, Stony Brook earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. After eliminating Drexel and Rutgers, the Seawolves fell to North Carolina, who went on to win the national title and complete a perfect season.
Expectations remain high for Stony Brook in 2023. The conference newcomers were unanimously picked to finish first in the CAA preseason poll. The Seawolves’ aspirations go much further than just a conference championship, as the team has bigger goals in mind.
“With all due respect to the CAA, our goals are a little bit larger than just winning the conference,” Spallina said in an interview with The Statesman. “We talk about winning national championships and in order to do that, we have to take care of things along the way. Winning our conference is important because it supplies us with the automatic qualifier, but ultimately it’s about trying to be the number one team in the country.”
If Stony Brook is able to obtain the No. 1 seed, the team will gain home-field advantage in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Spallina voiced the importance of playing at home for the Seawolves.
“We need to be here,” Spallina said. “We haven’t had a quarterfinal in this building. We’re here in this stadium, so we have to try to get as many games in here as we can.”
Stony Brook will have some roster turnover to overcome, as several key contributors from last year’s team are now gone. Midfielders Siobhan Rafferty and Rayna Sabella, who graduated last May, were the team’s third and fourth-leading goal scorers with 32 and 27 apiece. Midfielder Kyla Zapolski was fourth on the team in points last year with 35, after scoring 23 goals and adding 12 assists.
In the goalkeeping department, the Seawolves lost vital pieces as well. Goalkeepers Charlie Campbell and Kameron Halsall, who shared playing time last season, graduated last May. The two goalies were elite for Stony Brook, as the two of them ranked in the top three in goals against per game and save percentage.
To fill the holes they left, Spallina turned to the transfer portal and picked up Long Island University (LIU) goalkeeper Hailey Duchnowski. In her four years at LIU, she set the program’s saves record. Last year, she won the Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Year award.
Duchnowski will have some competition for the spot. Spallina highlighted goalkeepers Aaliyah Jones, Shanna Hecht and Francesca Viteritti as potential players who may see some time tending the goal this year.
“There are some question marks in the goal,” Spallina said. “Duchnowski is a great goalie. We think she’s a total stud. We love her mentality and personality. Aaliyah Jones is another that will be pushing for that cage. Shanna Hecht, as well as Francesca Viteritti — it’s a great group. They push each other and get along great. A lot will be settled in the next couple of weeks.”
The Seawolves had the best scoring defense in the nation in 2022, allowing 6.63 goals per game. The group figures to be stout once again, as Stony Brook returns its best two defenders from last season’s unit.
Defender Haley Dillon has returned for her sixth year. The reigning AE Defender of the Year led the team in caused turnovers with 50 and ground balls at 35. Dillon’s running mate, junior defender Clare Levy, gives the Seawolves a dynamic pairing on defense. Levy received All-America East First Team honors last year, forcing 18 turnovers and 31 ground balls. Recently, Levy was named a Preseason All-American Honorable Mention.
Offensively, most of the Seawolves’ core players are returning this year. Midfielder Ellie Masera won AE Midfielder of the Year honors last year. She was the first undergraduate in program history to be selected as a First Team All-American, tallying 67 goals and 20 assists in 19 games last year. In addition, Masera recently added CAA Preseason Player of the Year honors to her collection.
“It feels great, but it’s also a team award,” Masera said. “I couldn’t be anywhere close to where I am now without every player on offense and defense. If not for [Kailyn] Hart passing to me or anyone clearing through for me, this doesn’t happen.”
Attacker Kailyn Hart’s praise from Masera is well-deserved, as the senior tallied 14 assists last season, which was third-best on the team. She was right behind Masera with 64 goals. Hart’s play earned her AE Attacker of the Year honors in 2022.
Rounding out a trio that combined for 207 points last season, midfielder Jaden Hampel is also returning. The Second Team All-American selection led the team with 21 assists in 2022 and also contributed 21 goals. The junior hopes to develop in other areas in 2023.
“I want to better myself for everyone else,” Hampel said. “I’d like to be more of a leader, especially now that we are the [upperclassmen] and set the example for the freshman coming in.”
Attacker Morgan Mitchell is another name to watch out for. Mitchell scored 14 goals last year and tallied nine assists. She will likely play a bigger role this year with the losses of Rafferty, Sabella, Zapolski and attacker Jesse Arline.
Another big offseason acquisition was attacker Jolie Creo. A graduate student and transfer from Holy Cross, Creo tallied 56 goals and 26 assists in 15 games last year. She earned an All-American Honorable Mention as well.
The Seawolves’ depth and experience are two big strengths that will be a factor in their quest for a title.
“We’ve been heavy at a couple of positions in the past years,” Mitchell said. “Now, our team is older and stronger overall. There is a better connection between all of us too.”
Stony Brook’s freshman class will be relied upon throughout the season. With 10 first-year players on the roster, Spallina expects big things.
“We’re expecting a lot from that class,” Spallina said. “We feel really good about them, but it’s also very difficult to break this lineup. There will be freshmen that will contribute and ones that we are counting on. This is a program; we don’t live in the transfer portal. We build our kids and develop our players out of high school, which is why we have been able to sustain a high level of lacrosse for so long.”
The more experienced players on the team have substantial goals for the freshmen as well, especially Under Armor All-American Jaidyn Donley.
“The freshmen definitely takeover towards the end of the season,” Masera said. “The small plays build up to the big ones. In games like UNC, we need the freshmen to really have the confidence to make those plays on the big stage. Jaidyn Donley has been great all preseason; a very consistent player and she will be big for us.”
The team’s schedule includes five ranked opponents, which serve as critical games in seeding for the national tournament. Last year, Stony Brook went 4-2 against ranked opponents.
One battle that keeps Stony Brook’s players going is with the selections committee. The Seawolves perceived themselves as under-seeded in years past; most notably when they were the top-ranked team in 2018, yet were awarded the fifth seed in the NCAA tournament. Being overlooked gives this team something to prove, no matter where it is ranked.
“We’re a team that no matter how much we prove ourselves, we always get looked over,” Hampel said. “It gives us that underdog mentality.”
Luckily for Stony Brook, the move to the CAA gives them a tougher strength of schedule, which will help it when it comes to seeding in the tournament. If the Seawolves can run the CAA as they did the AE, then they may very well be legitimized by the selections committee.
“We want to take over this conference,” Masera said. “We want to put our foot down and show that if we’re switching conferences, it’s for a reason.”
As for Spallina, his eyes are on the biggest prize possible, no matter where Stony Brook is seeded.
“The expectation is to win a national championship,” Spallina said. “This is not a flash-in-a-pan program. My first couple of years here, it was about proving people wrong. Now, it’s more of securing where we are supposed to be and keep on climbing the ladder.”
The Seawolves’ road to a national title kicks off on Friday, Feb. 17 with a home game against No. 18 Michigan.