Lacrosse Team Nets National Ranking

Lacrosse head coach Katie Woods, left, gives instructions to a player. (Steve Slade '89 (SFA) for UConn)

Lacrosse head coach Katie Woods, left, gives instructions to a player. (Steve Slade ’89 (SFA) for UConn)

In late February, during the second game of the 2013 women’s lacrosse season, the Huskies were behind 8-7 in the second half against No. 15 Boston College, when freshman Carly Palmucci ’16 (CLAS) scored what would be the third of her four goals that day.

The Huskies went on to score six unanswered goals to earn a 13-8 win for their second win of the young lacrosse season.

The Huskies' offense is led by midfielder Lauren Kahn '14 (CLAS). (Steve Slade '89 (SFA) for UConn)

The Huskies’ offense is led by midfielder Lauren Kahn ’14 (CLAS). (Steve Slade ’89 (SFA) for UConn)

“When the game was tied 8-8, all of us came together and decided we’re not going to be the team in the past,” says senior defender Kacie Lewis ’13 (CLAS). “At that point we realized we’re a different team than we’ve ever been before.”

Now with a 5-0 record heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against Binghamton at the Sherman Family Sports Complex, the Huskies have returned to the national rankings this week for the first time since 2007 with a No. 20 ranking in the deBeer Women’s Media Poll. They are one of five Big East teams ranked.

A national ranking is something new for this lacrosse team, including head coach Katie Woods, one of UConn’s youngest head coaches, now in her third season at Storrs.

“I’ve never been in this position, so it’s pretty exciting,” she says. “As a staff, we’ve been trying to really focus on our team on getting better every day and keeping everyone calm and centered. Obviously, the BC game is the best win we’ve had since I’ve been here. That was awesome. I want us to gain a lot of confidence. I think we saw on Saturday [against Fairfield] that we got a little stressed. We played a little tight and forgot about the basics of playing together. That’s our focus from here on out. No matter what situation we’re in, we’re supporting each other and playing as a team because when we’re playing as a team, we’re really good.”

Lewis says with the stability provided by Woods over the past two seasons, the team knows the expectations of their coach.

“The first year was a big change for us. Now the whole team is on the same page as the coaching staff. We all mesh together,” Lewis says. “It’s not 33 players and three coaches. We’re a team of 36. We know what’s she’s expecting every day. We all understand each other. She’s very open about what she expects and what she’s looking for. I think it helps having a coach who is that open about it. She adjusts to us as well. She’ll step back and say, this is not working with who we have in right now. I think it’s cool she steps back, too, and says: what can I change to make this better?”

A student of the game

Woods, an All-American on the field and in the classroom when she played at Drew University, has a master’s degree in sports psychology. She says she still considers herself a student of her game, with a particular focus on the mental aspect of sports. She says that she tries to learn from her coaching colleagues at UConn and in lacrosse. She also reads a variety of books, both in and out of sports, to gather new ideas, including works by business consultant Jon Gordon, whose writing on leadership has been used by professional sports teams.

“I look to a lot of different writers, people that deal with the business world or other areas, to give me different ideas or a fresh piece of advice that I can use with the team,” she says, noting that her current “homework” is reading 10 Minute Toughness by best-selling author Jason Selk, one of the nation’s premier performance coaches. Her office bookshelf also contains two books by Hall of Fame Basketball coaches, A Game Plan for Life by the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection by UConn women’s head basketball coach Geno Auriemma.

Playing as a unit

Lewis says Woods’ approach with the Huskies has transformed the team significantly.

“She came in and changed our whole mindset, brought the whole team together,” Lewis says. “We’re playing as a unit instead of as individual players. That’s what’s really changed everything this year. You see us finishing games, when it’s tied and only a few seconds left. In practice we’ll play game situations where it’s very stressful, we’re tied and a man down. She taught us how to be calm under pressure. I think’s that’s helped us on the field.”

Midfielder Kacey Pippitt '14 (CLAS) is second in scoring for the team. (Steve Slade'89 (SFA) for UConn)

Midfielder Kacey Pippitt ’14 (CLAS) is second in scoring for the team. (Steve Slade’89 (SFA) for UConn)

The power in the Huskies’ offense is led by junior midfielder Lauren Kahn ’14 (CLAS), who has scored 14 goals and provided 12 assists for 26 points and was named Offensive Player of the Week in the Big East for two consecutive weeks recently. Junior midfielder Kacey Pippitt ’14 (CLAS) is second in scoring, with 13 points from 12 goals and an assist.

Freshman goalkeeper Shannon Nee ’16 (CLAS) has spent the most time guarding the net and has won four games, sharing duties with sophomore Marya Fatoni ’15 (CLAS), who has earned one win.

Woods says the group of 13 seniors on the team have supported their younger teammates and allowed them to gain confidence as they moved through the early part of the schedule. She says the senior leadership also has helped to steady the younger players during a game, particularly on the defensive side. Lewis, Mackenzie Rainone ’13 (CLAS), Kelsi Tucci ’13 (CLAS), and Siobhan Wilcox ’13 (Nursing) serve as the core of the Husky defensive unit.

“We got into these close games with big teams that created a little bit of a mental shift of maybe we can beat these guys,” Woods says. “Having those 13 seniors this year has been instrumental in that success because they believe it and they know this is it [for them]; there’s a belief, but there is an urgency – hey, let’s get it done now. I think the combination of the two things has been helpful. We’ve also had four seniors as the core of our defense. They’ve been through good, bad, and ugly. It’s easier for them to stay in the moment in all types of games.”

With a higher national profile for the team and Kahn’s scoring ability sure to be the focus of opposing teams, Woods says the balance of the Huskies’ offense will help keep the team moving forward.

“We have a well-balanced attack. If someone tries to face guard [Lauren Kahn], we have six other players out there that can be scoring threats,” she says. “We are going to prepare Lauren for those situations, so she is mentally keyed in and she can prepare for what they’re going to do to her.”

Lewis says while the team’s national ranking is still new and word is getting around on campus, the members of the lacrosse team recognize they cannot rest on their ranking.

“It’s pretty new, and as a team we’ve talked about it,” she says. “The different teams on campus have been supportive, cheering us on as we run into people. I think we’re all kind of enjoying the pressure a little bit. We’re not going to be the underdogs going into a game. I think it’s been making us work that much harder.”