Dark Horse Women's Lacrosse Team Roars into Postseason

Tuesday, April 29, 2014
 

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If the Muhlenberg women’s lacrosse team had a theme song for its upcoming playoff experience, it would have to be “Dark Horse.”

Michelle Certosimo
Certosimo's season total of 65 assists is tied for the second-highest in CC history. She entered the week fifth in Division III in assists per game.
The top two seeds in the Centennial Conference tournament, Gettysburg and Franklin & Marshall, are ranked in the top 10 in Division III and have combined to win every CC title (and three national championships) since 2002. The third seed, Washington, is in the playoffs for the fourth straight year and played in the 2012 championship game. Fourth-seeded McDaniel, the Mules’s first-round opponent tomorrow, recorded two postseason wins in the ECAC Tournament last year.

Muhlenberg, on the other hand, is making its first playoff appearance since 2009 and has never won a postseason game.

But the underdog role is one that the Mules (10-6) have embraced ever since seeing that they were picked ninth (nearly unanimously) in the CC preseason poll.

“We definitely wanted to prove to other people – and to ourselves – that we weren’t deserving of that,” said senior midfielder Ally Shaffer. “It’s just so amazing how we worked our hardest, and now we have this opportunity.”

The first opportunity is against McDaniel (9-7), and the Katy Perry song that best describes the regular-season meeting is “The One That Got Away.” Muhlenberg led 5-1 midway through the first half and 7-5 early in the second half, but the Green Terror went on a 9-1 run and eventually won the game, 15-10.

“It was a hot day and we weren’t quite used to the warm weather,” recalled Shaffer. “They got ahead of us and we were a little frazzled. Our mental game was off and we just didn’t do the basics. We weren’t doing anything we know how to do.”

The Mules returned home after that game and subsequently suffered their third consecutive loss, in double-overtime to a Swarthmore team that finished just 2-7 in the CC. A season that had begun with such promise – Muhlenberg received votes in the national poll for only the second team in program history early on – seemed destined to end in disappointment.

Ally Shaffer
Shaffer has 18 points this season, one fewer than in her first three years combined.
But a closer look at the standings and remaining games revealed that the Mules still had a shot at the playoffs, if they finished strong and other results went their way. They took that opportunity – and some built-up anger from the losses – and ran with it, ending the season with three straight wins, one in overtime at Dickinson, where they hadn’t won since 2002, and one at Ursinus, where they had never won.

In both of those games, Muhlenberg’s defense made big stands, holding Dickinson without a goal for nearly 23 minutes in the first half and keeping Ursinus off the board for a stretch of almost 21 minutes in the second half. While offensive “Firework”s are nothing new to the Mules (they have averaged at least 13 goals per game five of the last six years and are at 14.44 this season), it is the improvement of the defense that has transformed the team into a playoff qualifier. Muhlenberg is allowing 10.31 goals per game, down from 13.54 two years ago and 12.13 last season.

“We have a lot of skilled players and verbal leaders on defense, and it’s not just the seniors,” said Shaffer. “We have juniors, sophomores and freshmen who are not afraid to be a leader. All the grades are working together.”

Senior Kaitlyn McCaffrey, junior Christina Vittorio sophomores Amanda Orlak and Rachel Pedersen and freshman Allison Murnick have been the primary stoppers on a defense that ranks fourth in the CC in goals-against average, while sophomore Kiersten Mulvey is third in the CC in saves in her first year as starting goalie.

That balance of classes extends to the other side of the field, where the three-headed offensive monster consists of one senior (Michelle Certosimo), one junior (Stephanie Umbach) and one sophomore ( Casey Armstrong). They are one of only four trios of teammates in Division III to have 70 points apiece, and they are ready to “Roar” in the postseason.

“Everyone’s pumped up and excited. We’ve got nothing to lose, and we won our last three games in a row, so we have that momentum,” said Shaffer. “As a senior, this is the first time I’ve gone to the playoffs. I never even went in high school. To be able to play at least one more game together is all I could ask for.”