April 25, 2013
By: Scott Waggoner
STORRS, Conn.- Growing up in South Windsor, University of Connecticut women's lacrosse head coach Katie Woods naturally began to follow UConn athletics.
She saw the school's basketball, baseball and soccer programs field competitive teams nearly every year and wondered why one program wasn't generating the same kind of success.
"It's been awesome watching some of the bigger programs elevate to national contenders every year and for me I didn't know why lacrosse hasn't done that," Woods said. "They've been competitive in the past but it hasn't be consistent."
Morgan O'Reilly decided to come play lacrosse for UConn in 2010. She had hoped to be a part of a team that was going to be competitive each year though in the two seasons before O'Reilly arrived the Huskies stumbled, winning only a handful of games. O'Reilly, like Woods, made it a goal to change the fortune of the program and create a winning culture.
"When my class got here there were 16 of us and we said we wanted to turn this program around and make the BIG EAST Championships by the time we left," O'Reilly said.
This season, with Woods in her third year as head coach and O'Reilly playing in her final year at midfielder, Connecticut has broken through and made history along the way. With a 10-7 victory over No. 6 Notre Dame Sunday, the Huskies improved to 13-1 overall, and clinched a spot in the BIG EAST Championships for the first time in program history. The win also moved UConn up to No. 16 in the current deBeer Women's Poll, the team's highest ranking since 2006.
O'Reilly, who has 28 goals this season, said while the plan before every season is to make it to the BIG EAST Championships, she wasn't quite sure what to expect this year. After beating then No.15 Boston College in the second game of the year, O'Reilly and her teammates started to believe this season was going to be different.
"It started when we beat BC," O'Reilly said. "That was the first time we had beaten a ranked team in awhile and we weren't just rolling over teams that weren't ranked."
Three games later UConn defeated Fairfield in overtime, 12-11, in what was their first of four overtime victories this season. The Huskies have thrived in tight game situations, winning all six of their games that were decided by two goals or less, something Woods believes will benefit them greatly in the rest of their games.
"More than anything it's been every close game," Woods said. "No matter who the opponent is it has given us a little more experience in learning how to win in every situation."
Much of Connecticut's success this season can be attributed to the senior class that vowed to turn the program around four years ago. The 12 seniors graduating on this year's team are one of the largest classes in program history, and each one has helped bring a competitiveness that has transformed the team.
"They each bring something different to this team," junior midfielder and leading goal scorer Lauren Kahn said. "I couldn't of asked to spend my last three years with a better group of people and they are the reason we've been so successful this year."
It hasn't been just the seniors providing guidance for the younger players either. Many of the juniors and sophomores have embraced their larger roles on the team and made it a point to help out in any way possible.
"I've taken more of a leadership role this year," Kahn said. "I was named a captain but besides that on the field I'm willing to take a lot more risks and do whatever my team needs from me."
One of the biggest improvements for Connecticut this season has come on the defensive side, where the Huskies have allowed an average of 8.20 goals a game, down from 11.55 last season. The players have bought into Woods' tough, physical style of play that she demands from her team in each practice, and it has shown in games.
"She tells us that we need to come and work our hardest every single day and I think that motivates everyone to show up and get the most out of practice and get to game day and fight like dogs," O'Reilly said.
On the back end of the defense, freshman goalkeeper Shannon Nee has performed admirably, recording 77 saves and earning 11 of the team's 13 wins. She has improved every game this season and was huge for the Huskies against Notre Dame, making 10 saves.
"Athletically she is so quick and she's been a great presence for us back there defensively," Woods said. "She just loves playing and she has so much fun, which allows her to stay in the moment."
Connecticut has been at their best at home this year playing at the George J. Sherman Family Sports Complex, where they've won all seven of their home games for the first time ever. Woods likes the fast track of the AstroTurf field, the only one in the conference, and says the unpredictable weather has given them a great home field advantage.
"There's just something special about Storrs," Woods said. "We know the weather here and it's never quite what you expect it to be and we do well in the rain and in the wind."
UConn's one loss this season came at the hands of Syracuse back on March 22nd. The Orange are the only other team that has clinched a spot in the BIG EAST Championships and the Huskies look forward to a possible rematch with them in the tournament.
"I personally hope we see them again," Kahn said. "I think a lot of us went into that game with a lot of emotion but winning these big games have given us enough confidence for us to go in there and know that if we play our best we can beat anyone."
Connecticut has two more regular seasons games against Georgetown and Loyola Maryland before the tournament begins May 2nd. Woods said her team isn't just satisfied with making the tournament and will have plenty of motivation to win it all.
"It's going to be important for the team to stay focused on the task at hand," Woods said. "We have a lot of competitive athletes and once we get there we'll want more."
After already accomplishing so many firsts this season, more history could very well be in store for the Huskies come May.