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July 10, 2013

Record Winning Streak Highlights Women’s Lacrosse Season

By Steve Jones

On February 23, the Stevenson women's lacrosse team lost its season opener at eventual national champion Salisbury.  At that point, coach Kathy Railey's young team resolved that they weren't going to let the first game define their season.

The Mustangs didn't lose again for over two months.  Stevenson won its next 16 games, including four victories by two goals or fewer, on the way to an historic campaign. The Mustangs set school single-season records for total wins and consecutive victories, before dropping their final game to Elizabethtown in the Commonwealth Conference final.

"Facing Salisbury in our first game was hard," said junior midfielder Marissa Meiklejohn, who recorded 51 goals and 75 points to rank second in both categories among Stevenson's all-time single-season scorers. "But after that game, we all came together and realized that we just didn't want to lose any more."

The record-setting run, which saw the Mustangs earn an all-time best national ranking of 15th, began with a 15-3 romp at Roanoke.  The modest winning streak reached four games with a tight victory over St. Mary's (Md.) and wins over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Occidental on the team's spring break trip to California.

Early in the season, Stevenson found an effective offensive combination that would wear down opponents.  In order to beat the Mustangs, teams had to focus on stopping both Meiklejohn and junior attacker Leah Warner, who set Stevenson single-season records with 54 goals, 34 assists, and 88 points.

"Coach created a friendly rivalry between Marissa and I, and I wanted to show that I could contribute," Warner said.  "It wasn't about just being competitive with her.  It was more about being competitive with the other team."

After holding off a strong Wittenberg squad, Stevenson began conference play with a 9-8 win at Lebanon Valley.  It was the first of eight straight regular-season league victories that enabled the Mustangs to earn home-field advantage for the playoffs.

Led by Warner and Meiklejohn, the winning streak reached 16 games on May 2 when Stevenson pulled away for a 17-11 victory over Lebanon Valley.  That win set up a championship meeting two days later between traditional Commonwealth power Elizabethtown, whom the Mustangs had beaten by a 21-12 score a month earlier, and first-year league member Stevenson.

The Mustangs jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but the visiting Lions scored nine unanswered goals and held off a second-half Stevenson rally for a 14-12 victory.  Elizabethtown earned the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but Stevenson still maintained hope that its 16-2 record would be good enough for an invitation. 

When the postseason field was announced, Elizabethtown was the conference's only NCAA representative, and Stevenson fell just short of reaching the tournament for the first time.

"We were definitely sad," recalled Meiklejohn, who was chosen the Commonwealth Conference's Player of the Year. "But Coach reminded us that if we had won the conference championship, we wouldn't be in that situation."

The Mustangs wouldn't have set the school record of 16 wins without one of the most prolific offensive outputs in Stevenson's history.  Coach Railey's stickers scored 256 goals, just eight short of the school record set in 2008. While Warner and Meiklejohn enjoyed the two best scoring seasons since Stevenson began playing the sport, they received plenty of support.  Sophomore attacker Kathryn Merrick totaled 42 goals and 17 feeds, while junior midfielder Mandy Marston contributed 34 goals.

Senior Olivia Baker and sophomore Meg Gill led an improved defensive unit, while sophomore goalkeeper Leanne Bittner set another school mark with a 7.69 goals-allowed average.

Gill, who established a school single-season record with 43 caused turnovers, suffered a serious knee injury in the conference semifinal.  Her absence was felt in the Commonwealth title game, as Stevenson surrendered its second-highest goal total of the season.

"Her confidence and stickwork were such a big part (of her production)," Railey said. "Meg is unbelievably aggressive, and has the ability to take the ball away from the other team's best players."

The team-wide improvement wasn't unexpected for Railey, who earned Commonwealth Conference Coach of the Year honors.

"I was pleasantly surprised in the fall about how athletic we were," she said. "But I thought it would take us until about the middle of the season to really click.  After the third or fourth game, I thought we could be something special."

The Mustangs could be even better next spring.  Stevenson graduated just two starters, Baker and defender Megan Najewicz, and returns all of its offensive talent.

"We have a lot of skill, especially among the new players," said Meiklejohn, who received third-team All-America honors. "Last season, half of our starting lineup was freshmen and sophomores.  We also have an incoming recruiting class that can give this team a different and more athletic style of play."

Warner believes that the Mustangs can compete for not only a conference title, but the chance to go deep in the NCAA Tournament.

"We'll put in the effort, with off-season workouts and the 7 a.m. practices in the fall," she said. "We need depth, and I have every faith in Coach's recruiting.  But we all have to have the same fire."

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