Watching and learning was largely what Colleen Speth expected to do during her freshman season on the University of Massachusetts lacrosse team.
That plan was ditched, however, when Speth found herself manning the net for the Minutewomen's fourth game, a home matchup March 1 against Harvard.
"I had no idea I'd play this much," said Speth, the standout goaltender at Evanston from 2005-07. "I would have been fine sitting on the bench but the coach (Alexis Venechanos) felt I'd been playing well in practice and figured I could step in and start a few games."
Speth didn't fare very well against the Crimson, as they drubbed UMass 20-11. She performed much better five days later in her second outing, a 9-8 loss at No. 13 Dartmouth. It took Speth until her fifth career start to record her first win, a 13-10 decision against Boston College March 22 in which she faced 28 shots and had nine saves.
"I didn't play very well in my first start but I was much better against Dartmouth," said Speth, who started nine straight games until redshirt junior Krissy Anderson reclaimed the starter's role for last weekend's Atlantic 10 matchups with St. Joseph's and LaSalle. "Getting that first win was a huge deal for me. My teammates have been a great support system. They knew I was having a hard time."
It's hoped that being thrown into the fire will result in a shorter learning curve for Speth down the line. But earning your stripes against a series of ranked opponents can also impede one's confidence. Upon arriving in Amherst, Speth was already a bit apprehensive, given her relative inexperience in comparison to most of her teammates and opponents. She only began playing the sport as a freshman at Evanston, making her up to a decade behind the majority of players she comes into contact with on the lacrosse-crazy East Coast.
"At the beginning of the season, I remember thinking, 'What am I doing playing Division I lacrosse?,' " she said. "In the first few days, I had no idea what I was doing, but by the end of fall workouts I felt like I could play. By the beginning of preseason (in January) I felt like I belonged and started to hold my own in practice."
Speth also quickly noticed that the caliber of play she was accustomed to in the Chicago suburbs was no match for what she now faces on a daily basis. Notably different was how precise the ball movement is and the much faster pace of the college game.
Making her transition more difficult was Speth's aggressive style of goalkeeping, something she's had to temper as the season wore on.
"In high school, I could bank on players sometimes making a bad pass and most kids can't hit the top corners (of the net)," she said. "Now I have to stay really calm and really work on angles. I have to be disciplined not to go for fakes."
Speth had every ounce of her progress tested when she got the call March 16 against top-ranked Northwestern, a matchup that served both as an eagerly anticipated homecoming and a stern test of how far she had come in a short period of time.
"Playing against them was crazy; I was so nervous," she remembers of the 18-2 UMass loss. "Just a year ago, I was in the stands watching them play; it was surreal. I don't think I did too terribly. And I can take away a lot from going against shooters like that."
As her freshman season nears its close, that's the one thing Speth reminds herself to do -- take inventory of what has happened and determine how she can improve. If she doesn't play in this weekend's Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, the 2-7 record she's likely to take into the off-season won't look great on paper. But Speth sees nothing but positives.
"It was a risk coming here; a lot of people told me I wouldn't be able to play in Division I," said Speth. "There are still times when I question whether I belong on this level but it's been totally worth it."
Purdue freshman softball pitcher Suzie Rzegocki (Lemont) has moved directly into a prominent role in the Boilermaker rotation. Thus far in 2008, she is 13-6 for Purdue (30-16, 6-6 in Big Ten) with an ERA of 2.88.
She pitched one of her best games of the season in Saturday's 9-0 win at Michigan State, going the distance while striking out a career-high eight and allowing only three hits and a walk. In earning that victory, she shook off one of her worst outings of the season, when she lasted only one inning in a 7-3 loss to Ball State.
Her last win before Saturday was in the nightcap of a doubleheader April 13 against Ohio State, a complete game performance in which she allowed only one run on three hits.
Among other highlights of Rzegocki's freshman campaign have been complete-game shutouts of Centenary Feb. 17 and IUPUI April 2.
Rzegocki took the loss in the first game of a doubleheader at No. 13 Northwestern Sunday. The 10-2 final score was lopsided but only two of the nine runs she allowed in four innings were earned.
Gallaga earned the award on the strength of a five-game stretch ending April 13 when he hit .692. During that span he collected nine hits in 13 at-bats with two doubles, three runs scored, three RBIs and a stolen base. He had at least one hit in each contest and was 6-of-9 in the final three when he batted leadoff.
His pace understandably slowed in a four-game series at Oral Roberts over the weekend, as he went 3-of-10 with an RBI as WIU (10-23, 4-8 in conference) lost all four games in the series. Gallaga was in his customary leadoff role for the first three outings before getting the day off in Sunday's series finale.
For the year, Gallaga is hitting a team-high .364 and has been successful in all four of his stolen base attempts.
This is Gallaga's first year at WIU after he played his first two college seasons at Robert Morris College.
Iowa junior distance runner Andy Napier (Antioch) has strung together a series of strong performances this spring, mostly in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
His most recent outing came Saturday when he took a break from the steeplechase, winning the 1,500 meters at the Hawkeye Invitational in Iowa City in 3:57.14. His time was more than five seconds faster than teammate Bruce MacTaggart (Glenbard South), a redshirt freshman for the Hawkeyes.
The previous week Napier shaved more than two seconds off his previous career-low in the steeplechase by finishing second at the Sun Angel Classic in Mesa, Ariz. His time of 9:01.20 trailed only Arizona State's David Mehlhorn and ranks as the fifth-best time in that event in Iowa history.
He had set his then-personal-best in the steeplechase April 5 at Auburn's Tiger Classic. Napier's winning time there was 9:03.85, which qualified him for the NCAA Midwest Regionals May 30-31 in Lincoln, Neb., and earned him the Big Ten Co-Track Athlete of the Week award April 8.
Among previous career highlights for Napier was a 12th-place finish in the 3,000 meters at the 2007 Big Ten indoor meet and coming in fifth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at last year's conference outdoor meet. As a high school senior, Napier was fourth in the Class AA state cross-country meet.
The NCAA Men's Gymnastics Championships took place in Stanford, Calif., over the weekend and four suburban Chicago natives made their mark.
Three of those gymnasts -- senior Ross Bradley (Naperville North), sophomore Luke Stannard (Warren) and freshman Roger Pasek (Dundee-Crown) -- played a role in Illinois' third-place team finish Friday night. Stannard and Pasek each competed in three of the team's rotations, while Bradley competed on the pommel horse and high bar.
Bradley was the only one of the trio to advance to Saturday's individual finals, where he earned his second career All-America honor by finishing fifth in the high bar with a score of 14.725. He was eighth in the same event at nationals in 2006 and struggled through an injury-marred '07 campaign before returning to form this season.
The only other Chicago-area gymnast to place in Saturday's individual finals was Michigan freshman Thomas Kelley (Libertyville). He helped the Wolverines to their sixth-place team finish and came in right behind Bradley Saturday night with a sixth on high bar. His score of 14.7 earned him his first All-America designation and capped off an impressive freshman season.
Kelley won the floor exercise two weeks earlier at his first career Big Ten meet, after which he was named conference Freshman of the Year, in addition to earning first-team all-league honors.
Southern Illinois senior Lauren May (St. Charles North) was the low finisher among local participants at this year's Missouri Valley Conference Women's Golf Championships, which wrapped up last Tuesday at Oak Hills Country Club in Omaha.
May finished the 54-hole event in a tie for 11th with a score of 241 (28-over-par), 14 strokes behind medalist Olivia Lansing from Drake. May was in position for a higher finish after shooting 78-76 in the first two rounds but ballooned to an 87 in Tuesday's final round, taking her out of the top ten.
The event wrapped up May's college career, which began at Augusta State University, which she attended for 2½ years before transferring to Carbondale for her final two golf seasons.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun