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.
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.