The Mount St. Mary's women's lacrosse team earned the statement win it had been aiming for with Sunday's 12-6 victory over Bryant, the defending Northeast Conference champion that had been unbeaten in the conference this season.
Now the Mountaineers (10-6) face the top seeded Bulldogs again in Thursday's NEC tournament semifinals.
Whether the Mountaineers win or lose, this has been a turnaround season. They've won 10 games for the first time since 2007. They're back in the NEC tournament for the first time in three years and are going for their first conference title since 2005.
"Just coming out of that Bryant win gave us so much confidence as we head to NECs. It certainly proved to others and certainly ourselves that we're very much capable of being at the top of the conference," said Mountaineers coach Lauren Schwarzmann, who was named the NEC Coach of the Year on Wednesday.
The backbone of the Mountaineers' success has been junior goalie Jillian Petito, the conference's unanimous selection as Defensive Player of the Year. The Stephen Decatur graduate ranks second in Division I in save percentage (.561) and third in goals against average (8.51).
She made 14 saves in Sunday's win over Bryant as the Mountaineers shut out the Bulldogs for the final 32 minutes of the game.
Petito and the defense are allowing three fewer goals a game than they did last year, though the defense had been the strongest part of the Mountaineers' game in recent years.
An infusion of young talent has helped the Mountaineers boost their scoring by more than a goal to 11.5 per game. In their past five games, they've averaged 14.2 goals.
Offense is the area Schwarzmann has most wanted to improve since she arrive in Emmitsburg in July 2014. For the second straight year, the Mountaineers lost four one-goal games, but last year, three were in conference and this year just one was in conference, a 9-8 overtime loss to Wagner.
They also lost to UMBC and Longwood by a goal but improved their finishes from a year ago, cutting the UMBC margin down from nine goals and the Longwood margin down from three.
Schwarzmann, who played at Century and Johns Hopkins, said it took awhile for the offense to come together with some new players, including freshmen Beanie Colson (Manchester Valley) and Alayna Pagnotta (Glenelg), All-NEC rookie team selections who have combined for 45 goals and 64 points.
"Now I feel we're firing on all cylinders," said Schwarzmann, adding that it also took awhile to string together 60 steady minutes.
"I think our defense has done a tremendous job all season of shutting down opponents' offenses and getting our offense the ball, but now, on the flip side of that, we're finding ways to find the holes in defenses and we're a really widespread offense. Multiple people have stepped up in the past couple games and given us confidence."
Mount St. Mary's has the only offense in the NEC with six players contributing 20 or more goals and 30 or more points. Sophomore second-team All-NEC selection Carly Miller (Marriotts Ridge) leads the Mountaineers with 26 goals and 18 assists while junior Taylor Carhart (Manchester Valley) has 31 goals and five assists.
If they can get past Bryant on Thursday at 4 p.m., the Mountaineers would meet one of the only two conference teams they lost to this season for a chance to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They would play second-seeded Wagner or third-seeded Robert Morris on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Bryant.