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Salisbury women’s lacrosse ‘on Cloud Nine’ after winning first NCAA Division III title since 2014

Salisbury players celebrate after winning the NCAA Division III women's lacrosse national championship on Sunday.
Salisbury players celebrate after winning the NCAA Division III women's lacrosse national championship on Sunday. (Brian Bishop, d3photography.com)

Carrie Hesen and Alexis Strobel could only wonder if the stars were aligned for their benefit.

Four years to the day Hesen led the Glenelg girls lacrosse team to a nine-goal rout of C. Milton Wright and its second straight Class 3A-2A state championship and Strobel sparked Bel Air to a one-goal win against Severna Park and the Class 4A-3A state title, the senior duo celebrated with their teammates Sunday evening after Salisbury outlasted Tufts, 14-13, in the NCAA Division III tournament final at Roanoke’s Donald J. Kerr Stadium in Salem, Virginia.

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“It’s so crazy,” said Hesen, a Glenwood resident and a defender. “It’s unreal. I guess it was meant to be.”

Hesen and Strobel spoke Monday afternoon after the Sea Gulls returned to campus, and the feeling of elation still had not worn off.

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“The best feeling in the entire world,” said Strobel, a Bel Air resident and an attacker. “Everything that we have worked so hard for paid off, and everyone on the team is so deserving. So it’s just amazing. We’re going to be on Cloud Nine for probably the whole summer.”

Salisbury's Delaney Hill, a Mount de Sales graduate, celebrates after scoring against Tufts in the Sea Gulls' NCAA championship victory.
Salisbury's Delaney Hill, a Mount de Sales graduate, celebrates after scoring against Tufts in the Sea Gulls' NCAA championship victory. (Brian Bishop)

The national championship was Salisbury’s fourth overall and first since 2014 and capped a 20-0 campaign, giving the school another unblemished record to pair with the 23-0 season the 2013 squad completed en route to the program’s second NCAA crown. But coach Jim Nestor acknowledged that this spring’s title was somewhat more meaningful considering what the team had to navigate during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It does just in regard of knowing everything that this team and the girls went through with all of the COVID-19 restrictions and the stress they had to go through,” he said. “But being undefeated is special. We did it in 2013, but with everything the girls had to go through, that made it that much more special.”

The Sea Gulls’ weekend began with a 20-10 trouncing of Denison on Saturday afternoon in a tournament semifinal. That result set the tone, according to Hesen, who was a member of a senior class that had come up empty-handed in back-to-back appearances in the Final Four in 2018 and 2019.

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“Once we won that game, it was just one more step,” she said. “I think everyone was excited. We’ve had fall [practices and scrimmages] and gone through this crazy COVID mess that it was just one more game ahead of us, and there was nothing stopping us from going full-force and leave it all out on the field.”

Added Strobel: “There was no way we could fall short this time. We had to get it done. We had to come out victorious. There were no ifs, ands or buts about the situation. We weren’t cocky. We were just very confident and composed and followed the game plan.”

Unlike Saturday’s victory over the Big Red when six players amassed three points or more, including Strobel’s game-high seven points on seven assists, Salisbury spread the wealth against the Jumbos with eight players finishing with at least two points, including freshman attacker Camryn Pepper’s two goals and one assist. That offensive versatility resonated with Strobel.

“Everyone on the offensive end is a threat, and I think that’s something that a lot of teams are lacking,” she said. “They rely on one or two people to get the job done, but in our case, we have multiple threats. We’re able to do different things because we have different strengths. That’s why we play so well together.”

After taking a 14-10 lead with 6:24 left in the second half, the Sea Gulls watched Tufts score three unanswered goals in a 1:50 span to draw within one with 4:04 remaining. Thankfully, one Jumbos shot on a free-position chance struck a post, and junior goalkeeper Mary Claire Hisle intercepted a pass with 2:04 left to help the team shut the door on any hopes of the Jumbos extending the game to overtime.

“In that huddle, we were like, ‘We’ve got to put everything together.’ And we did, thank gosh,” Hesen said. “Our defense is very versatile. We were throwing in different looks. We knew we had to hold it down and get it to our attack.”

The players and coaches returned to their team hotel to celebrate and answer texts and calls from family and friends. Hesen estimated she had to reply to “hundreds” of congratulatory messages, and Strobel said she slept for only 2 ½ hours.

Asked if anything she had experienced in the past rivaled the emotion from capturing the NCAA crown, Strobel replied, “No, this might be the peak of my life. Nothing in my life so far has been this exciting because it’s not an individual feeling. It’s a family feeling, a team feeling. It’s something you can experience with everyone. It’s not just yourself. So it’s insane.”

Since the women’s tournament began in 1985, only Middlebury in 2001 and 2002 has swept championships on the men’s and women’s sides. Salisbury can join that exclusive group if the men defeat RIT in Sunday’s tournament final at Connecticut’s Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.

“That would be special,” said Nestor, whose son Luke is a sophomore midfielder for the Sea Gulls. “It would be even more incredible if they were playing Tufts. We’ve had opportunities in years past, and I think it’s been more on our part that we haven’t come through. So we’re obviously rooting them on.”

For the team’s eight seniors, Sunday’s triumph provided a fitting end to their careers.

“We couldn’t have gone out in any better way than winning a national championship,” Hesen said. “This has been one of my goals the whole four years here. We’ve gotten so close three times. … It’s just amazing to be happy and go back to the locker room without crying. We’re all cheering, and we’re all so happy, and we’re just so thankful.”

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