Crusaders girls lax: Winning when they have to
Coaches often speak about things they hope can come true, yet pass it off as fact in the moment.
Fortunately, that's seldom been a contradicting issue with St. Luke's head coach Tim Helstein. In the preseason, Helstein spoke about the 2010 version of the Crusaders as being a group that didn't rely on one or two players for offense. Unlike past teams, this one, he said, was spread out with threats all over the field.
His team proved him right yet again, as five girls scored five straight goals to open the second half, erase a 5-3 deficit and spark St. Luke's to a 10-8 victory Friday afternoon at home over King.
"It didn't shock me," Helstein said. "When you watch this and you see it, it's so much sweeter to see those words come into actions. To be a coach on the sideline and see the ball move from one player to the other, people making different checks, the versatility of it -- that's why it's a unified team."
St. Luke's improved to 9-2 after the win, but with victories over Greens Farms Academy Saturday (16-8) and on the road against Gunnery Monday afternoon (12-6), the team crept to within one game of locking up a 3-seed in the FAA tournament.
With a win Tuesday -- after press time -- over Masters, St. Luke's would be slotted behind undefeated Greenwich Academy and No. 2 Convent of the Sacred Heart -- the only two teams who have beaten St. Luke's this season -- in the conference tournament, which begins in earnest Monday.
"We have learned enough through these games -- we're definitely a second-half team and used to coming from behind -- but letting a goal or two goals in is nothing," Carla Nicasio said. "You need two minutes, not even, to score four."
Nicasio is considered the team's alpha, but on Friday she was not vital to the team's success. Nicasio scored just one goal -- the one that tied the game at 5 with 24:36 remaining in the second half.
Nicasio's lone-goal performance and supporting role is one she's not had to play all too often in 2010.
"I think the girls know I can take it, but they also know they now have to step it up," Nicasio said. "In this game, the defense did a great job of doubling and marking up. My players were smart enough to get open after the [double-teams]."
The Crusaders were never safe through the 50 minutes of playing time, though, and this game had a lot of mental and vocal preparation behind it. In 2009, St. Luke's won 16-8 in the regular season and won 21-20 in the FAAs. When King and St. Luke's play, it's almost always fiery and filled with anxiety. Helstein said his team didn't do a good job of calming itself down in the opening half.
"I knew how pumped they'd get for this game. It happens every year," Helstein said. "You try to get them so excited and so pumped up ... and I think we were just tight. We were nervous and excited and anxious and emotional and everything that happens when you play these types of big games. This game, there was a lot riding on it for the FAA tournament, and the girls knew that. Because of that, they were a little tense."
At the half, the team huddled on the shaded side of the field and discussed how the 5-3 deficit had nothing to do with King. It was all mental as far as Helstein was concerned. Hannah Buckman scored two of the three first-half goals for St. Luke's; Ellie Oakford the other.
"Everything that the coaches talked about at halftime were things the girls already knew," Helstein said.
Within 24 seconds of the second half, the game was tied. St. Luke's took advantage of King playing with an eighth-grade, Sam Shaw, and rattled off five goals in the first 4:12 of the second half. Caroline Price started the barrage, then Nicasio, and Buckman, Oakford and Alexandra Young kept the offense going.
"We definitely have players of all ages step up," Nicasio said. "Our transition is finding passing lanes through the whole field."
The key to that has been the communication, which Nicasio said has improved drastically throughout this season, and even improved on last year's team. That team was considered one of the strongest in recent history as far as the FAA is concerned.
"We're talking much more than we have in the past," Nicasio said. "Between the defense and the offense, we've had trouble speaking. All in all, our team is more comfortable with each other and depend on each other. So many girls are now not afraid to get the ball and go to the goal."
Buckman scored the would-be game-winner, as St. Luke's took a 9-7 lead with 7:24 remaining on her strike from the right side of the cage.
Helstein saw no need to talk to his players for more than two minutes after the game was over. The nerves had settled and the Crusaders had won a close game -- the first of four in five days. At the time, he wanted the girls to get as much rest as possible and put the win behind them due to GFA and Gunnery being right around the corner.
"I'm confident because of the 22 players that have been in front of me the whole season," Helstein said. "The girls that I have coached, that have listened and grown individually and as a team. To be honest, we're playing our best lacrosse right now."
There are eight girls who Helstein considers "legitimate" scoring threats with this team. With so many options, getting a rematch against Convent and/or Greenwich Academy is something the team seems eager to do -- but is fine pacing itself in getting there, just as it does on the field.