Category: Feature

James Madison has set the bar for mid-major programs: Anything is possible

Originally published for SB Nation’s College Crosse.

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Twenty-two point one seconds. That’s all the time that was left, as James Madison nursed a 16-15 lead in the national championship game.

Twenty-two point one seconds from history. Twenty-two point one seconds from turning the lacrosse world upside-down.

Molly Dougherty, James Madison’s freshman goalie, had just watched a shot hit her, then hit the LaValle Stadium turf with topspin to reduce the Dukes lead from two goals to one.

Drunken Boston College fans chanted her name from the end-zone seating behind her — “Molly… Molly…,“ dropping the pitch from high-to-low in singsong fashion — like you’d hear in a playoff NHL game. But she was unfazed.

“All we need is one,” she told her teammates. “One more.” One more draw control. One more defensive stop. One more save. Any would suffice, but it wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t be easy.

Boston College’s Sam Apuzzo — a wunderkind on offense, a maestro in the circle — had just assisted on the Tess Chandler goal to bring the Eagles within one. After setting up the proximate goal, Apuzzo and Boston College had a tepid celebration before she strutted back to her office. Whether it was against Syracuse or Stony Brook or Maryland, Apuzzo has shown a knack for delivering in crunch-time. She’s considered a Tewaaraton front-runner for a reason. Here on Long Island, her home, on the national championship stage? It seemed like this was her moment.

Before the final draw, Apuzzo had won six out of seven faceoffs over the final 10 minutes of the game.

Neither player, Apuzzo nor Haley Warden, won the draw clean, and the ball flew into the air toward the Boston College offensive end. At the top of the circle, the lanky Kristen Gaudian and Dempsey Arsenault jumped for the prize. The ball ricocheted off the crosse of Arsenault and right to the stick of JMU’s Haley Warden. Warden shoveled a pass wide to her teammate Hanna Haven and let out a sigh of relief.

“Just run!” Warden screamed. “Just run!”

Haven may not have heard her teammate but nonetheless obliged. She sprinted up the left sideline, stick in her left hand as she fended off the chasing Arsenault with her right. She ran all the way to the far corner and circled around the net.

The final horn sounded and James Madison, ranked No. 17 preseason by the media, ruled women’s lacrosse. It was the first time a Colonial Athletic Association school had ever NCAA champion in a spring sport.

“No heroes.” That was James Madison head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe’s locker room message before the game. “We play as a team.”

That isn’t to say that the Dukes don’t have heroes. They do.

With three and a half minutes left, Gaudian dropped the ball in the middle of the Boston College defense. Three Eagles surrounded her, but somehow Gaudian scooped it up, pivoted toward net and split two more defenders to score and put her team up 15-13 at the time. It was ridiculous and it was her 80th goal on the season. There’s a reason that Boston College defender Hannah Hyatt was employed on Sunday as a full-time Kristen Gaudian faceguard. She’s a Tewaaraton finalist and was named the 2018 CAA Player of the Year.

Kristen Gaudian is a hero.

With just over a minute left, Warden slipped from her defender to a quiet area in front of the Eagles goal. Teammate Katie Kerrigan threw her a pass and Warden promptly finished it, her ninth goal of the Final Four weekend. It gave the Dukes a 16-14 lead late. Warden was a difference-maker in all three zones for James Madison her whole career. In 2017 she was honored as CAA Player of the Year; in 2018 she was nabbed CAA Defensive Player of the Year. On Sunday, she was named the weekend’s Most Outstanding Player.

Haley Warden is a hero.

But “no heroes” is the philosophy and it’s abundantly apparent watching this team play. It’s a mantra that cuts deeper than individual impact (something of which James Madison obviously has plenty). It’s seen in the approach and the motive: “Don’t do it for yourself; do it for the team.”

No, this James Madison team fought for each other.

About 24 and a half minutes remained when the Dukes zone defense faced its greatest adversity of the game. Corinne Schmidt slid to guard Boston College’s Cara Urbank, who rolled to her right and then backpedaled toward the sideline. As Schmidt forced Urbank out of room, she accidentally put her crosse up high and it glanced Urbank’s face.

The nearby official blew her whistle and Schmidt was assessed a yellow card, her second of the day, which disqualified her from playing the rest of the day.

At first, Schmidt was heartbroken. As she ran to the sideline, the look on her face was torturous; there was so much pain. Of course there was. It was the final game of her career and the biggest of her life. This national championship at Stony Brook was just on the opposite shore of Long Island from her hometown of Bay Shore. And the Dukes had just watched their 8-6 lead turn into a 10-9 deficit. Schmidt’s emotion’s were running high.

After a couple of minutes of cooling down, Schmidt knew she had to be there for her teammates though.

“It would have been really easy for her to fall into herself and be upset and then be a distraction on the sideline,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “But … she had strength so her team could have strength. I think from that moment in the game, things changed for JMU and that’s when we took our run and that’s when we took charge of the game.”

Sure enough, James Madison’s defense played for her. For the two minutes after the penalty, Boston College’s offense was playing 7-on-6, but one would only have noticed if they counted. The Dukes penalty kill was everywhere. The slides were fast, the communication was crisp, and the Eagles couldn’t get anything to the inside. Their sense of urgency came from that selfless approach: they had to do it for Schmidt.

“We were playing for each other but we really had to play for her,” senior defender Rebecca Tooker, also from Long Island, said. “She’s been there from the beginning, the hard times, and the ups and downs, but we just really wanted to come together and just get it for her.”

After killing the penalty, James Madison buried three straight goals — Maddie McDaniel, Elena Romesburg and Gaudian — to go ahead 12-10. The Dukes stayed in the lead the rest of the way.

Zone defense isn’t for those looking for glory. Often the James Madison unit slides and rotates in such cohesion that individuals are indistinguishable.

“We’re all in it together as a team,” Tooker said. “We don’t really want to see each other as individuals.”

It’s a style of defense that is adored by some, loathed by others. Many “small schools” employ it, with Stony Brook perhaps best known for it (leading the nation in goals against average in five of the last six seasons). Navy plays zone defense; so does Syracuse, whose men’s basketball team might have the most famous zone in sports. Even North Carolina used zone from time to time this season.

But James Madison’s zone is special and over the weekend, it completely shut down two premier programs in North Carolina and Boston College. It is believed to be the first time in NCAA Division-I Women’s Lacrosse history that a team has won a national championship while strictly playing a zone.

“The type of zone that they play,” Eagles head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein said. “They sort of bait you into thinking you know the middle is open and we made some of those mistakes and fell for that.”

Boston College committed 18 turnovers — “too many,” as Walker-Weinstein said — with five being charged to Kaileen Hart. For James Madison, though, no player was credited with causing more than two of the turnovers, while nine players caused at least one.

After North Carolina’s semifinal loss to James Madison, head coach Jenny Levy had the following analysis of the Dukes zone: “They play three low on the crease, so any time you put anything inside, your shooters are getting people up into their arms and up into their body in the middle, and they seem to protect the ball pretty well with two on the ball all the time.”

James Madison finishes the season with the No. 3 ranked adjusted defense in the nation, according to Analytics Lacrosse.

At the end of Sunday’s game, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer John Brickley called James Madison a “Cinderella,” and it’s a word that gets tossed around anytime an unexpected champion emerges.

On face, this Dukes team checks all the boxes. Nobody believed in them. They were ranked outside the top-15 preseason. Their star player was a walk-on out of high school. It was their first Final Four in 18 years. They came from the Colonial Athletic Association.

But James Madison doesn’t self-identify as a “Cinderella,” as Dougherty said in the press conference.

“That seems like almost kind of a lie to say. That discredits everything everyone put in,” she explained. “It’s top to bottom a whole team effort from the 5 AM, early morning runs, to staying late after practice taking extra shots. That’s that’s what got us here and that’s what’s going to keep us going.”

And indeed, while this James Madison team wasn’t on the radar of many, maybe it should have been. The Dukes had made three straight NCAA Tournaments before this year. In 2017, they lost on the road to then-No. 1 North Carolina by two goals, on the road to then-No. 6 Penn State by three.

This team was close. With the depth and experience of this year’s senior class, of whom eight started in the national title game, they were ready to make the jump.

“When I was recruited here, one of the reasons I wanted to come here was because I wanted to take down the ACC, Big Ten, big name schools,” Romesburg said before the Final Four. “We took all the experience of playing these big-name schools, and now we’ve turned two-goal losses into victories.”

For Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, the James Madison championship was a long time coming.

From 1994 until 1997, she played for the Dukes, becoming a two-time all-American player herself. Throughout her four seasons as a player, they never ranked outside the top-10 in the NCAA rankings (there were far fewer teams then), and won a CAA championship her senior tear, but never made it deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Then after a stint at Hofstra as an assistant and then head coach, she tried for the James Madison job in 2002 but was passed over for Kellie Young. So she stayed with Hofstra. But over her tenure with the Pride — leading them to a program-record No. 7 ranking — it was the JMU job that she eyed the most. In the summer of 2006, Young was hired in a start-up job at Louisville and an opening was there for Klaes-Bawcombe at her alma mater. She returned to James Madison, where she’s been the last 12 years.

Klaes-Bawcombe has the perspective to see the whole transformation of James Madison Lacrosse through the years, even predating the NCAA’s inception of the sport in 1982.

“Fifty years strong!” she said. “Half my life I’ve been a collegiate coach now and I’ve made some big decisions to stay at James Madison when I’ve had opportunities to move on to do just this. And so it really is tremendous satisfaction.”

Walker-Weinstein of Boston College, one of the younger head coaches in women’s lacrosse has nothing but admiration for face of James Madison Lacrosse.

“She’s such an amazing coach and I think a lot of people have known that for a long time,” she said, after her own semifinal victory over Maryland.

In an Instagram post after the game, Stony Brook associate head coach Kim Hillier, who herself was an All-American player at Hofstra under Klaes-Bawcombe, had the following to say: “Congratulations on winning such a well deserv[ed] National Championship! You get kids to buy in and to FIGHT for everything!”

For the past decade at James Madison, the Dukes have been a great team, but for years the logistics of the NCAA Tournament prohibited success. The CAA was, and still is, a conference with two elite teams (JMU and Towson). Five years ago, the bracket expanded from 16 to 26 teams (it’s now 27), which effectively turned the CAA from a one-bid league to a two-bid league, allowing both James Madison and Towson to make the tournament regardless of who wins the championship game.

After winning the championship, Klaes-Bawcombe reflected on the fall of 2014, when this year’s senior class first arrived at James Madison.

“That year, our [current] seniors’ freshman year, the seniors were on a mission and they set the tone really early that they weren’t going to mess around,” she recalled. “Here you have this huge class of freshmen coming in and they were not scared. They were not intimidated. And the seniors were actually a little bit taken aback by the confidence and they didn’t understand how these freshmen could be this confident in such an unfamiliar environment.”

But that’s why Klaes-Bawcombe brought them in. Big personalities with lots of confidence? That’s an asset. That’s what she wanted. No, James Madison wasn’t raking in the top-100 recruits that Maryland or North Carolina were. But they fostered the types of players that Klaes-Bawcombe knew could fit into her system, players she could help mold into champions.

Now here we are. The women’s lacrosse world is upside-down. For the first time in the modern era, a mid-major school won the national championship (depending on how you view Ivy League lacrosse).

It’s a credit to the growth of parity in the sport. This season, four of the top-8 seeds in the NCAA field came from mid-major conferences. Stony Brook has been No. 1 most of the season, Navy made it to the championship last season, and here, James Madison reached the milestone.

“I hope it’s not a culmination,” Klaes-Bawcome said after the game.

It’s time to see if James Madison’s magic is replicable, or if it was a flash in the pan. This season, the Dukes had the luxury of playing the role of the underdog, and to some extent they, and the other mid-majors, always will. These schools lack the size and the traditional recruitment allure of the “Power Five” schools.

“Going into this game I’d say, yeah we were the underdogs,” Warden said. “But right now I just think that our hard work this whole entire season has really paid off and I’m happy we embraced that mentality.”

Will James Madison be able to win championships now that they aren’t the underdog? Who knows. Only one team wins each year. But make no mistake: a win for James Madison was a win for the growth of the sport of lacrosse.

“Everything is not perfect,” Klaes-Bawcombe said about the current state of lacrosse. “There’s a lot to clean up but we’re moving things in the right direction. We have more schools playing than ever, across all divisions. We are making great changes in our rules so that it attracts great fans. Those changes are also attracting other great athletes to want to choose our sport over others. Other communities are picking up the sport.

“So I just think the time is really great for our sport and I think when you have two schools like BC And JMU in the championship, I think that just shows the opportunity that’s out there and I think it’s going to continue to attract great talent to the sport of lacrosse.”

The positive effects of some of these rule changes (the 90-second shot clock, free motion, etc.), have been undeniable. “Stalling” in a traditional sense is a complete afterthought. It no longer exists.

But bigger than that, the rise to prominence of there peripheral programs, is instrumental to the outreach of any sport. It’s a counter-effect to the traditional elitist perception of Maryland, the Big Ten and the ACC.

Anybody can win now.

On Sunday, James Madison established itself as a champion. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Dukes will be back. Mid-majors will be back. And lacrosse is better for it.

Apuzzo, Arsenault and Coach Treanor: Boston College is special in the draw circle

Originally published on SB Nation’s College Crosse

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Sam Apuzzo has been dynamite at the draw circle this season, much to the delight of Boston College, and much to the ire of opposing teams. In the Eagles’ quarterfinal overtime win against the Stony Brook Seawolves, they won 20 of 26 draws, an advantage so huge that even the lethal Stony Brook offense could not overcome.

And yes, a lot of that is creditable to Apuzzo, the junior draw-taker from Long Island. She’s a Tewaaraton finalist for a reason.

But the women’s lacrosse faceoff is not a 1-v-1 skill, and the Eagles’ prowess in the area has as much to do with midfielder Dempsey Arsenault as it does with Apuzzo.

“They play really well together, they really have a connection,” assistant coach Kayla Treanor, who specializes in coaching the draw, said. “It’s the whole draw unit in general, six girls that have been working together all year. They have chemistry that’s helped a lot.”

A three-time Tewaaraton finalist during her playing days at Syracuse, Treanor set a Division-I all-time single-season record in 2016 with 217 draw controls. After graduating, Treanor, now 24 years old, coached one season as an assistant at Harvard University, before returning to Boston College to coach the Eagles this year.

“wWhen I hired Kayla, I told her that this is going to be her biggest role on the team and I really want her to own it,” head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein. “[I wanted her to] take over and make all the changes that she wanted to and develop the individual player.”

And Arsenault and Apuzzo have appreciated Treanor’s presence, helping take Boston College from a solid draw team to one of the nation’s elite.

“We have Kayla, so that’s a huge advantage,” Arsenault said. “We just constantly study the other teams and their tendencies. Communication is key, making sure we’re all on the same page.”

Often described as the “game-within-the-game”, the draw in women’s lacrosse is its own craft. There’s a reason why schools hire full-time assistants to almost solely focus on the draw.

The players at Boston College spend countless hours studying tendencies, “tell-signs,” as Arsenault called it, of where they’re placing the ball, where they’re trying to direct the ball.

Then on the draw, Apuzzo and Arsenault (and also Elizabeth Miller, the other “circle girl”) have their own secret communications to indicate where to run to and where the ball is flying out toward. If the ball is leaning toward the other girl’s stick, Apuzzo lets her wings know, so they can adjust and try to intercept the win.

Maybe it’s a foot tap, maybe a head nod — who knows?, it’s secret — but before each draw, Apuzzo plays the role of the third-base coach and orchestrates the whole unit. From there, Arsenault’s athleticism is on full display. She has 102 draw controls this season, despite playing almost entirely off-ball for the draws. For a non-specialist, Arsenault’s total is spectacular.

Last week against Stony Brook, it seemed like whomever the Seawolves tried to line up against Arsenault — whether it was Samantha DiSalvo, Ally Kennedy or Mackenzie Burns — could not compete with the New Hampshire native’s combination of speed and length. Arsenault, who’s listed as 5-foot-8 but plays even taller, won nine draw controls herself in that quarterfinal game.

“Dempsey might be the best athlete we’ve ever had at Boston College,” Walker-Weinstein said in an interview before the season.

It’ll be up to Apuzzo and Arsenault to come through in the circle again on Friday night, when they face the No. 1 Maryland Terrapins in the NCAA Quarterfinals.

James Madison knows it’s the ‘underdog’ of the Women’s Lacrosse Final Four, but their players don’t care

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — When it comes to women’s lacrosse, James Madison has had a season for the ages. A win over North Carolina? Check. A season sweep over Towson for the CAA title? Check. A dominant quarterfinal win over Florida to clinch the school’s second-ever berth to the NCAA Final Four? Check and check.

But despite all this, there are still people doubting this Dukes team. James Madison comes from a mid-major conference, at an athletic department still just rising to prominence. Before the season they were pegged by Inside Lacrosse as the No. 17 team in the country. Heck, their All-American attacker was a walk-on.

The Dukes still seem to be… kind of… you know…

“An underdog? Yeah, we know,” star attacker Kristen Gaudian said at Thursday practice.

Gaudian, the aforementioned former walk-on, has proven herself to doubters plenty of times before. She didn’t even start until her junior season, and now she’s among the nation’s five Tewaaraton finalists. By now, Gaudian is keen to the underdog role, a role in which her team has found plenty of success this season.

Exhibit A: the February 9 win against the UNC team they’ll face in the quarterfinals. In a cold, rainy and windy season-opening overtime win, Gaudian scored both the game-tying and game-winning goals. The Dukes made a “statement,” as senior attacker Elena Romesburg succinctly said.

But James Madison, even with its 20 wins, half of which have come against tournament teams, is aware of the narrative.

Mid-major schools don’t win women’s lacrosse national titles.

And in the past it’s been true. If you consider the Ivy a major conference in lacrosse (most would), then no mid-major program has done it on the women’s side in 30 years (and given the landscape of the sport when Temple won in 1988, there weren’t really such things as “conferences” as we know them today). But JMU’s approach isn’t to look at that history. Instead, it’s “why not us?”

“It’s a great position to be in. People kind of look over the underdog,” Gaudian said. “We can totally capitalize on the fact that people don’t understand that we’re the real deal and we’re here to win a national championship just like everybody else.”

Whereas Maryland and North Carolina have established legacies for national greatness with each program’s championship histories, James Madison has to prove itself every season. Head coach Klaes-Bawcombe knew that this season’s team, with seven to eight seniors in the starting lineup, was one to make a run, and they have.

“James Madison is not one of those teams that just automatically gets put back into the top-10 or top-20 year after year,” head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Every year, we have to earn our way into the ranking through consistent effort, game after game, after game.”

The Dukes made the quarterfinals by beating the Florida Gators, 11-8, in the lowest-scoring of the four games last weekend. It’s highly unlikely that the game with the Tar Heels will be so defensive, but James Madison has shown that it can win any type of lacrosse game.

On offense, the Dukes have four players with at least 60 points and seven with at least 25 points. They run deep.

While James Madison wasn’t on the Final Four radar of any self-proclaimed lacrosse experts before the season — myself included in that — did the players expect to be spending their Memorial Day Weekend in Stony Brook?

“Yes,” Gaudian said, without hesitation. “We knew that we had the talent, we knew that we had the mental resilience to make it here as well.”

The Dukes certainly have the tools. If they hang tough on the draws and get clean looks against UNC goalie Taylor Moreno, the ride may not be over just yet.

Taylor Moreno’s journey to the Women’s Lacrosse Final Four is one of patience and resilience

Originally published on SB Nation’s College Crosse

STONY BROOK N.Y. — Taylor Moreno was a Renaissance athlete in her days as a player at Long Island’s Huntington High School. She was an All-County soccer goalie, a great basketball player, a triple-jump champion and even the kicker for the Blue Devils football team. Yes, Moreno’s booming leg from the goal box at soccer practice made quite the impression on the Huntington football staff.

“It started out as a joke then it ended up becoming a real thing,” Moreno, who was Huntington’s first female football player, said. “That whole experience was awesome.”

But amazingly, before playing lacrosse for the North Carolina Tar Heels (a former “Blue Devil” playing in Chapel Hill… ironic, isn’t it?), Moreno never started a high school game.

Moreno’s sophomore and junior seasons, she was caught in a roster logjam behind Anna Tesorero, the current Stony Brook starter. To her chagrin, Moreno hardly saw any playing time in high school because of the circumstances. Neither did Fiona Geier, who’s now the starting goalie at American University.

“She and I just kind of accepted the fact that the way that things were weren’t really going to change,” Moreno recalled. “But I don’t take that experience for granted because I know it definitely turned me into the player I am today. I know what patience is and I know what it means to work your a** off to get where you want to be. “

Even though Moreno didn’t see much high school lacrosse action, head coach Jenny Levy saw enough of her to know she was a player she wanted as a Tar Heel. Levy had recruited Moreno through her club team, Team Elevate, and saw her in Florida at a IWLCA-sponsored event. Inside Lacrosse listed her as the No. 2 incoming freshman goalie in the country.

“As soon as we saw her, we were like, ‘Holy cow, that player’s very special.’,” Levy said in a teleconference earlier in the week.

But while Moreno had aspirations as a star, her left knee — time and time again — has had other ideas. Her high school senior season, she tore her ACL during basketball season. Then as a freshman at North Carolina, she tore her ACL again during fall ball. Moreno was forced to redshirt.

At last, Moreno saw action in goal in this season’s opener — a cold, rainy loss at JMU, whom UNC will face in the semifinals. In relief of Elise Hennessey, Moreno stopped nine of 17 shots on goal. Then two weeks later against Maryland, Moreno came off the bench with an all-world effort down the stretch to beat the Terrapins.

When UNC played Virginia, Moreno finally had the chance to start, and had her best game yet: just nine goals against, versus 17 saves made.

But just as Moreno seemed to make a full comeback, the old nemesis, the left knee, let her down again. Late in the first half against Northwestern, she sat down to the turf holding her left knee. This time, she was lucky though. It wasn’t the ACL, but the meniscus, more specifically, a bucket handle tear in her medial meniscus.

A surgeon cut it out, and after three weeks, Moreno was back on the field again.

“I kind of had to work myself back up,” she said, and she has. After playing the second half of two games, Moreno regained the starter’s role in the ACC Tournament semifinals and has been spectacular. In four playoff games as a starter, she has a .577 save percentage (which would have ranked first among all NCAA goalies this year). Remember, she put up these numbers against other elite, tournament-caliber teams.

“She’s been really great for us and somebody who just consistently sees the ball really well and as a competitor,” Levy said.

For Moreno, a Long Island girl, this weekend’s tournament is extra special, as she’ll have many friends and family members in attendance at Stony Brook University’s LaValle Stadium to watch her play. It’s the same stadium where she watched teams raise NCAA trophies when she was in middle school, the same university at which she was born.

“It gives me butterflies in my stomach thinking about it,” Moreno said.

And throughout the national championship hoopla, what is the UNC goalie most excited about?

“I’m just looking forward to playing on the biggest stage of women’s lacrosse with 34 of my best friends.”

The story of Courtney Murphy, the women’s lacrosse goal queen

Courtney Murphy wasn’t supposed to be a Division I record-holder. Heck, Courtney Murphy wasn’t even supposed to play lacrosse for a top-level college team.

Murphy was always on the B squad, the “gold” team, for the Long Island Yellow Jackets, the local girls’ lax club. She went to high school at William Floyd, which won two state titles in football while she was there, but certainly was no bastion for lacrosse. Her sophomore year at Floyd, the Colonials were decent, but then the other stars graduated. The star defender, Octavia Williams, went to Johns Hopkins. The goalie, Chelsey Sidaris, went to Fairfield.

When they left, Murphy had to do it all. Her teammates had never played club. There was no youth program in town. For most of the William Floyd team, high school was the first time they strung up a stick.

“It was so frustrating. I literally hated lacrosse,” she said. “I dreaded going to practice.”

In high school, she played every position. If she lost the draw, she dropped back and played defense to force a turnover. On offense, teams face-guarded her. Her senior year, William Floyd went 3-10. They lost to Northport by 20 goals.

When Stony Brook head coach Joe Spallina first contacted Murphy about playing for the Seawolves, she wasn’t remotely interested. Spallina had built early success at Stony Brook, after bringing stars Claire Peterson and Demmianne Cook over from Adelphi, his previous job. Despite this, Stony Brook still wasn’t seen by most as a top-tier program and Murphy waited for something bigger.

But the traditional “power conference” schools weren’t interested.

Many coaches didn’t see her play, being a B squad club player on a bad high school team. Others were skeptical. They said she was just a “catch-and-shoot” player. They didn’t like her big personality. They doubted her athleticism.

She was interested in Notre Dame, where her older brother Steve played midfield, but when she visited, the coaches wouldn’t grant her a scholarship.

“They were like, ‘Well, you can walk on if you want’,” Murphy laughed.

But Spallina saw something in her. He recruits heavily from the Yellow Jackets, the club that almost all his star players have come from, so he had watched her closely. While her attitude turned off some coaches, it drew him in. On the field, he saw Murphy’s goal-scoring instincts. She knew when to cut, she knew when to dodge. She had a Canadian-type ability to catch anything thrown inside to her. He knew she could fit a specific role in the offense, so Spallina went ahead and made a large offer.

Among schools offering her money, options were thin, and Murphy ultimately chose Stony Brook over Quinnipiac and Fairfield.

“I wasn’t disappointed to go to Stony Brook, but it was hard not getting recruited when my brother went to such a big-name school,” she recalled. “It was kind of just like, ‘oh… I’m going to Stony Brook.’”

Little did she know, agreeing to play for the Seawolves would become the best decision of her life.

When Gail Cummings was scoring goals for Temple University in the 1980’s, women’s lacrosse looked a lot different than it does today. Players didn’t wear protective goggles, but they did wear collared shirts. There were no restraining lines, no sidelines and certainly no shot clock. Conference championships didn’t exist yet, and the NCAA Tournament only had six teams.

On the field in Philadelphia, Cummings was prolific at rolling the crease, where she estimates she scored more than half her goals. She racked up huge numbers: 88 goals in 1987, then 94 in 1988. In her career, she scored 289 times, which set the NCAA record. The mark stood the test of time, lasting three decades, much longer than the points or assists records from the day.

Today, Cummings doesn’t remember the specifics of her record-breaking goal, any game-winner, or any particularly flashy score. There was never any video footage of most of her career. But she does remember missed opportunities from her sophomore and junior years in the Final Four. In each case, Temple was playing Penn State, their state rivals.

In 1986, Cummings and the Owls fell to the Nittany Lions, 8 to 7. In 1987, they lost 7 to 6.

“It was a lot of me thinking, if I had only done this, or if I had only done that,” Cummings said.

Her senior season, Temple reached the mountaintop, with two dominant wins — a five-goal victory over Harvard in the semifinals and an eight-goal victory over Penn State in the title game — en route to the Owls’ only undefeated season in school history.

For Cummings, now the athletic director at Division-III Skidmore College, she remembers the championship more than any individual achievement.

“I didn’t even know I still had the record,” she said last week, before busting out the appropriate cliche. “But records are meant to be broken.”

It was a chilly, windy April afternoon when the goal finally came. The game was decided before it even began; Stony Brook was on the road against Hartford, whose women’s lacrosse program is in its first year of existence. The Seawolves are first in the country in goal differential; the Hawks are 112th out of 114.

The only question was whether Murphy would break the record. She entered the game with 287 career goals, needing two to tie and three to pass Cummings’ mark.

For weeks, the record had weighed on her and the team. The media asked about it. Spallina and Kim Hillier, the associate head coach, tried to manage it after each game: “How many does Murph have? How far away is she now?”

The same goes for Kylie Ohlmiller’s record pursuits. The Seawolves attacker is on track to pass Jen Adams in career points later this month. The statistics are incredible, but detracted at least a bit from the real focus: bringing a national championship to Long Island

“It definitely wasn’t a burden,” Murphy said. “But it was something I definitely wanted to get over with and move on with the rest of the season.”

Stony Brook led Hartford 6-0 about eight minutes into the first half, and goal number 289 came in the most apropos of ways. Murphy threw a pass out wide to Ohlmiller. With a fake and a hesitation, Ohlmiller froze the young Hawks defense and fed a pass back inside, where Murphy was cutting across the offense left-to-right.

From there, it was the same as it’s ever been. Catch, shoot, finish and celebrate. She fired the shot into the bottom-left corner of the net, and then ran to Ohlmiller, whose arms were already extended for a hug. Of course the goal was “Murphy from Ohlmiller.” Why wouldn’t it be? They were Stony Brook’s Batman and Robin. Hall and Oates. Bossy and Trottier.

Spallina called timeout so the team could celebrate around her and reflect. The NCAA all-time leading goal-scorer played for Stony Brook, a state school, an America East school.

The numbers are unbelievable. Murphy has scored a hat trick in 56 of 78 career games. She’s the only player, male or female, to score 100 goals in a single season.

In 27 career America East conference games, Murphy has 124 goals. In those games, the opposing teams have 123 goals.

But as Spallina says, “It wasn’t always sunshine and roses.” Murphy’s freshman year had highs (her 7-goal debut against Bucknell) and lows (the occasional screaming match on the practice field). The schematic fit was there, and Murphy molded well in the offense, but the drive wasn’t there yet.

Today, Stony Brook has the roster depth to ease its freshmen into the demands of the college game. That 2014 team was young on offense and didn’t have that luxury. For Murphy and fellow freshman Dorrien Van Dyke, it was trial by fire. They were the focal point of the offense right away.

“We threw them right out there,” Spallina said. “Sink or swim. Figure it out.”

Stony Brook was great on paper, winning 17 games, but the team wasn’t yet elite. In a 14-1 loss at home versus Florida, Murphy committed three turnovers and only put one shot on goal. At Vermont, the Seawolves surrendered a 6-3 lead and lost in overtime, a shocking upset. It’s still the last time Stony Brook has lost a conference game.

Murphy realized her potential in the last game of her season against Kayla Treanor’s Syracuse squad, ranked second in the nation, in the NCAA Tournament. From the start, it was an absolute drubbing. Syracuse took a 10-2 lead at halftime and a 12-2 lead shortly thereafter. The Seawolves sideline had a dead energy. The game was over, and for some of the players, their career was over too.

“The goals just added up so quick,” Murphy said. “Most of our team just accepted that it was going to be our last game. But that’s when it came onto my shoulders. I realized then, ‘Wow, I really can carry a team.’ “

Murphy scored four goals in the second half to cut the final margin to 13-6, but more than that, she became hungry. Something sparked in her that day. Spallina saw it. Murphy felt it. She was going to be a superstar.

“If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends. Make it last forever. Friendship never ends.”

The Spice Girls pop anthem played 56 times at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium in a three-month span in 2016. It was Murphy’s goal song that year, and it seemed to be on loop from the Stony Brook press box.

During that memorable year, Murphy became the only player ever to score 100 goals in a lacrosse season, for either gender. She and Ohlmiller became superstars.

Stony Brook began having autograph sessions after every game, the best attended in the nation. Little girls across Long Island wanted to wear No. 18 and No. 17 to be like Murph or Kylie.

The offense steamrolled opponents. The Seawolves went up 10 goals on UMBC in just eight minutes one game. In another, they beat Stanford, the No. 8 team in the country, 17 to 7. In the month of April, Murphy scored 49 goals, more than some attackers net in their career.

“It was like a storybook,” Spallina said. “She was unguardable.”

But again, the storybook didn’t have a happy ending. Stony Brook came up one goal short in the NCAA Tournament second round, losing again to Syracuse, 7 to 6. The Orange dominated possession, winning 11 of 15 draw controls, and it was too much for the Seawolves offense to overcome.

Murphy was more determined than ever to respond in 2017, but life threw another curveball.

The date was March 5, 2017 and Murphy felt a pop in her knee, as she collapsed to the LaValle Stadium turf. The crowd deafened, as she screamed. Was it pain? No, it was agony.

She lied on the turf as her leg was evaluated. She knew the ACL was torn, and her mind raced in a million directions. Her senior season was over. Was her lacrosse career over? She had a job lined up on Wall Street upon her graduation.

Spallina left his team on the field during halftime and talked to Murphy. “They’ll grant a redshirt,” he said. “You can come back from this. You’ve beaten the odds before.”

Murphy wasn’t sure. She wanted to start her career; she didn’t want to rehab for a year. But at the same time, the hunger was still there. She needed to try to win a national championship. Spallina obviously wanted her to stay, but he knew it was her decision to make, and it was a hard one with a lot of things to weigh.

A few days passed. The team went up to Yale and won a game without her, then she decided to travel down to Florida to support the team in a big game against the Gators.

Stony Brook didn’t play well at all. The defense was a mess, the team was out of sorts. The Gators went on a 9-0 run in the the first half to open up a 15-5 lead. Murphy grabbed Spallina by the arm in the middle of a play.

“I’m fucking coming back.”

It’s after practice on a beautiful spring day at LaValle Stadium, one of the first warm days of the year. Kylie Ohlmiller is sitting on a metal bench on the field in her practice jersey, a little bit sweaty still from practice.

She’s looking out to the empty seats in the stadium, which has a capacity of 12,300 after the latest renovations at the north end. Then she imagines a full crowd. In a month and a half, the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Final Four is going to be there, and Stony Brook plans to play in it, as the host.

“It’s been in the back of our heads a lot this season,” Ohlmiller says.

She points to a spot on the bleachers on the south end. That where she watched Northwestern and Syracuse play for the national championship in 2012.

The Orange lost, 8 to 6, but Kylie remembers watching Michelle Tumolo, one of the players that she “fangirled” about being right out there on the field, eye-black drawn down her cheek, leading the Syracuse offense.

“There’s certain memories that stick out,” Ohlmiller says. “I remember some of her plays, clear as day, from when I watched from the stands. It’s so crazy to know that those roles are reversed now, and they’re looking up to us.”

Murphy was at LaValle for the national championship that year as well (Stony Brook also hosted in 2011). Now it’s up to her and Kylie to make it a reality.

“I would trade any award, any record to hold up a national championship trophy on Stony Brook’s field with Coach Spallina and my teammates,” she said in an autobiographical story she penned herself for the Stony Brook website last November.

It’s her fifth year on the team, and she has nothing to lose. She’s close to graduating with an Master’s in finance. In her down-time she loves playing Fortnite with her boyfriend, a football star. And she’s the most prolific goal scorer in lacrosse history. Life is good for Courtney Murphy.

But it sure would be better if she could bring a national championship to Stony Brook.

After earning $10M from NYS, Westbury looks to cash in on downtown boom

Originally published at The Changing Face of Long Island.

For over 20 years of his career, Eric Alexander, a prominent Long Island community developer, sat in on meetings, listening to local Main Street representatives across the island linger over the stiff competition from their indoor shopping rivals.

“They’d always say, ‘we have to be more like the mall, we have to be more like the mall’,” Alexander remembered. Then he laughed. “Now the malls want to look more like downtown.”

Due to the growth of internet shopping ( sales revenue increased 1170 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to Statista), experts say there is a shift in commercial preference from malls and big-box stores to downtowns, which have become cultural centers and restaurant scenes.

“Shopping [isn’t] going out of style in the burbs,” Lisa Schamess, communications manager of Build a Better Burb, a national nonprofit group advocating new urbanism, said. “But its character is changing.”

In Westbury, a Nassau County village, the local government was awarded $10 million in funding to revitalize their downtown last year, as part of an annual grant New York State initiative (called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, or DRI) launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. The initiative is the largest public aid program for downtown growth toward Long Island in state history.

Click to access interactive graphic.

The strategic investment plan, created by a local committee of Westbury business leaders, includes funding for rezoning a new residential area near the Long Island Rail Road, improvements to the Westbury Community and Recreation Centers, and $4.4 million toward streetscape beautification.

“We are in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment waiting for the state to sign off on some of the projects already approved so we can start spending some of the money allotted,” Tom Verni of the Westbury Business Improvement District (BID) said. “We expect that to be done by the end of the year or shortly after the new year then start rolling some of the programs and initiatives out by the spring or summer of 2018.”

One of the goals of the downtown improvements is to increase restaurant sales. Of a $33 million dollar sales surplus in Westbury restaurants, $32 million of it can be attributed to Old Country Road, which is not downtown, according to data provided by the Westbury BID. There is “unmet demand” for restaurants on Post Avenue, Westbury’s Main Street, according to the investment plan.

Food and beverage locations outnumber retail stores 35 to 31 in downtown Westbury, a margin that is expected to grow in upcoming years, according to the BID. This trend aligns with Long Island’s overall data: employment for cooks and bartenders is expected to increase by 29.8 and 26.9 percent, respectively, according to state labor data. For context, overall job growth is projected to be 11.1 percent.

“Hard goods aren’t coming back,” Alexander, who serves as the director of Vision Long Island, said. “It’s not like the shoe store is coming back to Main Street. It’s really restaurants and bars that are driving this growth.”

Growth of the arts is another major component to the project in Westbury. Funds from the state grant are being allocated to house a permanent home for the Westbury Council for the Arts, which had previously functioned nomadically.

“Ideally we’d like to have a performance space,” Maureen Baranov, vice president of the council, said. “In the basement, we would have a black box theatre, and on the main level, studios where we provide classes. Jewelry-making classes, pottery classes, art classes. Just to bring art and culture to the community.”

The Westbury Council for the Arts, founded four years ago, is heavily involved in the revitalization efforts. Peter Cavallaro, the village’s mayor is a founding member of the council. Residents of Westbury “consistently expressed support” for the arts in early DRI informational meetings, according to the strategic investment plan. Money from the state will help build murals and public art along Post Avenue. The council also sponsored, for the first time, an annual farmer’s market at Piazzo Ernesto Strada, a small park in the village.

Click to access audio slideshow.

“We had 16 straight weeks of sun,” Colleen Locascio, one of the arts council board directors, said. “Never any rain. It was an absolute miracle.”

Three miles to the east, the hamlet of Hicksville won the same $10 million grant this year and is in the preliminary stages of determining their distribution of funds. In its application to the state, Hicksville pitched reconstruction efforts along the LIRR station, the busiest outside the city.

“There are 3,000 people that live within walking distance of the station, and they want to see a true downtown there,” Alexander said.

In the meantime, zoning codes are being written by the town of Oyster Bay, which governs Hicksville, state and local officials are coming together to discuss different ways to efficiently use the money, and planning committees are meeting on a weekly basis.

But while Hicksville and Westbury are receiving lump sums of money, most downtowns across Long Island are not so lucky.

The state allocates one state grant to each region of the state, which can become proportionally unfair. Long Island, whose population is 2.86 million (not counting Brooklyn and Queens), had 21 applicant villages in 2017, according to a state DRI official. For comparison, two other regions of New York State, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, of 428 thousand and 622 thousand people, had three and seven applicants, respectively.

“We pay 21 percent of the state’s taxes, and here we’re getting 10 percent of the payoff,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of in line with most state programs toward Long Island. We’re contribute more to the state than the state contributes to us. That’s just kind of how it is. Having said that, before this grant, there was never any direct state money for Long Island downtowns. So I applaud the governor for that.”

While other villages across Nassau and Suffolk Counties have to wait their turn for government action, Westbury is thrilled at the opportunity to fulfill its own downtown vision.

“I have so much invested in this community. I care very deeply about this community,” Locascio said. “I want to see it soar.”

Van Dyke: An unsung hero from the outside, ‘just a hero’ within

Originally published in The Statesman

When Inside Lacrosse and US Lacrosse Magazine released their NCAA previews before the 2017 season, two Stony Brook Women’s Lacrosse players — attacks senior Courtney Murphy and junior Kylie Ohlmiller — were blazoned on the cover, and unmistakably so.

Murphy set the NCAA single-season goals record, with 100, while Ohlmiller ranked fifth in the nation in points and was twice highlighted on ESPN’s “Top-10 Plays” for her flashy style.

But within the team, while the attention is an incredible feeling — “every little girl’s dream,” as Ohlmiller put it — it is perhaps a tinge sour that senior midfielder Dorrien Van Dyke does not share the spotlight.

“Murph might have some numbers, I might have some numbers,” Ohlmiller said. “But Dorr has some numbers too… and her work between the 30s, getting the ball back for us, she really doesn’t get the respect that she deserves. If it was up to me, our whole entire team would be on the cover of the lacrosse magazines.”

Van Dyke has been a three-time America East first-team all-conference player, and entered the year ranked sixth among all active NCAA players with 144 career goals. For her to be flying under the radar, as she has, borders on the absurd.

“I think Dorr, from the outside, is an unsung hero,” head coach Joe Spallina said. “To me, she’s just a hero. I think she just does so much for us.”

The senior from Northport is listed on the roster as 6-feet-tall, the tallest player on the Seawolves roster, but she moves on the field with the grace and agility of someone several inches shorter, creating matchup problems for opposing defenses.

“When you see Dorrien running down the field, with that kind of speed and size,” Spallina said. “That’s a lot for a defense to handle… She’s one of the best midfielders in the country, no doubt in my mind.”

Van Dyke’s versatility across the field sets her apart from her offensive peers. As a two-way midfielder, she plays in all three zones of the field and can have an impact on the game in a number of ways, particularly by gaining possession of ground balls and draw controls.

“For Murph and I, our job is just to put the ball in the back of the net,” Ohlmiller said. “We only have so many things we need to do. But Dorr has to do stuff all over the field. She’s a great leader, and if she’s off in one aspect of her game, she makes up for it in all the other aspects.”

Off the field, Spallina raved about the type of person Van Dyke is: a team captain, a great student, an ambassador for Stony Brook Athletics.

“She’s the type of girl that will stop by my office, just to hang out and talk,” he said.

But on the field, she’s a physical mismatch and adept in all trades of the craft, vital to the success of her team, even if her name is not distributed on thousands of laminated headlines.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Van Dyke said of the national feature stories about her teammates. “I’m just happy that it gets Stony Brook’s name out there. That’s so important. Little girls are looking at these magazines, they see Murph and Kylie, and think, ‘I want to go to Stony Brook.’”

Ball movement keys potent Seawolves offense

Originally published in The Statesman

91 points against Princeton. 86 points against NJIT. 83 points against American, UMass Lowell and UMBC.

All of these point totals, achieved this season by the Stony Brook Men’s Basketball team, would have marked a season-best for the Seawolves against Division-I opponents last season.

In fact, Stony Brook is averaging an America East Conference-best 77.3 points per game in 20 contests so far in the 2015-16 season, making it the highest-scoring offense in the team’s Division-I era to date. The scoring is also a significant 11.9 point-per-game improvement from the Seawolves squad that averaged 65.4 points last year.

Ball movement and passing has been a major key in contributing to Stony Brook’s improved offensive efficiency this season, allowing the Seawolves to take more open shots.

Perhaps the best measure of a team’s passing ability is the rate at which it records assists, which are awarded when a player makes a pass that directly leads to a basket by another player. According to, an advanced statistics database for college basketball, Stony Brook has recorded an assist on 59.3 percent of its made field goals this season, up significantly from the 49.1 percent rate that last year’s team attained.

More simply, the Seawolves are averaging 17.3 assists per game as a team this season after averaging 12.0 assists last campaign.

Head coach Steve Pikiell praised his senior center, Jameel Warney, when asked about his team’s ball movement.

“It all starts with Jameel,” Pikiell said after Friday night’s home win against Albany. “He’s your best passer as your big guy and it’s an unselfish approach. Guys are good passers to begin with but it starts with him—the other day against Hartford he led us in assists.”

Warney, a two-time America East Player of the Year, demands more respect than most players in the low post, as teams throughout the season have thrown double-teams at the America East’s scoring leader, guarding him with multiple defenders. Warney excels in making plays out of double coverage, often passing the ball to a teammate across the court to reverse the point of attack and create holes in the opposing defense.

“I think that really helps the mindset of all the guys,” Pikiell added. “When your best player is willing to make the extra passes, then it’s kind of contagious. Luke [Woodhouse] is a good passer, Ahmad [Walker] can really pass the ball too.”

Neither Walker nor Woodhouse—a pair of junior guards—played for Stony Brook last season, as Walker was attending Barton Community College and Woodhouse was required by NCAA rules to redshirt, or sit out for one season, after transferring to Stony Brook from Longwood University. Their presence has elevated the team’s offensive game, particularly in the passing department.

Walker, as a starting wing player on Pikiell’s offense, has doled out 4.6 assists per game this season, leading the America East. The Port Washington-native notched eight dimes against both Loyola and Hofstra and has dished out at least three assists in 19 of 20 games this season.

Woodhouse, playing the role of the “sixth-man,” as the first substitute off the bench for the Seawolves, has added 3.3 assists per game himself. His prowess in facilitating ball movement was well-known to Stony Brook when he transferred. As a sophomore at Longwood, the point guard ranked fifth in the country with 6.7 assists per game.

The passing display by the Seawolves this season—often comprising of three or four passes directly leading to an open shot—has put the team head and heels above the rest of the conference offensively. Stony Brook leads the America East in scoring, two-point field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and assists.

For many years, Stony Brook has been known for its strong defense—leading in conference in fewest points allowed in five of the last eight seasons. But now, the team may finally have the offense to match its defensive play, perhaps making this team more dangerous than ever before as it seeks its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Two freshmen leading women’s basketball charge

Originally published in The Statesman

Stony Brook Women’s Basketball is off to its best start in America East history, beginning the conference slate with a 5-1 record. The team recently tied the Division-I program record by winning nine consecutive games before losing at Albany on Thursday. Over the course of those contests, the team outscored its opponents by 10.4 points per game.

The recent success has been spearheaded by two freshmen—forward Ogechi Anyagaligbo and guard Davion Wingate—who have starred for the Seawolves in recent weeks.

“We’re playing with confidence now,” Anyagaligbo said. “I can say for a fact that in our second game of the season, against Hofstra, I was terrified out there. Now we’re playing with more confidence and we know each other better. We’re playing as if we want it. We’re hungry for these games now.”

Anyagaligbo is one of two freshmen in the nation averaging a double-double per game this season, the other being Southern Mississippi forward Caitlin Jenkins. In addition, Anyagaligbo is looking to become the first player to average a double-double in the America East since the 2003-04 season. Perhaps more impressive is that she is making 59.3 percent of her shots, the best rate in the conference.

Anyagaligbo has started alongside senior forward Brittany Snow in the frontcourt each game this season for the Seawolves The freshman says she has learned a lot while following in the footsteps of Snow, the team’s leading scorer.

“Britt[any Snow], she just works so hard,” Anyagaligbo said. “She’s like a role model to me. Anything she does, I want to do it too.”

One of the other veteran leaders of the team, junior guard Kori Bayne-Walker, has missed much of the last month’s games with a lower-body injury first suffered against Wagner on Dec. 18 game and then re-aggravated against Binghamton on Jan. 6. According to Stony Brook Athletics, the Seawolves are aiming for Bayne-Walker to return next Saturday, when the team takes on Vermont at home.

“Those are some tough shoes to fill,” head coach Caroline McCombs said after Friday’s loss against Albany. “[Wingate has] done an outstanding job of coordinating everything we’re doing, stepping into that role. Being able to score the ball, finding open players, I think Davion has done an outstanding job of running our team.”

Wingate has excelled in the interim, acting as the starting point guard and averaging 14.1 points per game in her last nine games. Wingate, described in the past by McCombs as more of a scoring guard than a traditional point guard, says she has been working with Bayne-Walker to better run the Stony Brook offense.“It’s been a good opportunity for me to learn the point guard position better and learn some things from Kori,” Wingate said. “She always tells me to be confident.”

Wingate’s confidence has shown on the court, particularly late in games. Against Binghamton, she scored 17 points in the second half to lead her team to a comeback victory after her team trailed by 16 midway through the third quarter.

“I just don’t want to lose,” Wingate said, describing her tendency to take games over late. “I hate, hate, hate to lose.”

Although the pair of Seawolves freshmen have not seemed to have too much trouble at the collegiate level, Anyagaligbo spoke to the adjustment from high school to the NCAA, particularly the difference in game length. College women’s basketball has ten-minute quarters, making the game in total eight minutes longer than high school girl’s basketball, which has eight-minute quarters.

“I have to say that the eight minutes added onto the game have been a huge difference for me,” Anyagaligbo noted. “You have to be in better shape. The game’s longer and the court’s longer.”

Wingate has seen a huge uptick in playing time with Bayne-Walker out—she has played 322 of 325 total minutes of action in her last eight games.

The nine-game winning streak for the women’s basketball team had coincided with a 10-game winning streak from the men’s team, and one would be mistaken to think the players were unaware.

“There’s a friendly competition between the guys and the girls,” Anyagaligbo said in a mid-week interview. “You don’t want to be the first ones to lose, you know?”

Although the women’s team was ultimately the first of the two programs to lose in conference play, the pair of freshmen are no longer lacking in the confidence that had hindered them early in the season.

While Anyagaligbo acknowledged she was “terrified” before the November game against Hofstra, that is not the case anymore. She now enters games with more of a determined mentality.

“I expect us to win,” Anyagaligbo said. “I expect us to play our hardest ball, to go out there and not beat ourselves.”

Behind these two freshmen, Stony Brook has fulfilled Anyagaligbo’s rising expectations, as the Seawolves have enjoyed one of the best season starts in program history.

Warney committed to team and March Madness dream

Originally published at The Statesman

As a young boy growing up in northern New Jersey, Jameel Warney would shoot baskets for hours with his step-dad on a hoop outside his Plainfield home. When he was nine years old, Warney asked his mother, Denise, for a trampoline.

“For what?” she asked.

“I want to dunk.”

Even  during his elementary school years, it was apparent that for Warney, now a two-time defending America East Player of the Year, basketball was not merely a sport — it was an obsession.

“I can never get enough basketball,” the Stony Brook senior forward said. “I mean, I love playing the game, I love playing 2K [a basketball video game], I love watching basketball. When the NBA or college basketball is on, that’s my favorite time of the year.”

Sunrise to sunset, he breathes basketball. The sport has always been his only love, but he was not always as great at it as he is today.

In the summer following sixth grade, when Warney first played for Mike Heller, his longtime AAU coach on the New Jersey Hot Shots, he had already been playing in the yard for a few years. Warney liked the game and had size and strength that screamed potential. But he had never played organized basketball on a team before, and it showed.

“Jameel was maybe the worst basketball player I’d ever seen in my life,” Heller recalled. “He was lazy, not very talented. Just horrible. So bad.”

Such a description may have been appropriate at the time, but before long, it could not have been further from the truth.

Warney studied NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, emulating their style of play. He watched basketball religiously and improved along the way. Before long, Warney had footwork as good as any big man in Union County. According to Heller, Warney was dominating the Amateur Athletic Union competition by eighth grade.

His mother and Heller decided it would be best for Warney to attend high school at Roselle Catholic, a 25-minute drive from his home. Warney’s mother was concerned about the education at the inner-city Plainfield High School and preferred a private school. Warney was hesitant at first, but decided it would be for the best.

“Coming from an inner-city, you see a certain kind of lifestyle that certain people are living,” Heller said. “You either choose that lifestyle or you choose to be better than that lifestyle. From day one, Jameel’s always chosen the better lifestyle.”

At Roselle Catholic, Warney was a four-year starter, ranking first in school history in career rebounds and blocked shots and ranking second in career points. Warney helped turn Roselle Catholic into one of the best basketball schools in the state of New Jersey. A seven-win team in Warney’s freshman season, the Lions won 18 games by his junior season.

“He helped us start it all. Before he got here, not too many people knew about Roselle Catholic,” the high school’s head coach Dave Boff said. “By the time he left, we were a top-10 team in the state.”

Warney averaged a double-double in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons of high school and was considered by EKB Scouting Service as the fifth-best recruit in New Jersey that year.

Former Stony Brook guard Bryan Dougher played a major role in bringing Warney to the Seawolves. The two had known each other for six years, having both played on the Hot Shots. Using the lure of a new arena and a strong academic university, Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell was able to secure a verbal commitment from Warney early in the process.

Bigger and better-known schools across the country like Iowa and Tennessee offered him scholarships to play basketball, but Warney kept his commitment to attend Stony Brook.

“His loyalty, from day one, has been something special,” Pikiell said. “His loyalty to his teammates, to his university, to his friends; it’s probably his strongest suit.”

Warney may have the national accolades now—leading the NCAA in total rebounds and double-doubles last season—but he has not forgotten where he came from. Warney shows deep loyalty toward his hometown. He trains with his high school team during the summer and he calls his mother after every game.

“Plainfield means everything to me,” Warney said. “I grew up there, I lived there all my life. It’s just something I can’t forget about.”

When the two-time America East Defensive Player of the Year leaves Stony Brook, he will be the first male in his family to graduate college.

This year, Warney has been under a microscope during almost every team practice, with NBA scouts present monitoring his every move. Pikiell said that every team has been in contact and either has or will visit this fall. The special attention doesn’t deter Warney from his number one goal this season—winning an America East title.

“When I first came here, I saw it as a challenge. I wanted to be on the first team to make it to the tournament,” Warney said. “With this as my last year, I’m so obsessed with winning now. I want to cut down that net.”

Pikiell noted that Warney has stepped up more than ever as a leader. Sophomores Tyrell Sturdivant and Jakub Petráš have taken strides under Warney’s mentorship.

“He’s got a really playful personality—I think he plays around the most on our team. The thing with him though, is that when he steps between the lines, it’s wartime.” Sturdivant said. “That’s one thing I really learn from him.”

Warney will be ready for one last war. One last battle. Throughout his childhood, he dreamed of being able to dunk. His senior season provides one last chance to complete the biggest slam dunk of all—leading Stony Brook to its first NCAA tournament berth.