Ask a head coach at any level — whether it’s prep, collegiate or professional — and he or she will tell you how important the offseason is. It’s the time for teams and players to review what went wrong in the prior season and make changes heading into a new campaign.
Whatever the Yale women’s lacrosse team did this past offseason has worked in spades, as the Bulldogs raced out to a 6-3 record after finishing in the Ivy League cellar in 2017. A year removed from just one conference win, Yale won its first two Ivy League games en route to the program’s best start since 2002.
Led by third-year head coach Erica LaGrow, the Bulldogs also recorded significant wins against previously ranked opponents, including Albany and UMass.
What’s behind the uptick? Senior leadership, defense and increased attention to detail.
“We have a lot of great senior leaders on our team who helped us focus in the offseason working on our fundamentals, which has helped us this season, especially (with) closing out close games,” sophomore defender Margaret Stover (West Simsbury, Conn.) said.
Indeed, the most noteworthy change for the Bulldogs this season may be their performance with games on the line. In 2017, they lost four games by two goals or less. This season, the Bulldogs have pulled out two-goal wins against Albany and Brown, and used overtime to defeat a Harvard team that had beaten Yale in their seven previous matchups.
“We’ve become a very detailoriented team, on and off the field, especially in practice,” said junior attack Izzy Nixon (Greenwich, Conn.). “Whether it’s making sure our toes are behind the line or being aware of the shot clock, that detail-oriented mindset has translated into key possessions for us in games.”
The biggest task for Yale this offseason was plugging up holes in the defense. The team graduated four senior starters on the defensive end, including Victoria Moore, an All-Ivy League honorable mention selection last season.
In order to add defensive depth, LaGrow turned seniors Taryn Gallagher and Emma Dunne into defenders after they spent three seasons as midfielder and attack, respectively. Nixon says assistant coach Colleen Smith did a great job working on the new defensive unit in the fall.
“(They) spent a lot of time rebuilding our defense and creating a lot of depth there,” Nixon said. “That set of defense has put so much time in, especially in game prep this year. They’ve been tirelessly watching film and prepping against what offenses other teams can throw at us.”
So far, the results are there. Yale is allowing 11.03 goals per game in 2018 after allowing 11.94 goals per contest last season.
“We really focused on coming together as a defensive unit,” Stover added. “Our coaches have focused on building defensive chemistry among the people who play a lot and among the people who don’t play as much. It’s important in practice when we all mesh together.”
Yale’s offense also has shined in the new season, averaging 12.67 goals per game. Much of this is thanks to Nixon, a Greenwich Academy alumna well on her way to surpassing her 40 point-mark of a year ago. She had 15 goals and seven assists through nine games, but her biggest strength is draw controls. She has 86 on the season, leading the Ivy League by a wide margin.
As an upperclassman on the team, Nixon has worked closely with freshman attack Kayla Duperrouzel, who was named Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week and Inside Lacrosse National Rookie of the Week in the same week. Duperrouzel has 15 goals and three assists in the young season.
“She brings a lot of strength and power to our team, which is really crucial, especially on that elbow,” Nixon said. “That’s something we’ve been lacking over the years and she brings it to the table; we’re really excited about that.”
It’s been a memorable start to the season, but the Bulldogs know not to get ahead of themselves. The team started off 5-3 a year ago before getting into the thick of conference play.
Stover says the key to Yale maintaining this level of play is to continue going into each game feeling like the underdog.
“When we go into games playing to win and not playing not to lose, that’s when we play our best,” Stover said. “Going into every game knowing every Ivy League game is going to be a battle is our focus.”
On top of that, the Bulldogs have a challenging second half of the season in front of them. Games against No. 14 Towson, No. 17 Princeton and No. 7 Penn await.
All the work and preparation Yale did in the offseason has set up the Bulldogs to carry this success to the end.
“It’s definitely easy for teams to rest on their laurels, but that’s nothing we expect to do,” Nixon said. “We have a group of women and a coaching staff we know can take this program to the next level. We know what we’re capable of, but we still have to prove it to the rest of the world.”