Navy Women Look to Raise National Profile
by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com
"I'm looking for our team to pull together and prove to the rest of the world what Navy lacrosse is about," goalie Elaina Ponchione says of Thursday's showdown wih Northwestern.
Ever since Elaina Ponchione was in fourth grade, she wanted to go to the Naval Academy.
When Navy added Division I women's lacrosse in 2008, it sealed the easiest choice in the world for the goaltender from nearby Silver Spring, Md.
"It was the ideal situation," said Ponchione, a junior who has started every game of her career for the Midshipmen. "There were very few recruits, and I knew I had an opportunity. I knew it was a program that would excel rapidly."
Last year, Navy became the third-fastest program to make an NCAA tournament when it won the Patriot League tournament in its third season to advance automatically, then won its play-in game against Sacred Heart before falling to North Carolina in the NCAA first round.
"It's definitely set the bar a little higher," Ponchione said. "Every year, we're going a little further and getting a little better. We have such confidence in the freshmen that have come in. We know we'll only continue to grow and get better."
Navy is 5-0 so far, but three of its first five opponents are still winless after the weekend, and only Ohio State is .500. To take the next step, Navy is improving its schedule, and it's hard to find anyone tougher than their next opponent, No. 2 Northwestern.
"I can't explain how excited I am for this game," Ponchione said. "It's like the ultimate goal. It's the game I've been looking forward to my entire career, from high school to now. I'm looking for our team to pull together and prove to the rest of the world what Navy lacrosse is about. This is just the beginning. I have 100 percent faith we'll show what we have."
Northwestern will visit Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium 7 p.m. Thursday, the sixth straight home game for Navy, and the first time that these two teams have met.
"It's a chance to expose our team and a chance to show everybody how good and tough Navy lacrosse is regardless of outcome," said Navy head coach Cindy Timchal. "For us, being new, we wanted to ease into the tougher teams. Ultimately, we'd like to add the Hopkins and Georgetowns and establish the local rivalries. The scheduling is always a challenge because everyone is tied into their conference."
The Midshipmen won a program-record 17 games last year, but did so against a schedule ranked 67th in the country. The year before, it was ranked 77th in the country, and in its inaugural season, Navy's schedule was ranked 80th out of 85 teams.
"We had record-breaking winning in our first year," Timchal said. "We try to set landmarks every year. That helps to get a high level of interest from top level players from all over the country."
By competing at a higher level, the Midshipmen will continue to grow and attract better players. Navy's current crop is all for beefing up the non-conference schedule.
"I think these games, playing Ohio State, playing Northwestern, help," said Ponchione, who set a career-high with 15 saves in the 9-8 win over OSU. "I hope we bring in better and better teams.
"Honestly, if it means less wins, if that's what it takes to get us better, that's fine. I think playing competition at the next level is what we need to get us better."
Said Timchal: "We want to know what it is to compete at that level. We've done that slowly each year."
Timchal pointed out that the Patriot League is getting tougher. Holy Cross beat Yale. Lehigh took Delaware to overtime and handed a defending conference champion, Marist, a loss. Other Patriot teams are recognizing and responding to Navy's development on the field and in recruiting.
"We've demonstrated we can be good," Timchal said. "By winning a conference championship, by beating Holy Cross in our first conference game when they were the defending champion, when you do those things people take notice. It does attract players. We have an incredible class of tremendous young athletes coming in next year. It's a reflection of all the work of the players and us who started all this, just gradually getting stronger every year."
Ponchione admitted it was a big adjustment to go from the regular season schedule, that did include Duke last year, to playing UNC in the NCAA tournament last year.
"I think we're still developing our mental aspect," Ponchione said. "It's a different mental level. I think that's something we're really learning a lot this year.
"We all have the physical capabilities. I think it's bringing out the best in everyone out on the field and wrapping our heads around the mental aspect that we do have what it takes to compete, that's the most intimidating part. We haven't yet had the chance to bring out the best part in everyone. That's what we have to look forward to."
Gauging just how much Navy has grown up since last year can be tough, particularly by lining up against Northwestern. The Wildcats come off a 17-6 demolition of a Vanderbilt team that knows it well from conference play and was perched just outside the top 10.
"It's really hard to judge," said Timchal, who faced Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller when she coached at Maryland. "Northwestern is the type of team that can tear apart a team."
"The one thing we will find out," she added, "is what works and what doesn't work and what direction we need to go. We intend to fight as hard as we can no matter what the score is."
Timchal's team is still young in terms of big-game experience. Last year, the Mids took a huge step in winning the Patriot tournament and playing in the NCAAs. Thursday is another opportunity to build.
"We have to be tough, tough, tough," Timchal said. "We'll see how it goes. We know how tough they're going to be. We didn't back away from scheduling Northwestern. We want to see how we measure up."