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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Saint Mary’s celebrates NCAA-bound lacrosse team with early graduation

There was a lot of joy around Saint Mary’s on Monday morning. The Belles were coming off their second straight MIAA lacrosse tournament championship. At 10:30 a.m., they’d find out who they would play in the NCAA Tournament.

Then, the announcement came that Saint Mary’s would travel to Denison, Ohio, to face No. 14 Catholic at 2 p.m. Saturday. All great, except for the fact that ten Belles seniors were slated to graduate Saturday at noon.

“There was no way to ask for a later game [because the Belles were playing so far away],” head coach Amy Long said.

They didn’t need to. While the seniors will miss the main commencement ceremony, Saint Mary’s rallied to put together a small commencement ceremony Thursday for the graduating members of its women’s lacrosse team.

“It was wonderful. After the win on Saturday, we were talking about it pretty shortly after,” Saint Mary’s athletic director Julie Schroeder-Biek commented. “I was talking to [special assistant to the President Michelle Egan] in the president’s office, and they were on it. They have made it bigger than I could have ever dreamed.”

For Schroeder-Biek, it represented a way to honor a group of athletes that made history at Saint Mary’s. The current seniors were freshmen on the first Belles squad to win the MIAA regular season championship. These past two years represent the first NCAA Tournament berths in program history.

“What a great career for them. They’ve had such great success. They have not missed a beat, they’re just competitors,” Schroeder-Biek said.

Saint Marys shows out to support the team

Saint Mary’s also took steps to accommodate families. Many were in attendance, having previously booked flights to arrive Wednesday or Thursday. Senior attacker Gabby Belsito said her family had landed barely an hour prior to the graduation ceremony. For those families unable to make it, Saint Mary’s sports information director Sarah Miesle livestreamed the commencement. This allowed both families and team alumni to tune in.

This was not a traditional ceremony, but it was not lacking in tradition. President Katie Conboy led a parade of Saint Mary’s faculty, all decked out in full regalia, down the aisle in the Angela Athletic and Wellness Center.

“You guys [the president’s office] got word out to the faculty. And they’re coming out in full regalia,” Schroeder-Biek said. “This is Saint Mary’s. Just so much support between the faculty and athletics.”

Coach Long agreed with the sentiment: “That’s Saint Mary’s, the faculty show up for their students.”

But it wasn’t all traditional. As the athletes followed, upbeat trap remix music played. After Conboy finished her own walk — better classified as a strut to the tune — to the stage, she remarked that it was the “strangest version of Pomp and Circumstance that she had heard.”

Complete with a small speech from Conboy and a blessing on the graduates and the team, the Commencement ceremony lasted a brief 21 minutes.

“It’s definitely exciting. I didn’t think I was going to be able to graduate,” Belsito said. “It’s so nice that they were able to put this together for us.”

Senior attack Gabby Belsito receives her diploma and shares a laugh with Saint Mary’s President Katie Conboy.

Belles look for first NCAA Tournament win

For this senior class, their careers have been about growth.

“Getting better every day, every week, every game,” Long said. “As a group we were working really hard every day to get better.”

When Belsito and the rest of the senior class were freshmen, the Belles ran the table in the regular season, going 8-0 in MIAA play. They then lost 13-12 in the semifinal to Hope, a team they had beaten 22-8 just weeks previously. Then COVID hit, and the Belles lost a chance at immediate redemption.

“Hard to tell what would have happened that year. I think that the team just kept with it, especially in the offseason,” Belsito said. “Coming back, we just had that drive and determination to make it to the tournament.”

The Belles did that, beating Hope in the MIAA championship. However, they lost 17-2 in their NCAA Tournament game. Now, the Belles look to take that next step.

Getting there was not a guarantee. The Belles lost a pair of regular season conference games, each by one goal. They finished the regular season in a three-way tie for second place, earning the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament via tiebreaker. Saint Mary’s beat Hope 16-13 in the semifinal. Then, they faced Trine, a team they suffered an overtime defeat to in the regular season. The Belles won 19-15. Belsito and fellow All-MIAA First Team selection senior midfielder Bridget Kane each scored four goals. Belsito and Kane both were two of four Belles to earn All-MIAA First or Second Team honors.

“There are so many girls that deserved to be All-MIAA. Especially from an attack perspective, that was probably our weakest point at the beginning of the season, it was nice to be able to help with the goals and assists,” Belsito said. “We’ve come a long way. Definitely couldn’t have done that without my team.”

Both Schroeder-Biek and Long expressed their excitement and pride in the team’s path to what they hope is a multi-game NCAA Tournament stay.

“It is wonderful. We are so excited about it to do it two years in a row. We lost a really strong class this year, and for this team to come back, it’s all about teamwork,” Schroeder-Biek said. “To come through and be the tournament champions was so exciting.”

Long added, “It’s redemption. We lost two games in our regular-season conference play, each by one... especially against Trine — that redemption arc was part of it. We played Hope in the first game of the season - the growth that we’ve had since then, it’s a whole different team now.”

The Belles will look to prove they are not only a whole different team from earlier this season, but also from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, the first ten graduates of Saint Mary’s Class of 2022 will take the field with their teammates and look to make Saint Mary’s history one more time.