By Jim O'Hara
SAVANNAH, Ga.--The game has been in the back of their minds since February, when they first set up the upcoming scenario that takes place Sunday in Savannah.
When the Shorter women's lacrosse team goes up against the Savannah College of Art and Design Bees in a noon National Women's Lacrosse League showdown, the outcome will determine who will be the top-ranked team in the league.
And that takes on an even greater meaning for Shorter's Lady Hawks who, in their final season as a league member – and a charter member at that – and not eligible to compete in the NWLL national tournament as the program transitions itself to the NCAA Division II ranks, are determined to secure the No. 1 spot.
"This is very big. Not only will it probably decide who the No. 1 team is in the NWLL but it will also determine the top seed for the conference tournament," Shorter head coach Brittni Dulaney said about the game between the No. 2-ranked Lady Hawks and No. 1 SCAD, which has been at the top of the league despite being handed an 11-10 defeat by Shorter on Feb. 16.
"That's why we're hoping to win this one – to get that No. 1 ranking and keep it," the coach said, "because we don't go to the national tournament."
Shorter, now 10-3 overall and 3-0 in the NWLL's South Region, enters the game – it marks the seventh-straight road trip – riding a four-game win streak, the latest Lady Hawks' win coming Wednesday when they rolled past region foe Emmanuel 19-8.
That victory underlined what has allowed the Lady Hawks to put together the successful season: balance at both ends of the field.
Offensively, Shorter heads to Savannah with a multi-headed offensive monster, one that averages nearly 12 goals a game and has seen six players reach double digits in goals. Junior Avery Armstrong leads the charge splitting the pipes for 31 goals, sophomore Mia Wiggins has notched 20, junior Rachel Skinner has added 18, junior Bianca Rojas and freshman Shelby Beverly have 16 each, and senior Aiste Pranciliauskaite has produced 14.
The share-the-wealth theme carries over into the assist category where Armstrong has eight helps, and Skinner, Pranciliauskaite and junior Katie Ott have seven each for the Lady Hawks.
When tasked to defend their own goal, the Lady Hawks continue to look to balance to keep opponents at bay. While junior goalie Taylor Moody has been a stalwart in the crease, where she has made 97 saves and has an 8.87 goals against average, juniors Desiree Watson-Isom and Kari Chambers, and sophomore Bethany Fevella have played havoc on foes having caused 19, 17 and 17 turnovers, respectively.
"The girls are coming together and playing well as a team," said Dulaney, who along with the Lady Hawks fully understand that they will have to play an even more complete game this time around against SCAD, which comes into the game with an 8-3 overall record and are 2-1 in the region.
The Bees – SCAD plays St. Andrew's on Saturday in a non-NWLL matchup that the Lady Hawks will attend – are led by two potent threats: Kayla Nelson, who has 34 goals and 11 assists, and Haley Fauvelle, who has 22 goals, 19 assists.
"Those two make things happen but they have others who can step up," Dulaney said about SCAD's own depth. "If our defense plays the way they've been playing, we'll do well."
Odds are, the two teams will meet a third time this season in the region championships next weekend in Savannah, with the winner of Sunday's game that will be the top seed advancing to the title game playing the winner of the opening round of the tourney between Sunday's loser (the No. 2 seed) and No. 3 seed Emmanuel.
It's also a good bet that the two teams could follow the same storyline that took place in the first meeting of the year nearly two months ago, one that ranks as perhaps the best game ever played in the Lady Hawks' three-year history.
In that epic battle, SCAD broke out to a 5-0 halftime lead and led by six goals with just under 24 minutes to play. But the Lady Hawks charged back scoring six unanswered goals to tie the game, the last one by Rojas with 12 seconds remaining that sent the affair into overtime. Two overtime periods and two sudden victory periods later, Rojas delivered the game-winner with her third goal of the game.
"We couldn't do anything offensively in the first half," said Dulaney, who will see her team close out the regular season on Tuesday finally returning home to Brady Field to host non-league foe, Young Harris at 5 p.m.
"This time we know we have to play the whole game and execute."