You put up a slew of first-ever achievements, they can seem like they dropped out of the sky.
“Milestone after milestone, and setting records,” said Courtney Dietzel, in her fifth year playing attack for the Drexel women’s lacrosse team. “It’s been amazing.”
First time ever for this program to reach the NCAA Tournament. First time for this particular group even making the top four of the Colonial Athletic Association, to qualify for the conference tournament. A huge first-ever: Reaching the top 10 in the national rankings.
Nope, these girls didn’t see it coming, until it came.
“When it happened, we all just kind of believed it, and said, ‘Exactly,’ " Dietzel said.
If 2021 in local college sports is the year of Drexel, after men’s and women’s basketball had already qualified for March Madness, maybe the last week made it official. First, Drexel men’s lacrosse won the CAA, qualifying for its second-ever NCAA bid.
“Kind of a different guy every game,” Drexel men’s lacrosse coach Brian Voelker said of how his 10-2 group reached the NCAA Tournament, winning the CAA title, next facing Notre Dame on Saturday in Denver in the program’s first NCAA appearance since 2014. Also, the Drexel women’s rowing team won the Dad Vail varsity 8 (again) on Saturday, with the men coming in second to Temple.
Women’s lacrosse has maybe been the biggest eyebrow-raiser. The Dragons did not win the CAA, losing the tournament final in overtime to James Madison. But after being picked to finish third out of four in the CAA North in the preseason, Drexel already had assured itself of an NCAA bid after winning eight straight going into that final, including an OT semifinal thriller over Towson.
Why this year’s team?
“It’s really interesting because if you look at the last three years, it’s really been the same girls the whole time,” said Dietzel, from Central Bucks South High. “It’s surprising and shocking. And, at the same time, not at all.”
A so-so team, you’d shrug and say, that’s who they are. But this group is 13-2 going into Friday’s first-round NCAA game against Rutgers up at Stony Brook. Having the same players as, say, the 6-10 2019 team or the 4-12 2018 team suggests maturity played a major role.
Tuesday, the players were in full get-ready-for-Rutgers mode, starting with a scouting report before practice. OK to listen in?
“I’d rather you not,” Dragons coach Jill Batcheller said good-naturedly after welcoming a reporter to the premises.
Hey, this is not the time to give away state secrets. Talk to the players, they’ll make it clear that the arrival of Batcheller from Bryant University, her bringing in assistants who had all played the game at the highest NCAA levels … expectations got raised, and their focus with it.
The players talk of a “super dynamic attack” and a defense that is “so aggressive, so passionate. They really bring the fire.”
Definition of dynamic? Is this a fast team?
“Very fast,” attacker Colleen Grady said.
“We like to think so,” Dietzel said.
What does Batcheller bring to the table?
“She’s so wise,” said Grady, a senior from Glen Ridge, N.J. “She literally could plan for any situation lacrosse-wise. I feel like we’re so prepared for any situation we go into. With that, she’s so passionate. She just has a genuine love of the sport.”
“I’ve never met anyone who loves lacrosse as much as she does,” Dietzel said. “She’s always watching film. … She does feedback meetings with every single person on the team every two weeks, so you always know where you are.”
Those individual feedback meetings. Blunt honesty comes with them?
“Sometimes they’re really high,” Grady said. “Sometimes you get brought back down and find out the things you need to work on. I think it really helps because it lets you reassess and lets you figure out your little things that helps you be your best player.”
“Transparency is key here,” Dietzel said. “You always know where you stand.”
As her team warmed up, Batcheller talked about a group of players good at supporting each other, which shows up on and off the field. Their biggest strength, the coach said.
Their aggression also stands out, Batcheller said. Did she think they were ready for this kind of jump? Batcheller points out they were 5-2 last season before COVID-19 ended the season before conference play began, with one-goal losses to Georgetown and Johns Hopkins the only blemishes. She felt like they were just starting to click and connect.
“Hearing our name, that was a really special and historic moment for this team,” Batcheller said of Sunday night’s NCAA announcement. “I felt like we were really consistent all year long and really earned the opportunity to be here.”
She spoke of building blocks that apply across sports and life, of being disciplined and sticking with the plan “to win” to the end. On the field, being fast in making decisions. They talked at the beginning of the year that if they led the CAA in the micro stats, it would lead to success. The Dragons were first in shots and shot percentage and draw controls and still third in fewest turnovers.
Even in practice warmup drills Tuesday at their field at 43rd and Powelton, the Dragons looked fast. Of course, practicing for your first-ever NCAA game wouldn’t be a time to ho-hum it. It was a reminder, though … all this success did not drop out of the sky, no matter what the forecasts said.