The first thing Melissa Sweeney had to do when hired last fall as assistant athletic director, physical education teacher, and lacrosse coach at Villa Maria Academy was find herself an assistant coach.

"And that's not easy," said the former West Chester Henderson and University of Maryland standout, who hired another Henderson graduate, Christa Somits.

After weekly "open turf" workouts during the winter at the United Sports Training Center near Downingtown for prospective team members, the Hurricanes started the season.

Now Sweeney has Villa, ranked 25th in Pennsylvania by LaxPower.com, in a position to defend its Athletic Association of Catholic Academies championship.

The Hurricanes (13-5 overall, 11-2 league) will play Merion Mercy, tops during the regular season, at 6 tonight at St. Joseph's University for the postseason title.

"We're very young, but we're learning," Sweeney said after the Hurricanes earned a 15-14 overtime victory Monday over Gwynedd-Mercy Academy in a semifinal. "Our sophomore class is our biggest, with about five or six of them starting."

Seniors Kathryn McHugh and Kelsey Nawalinski are Villa's defensive leaders, and sophomores Kyrstin Mackrides, Jordan Christopher and Molly McShea provide punch in the middle and up front. Mackrides scored two goals against Gwynedd.

"Molly was a JV starter at the beginning of the season, and has worked her way into the midfield," Sweeney said. "She played out of her mind against Gwynedd."

Speace is player of the year. Dickinson College senior Alex Speace, a graduate of Bishop Shanahan, has been named the Centennial Conference softball player of the year. She is the first Red Devils player to earn the honor.

"It never crossed my mind," Speace said of the award. "Our team didn't get a lot of press, but we had an awesome year.

Coach Matt Richwine "called me aside after practice one day to tell me who was named first team, second team and honorable mention. When he told me I was player of the year, my jaw dropped. At first I didn't know whether to believe him."

Speace also was named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association all-East region third team.

The shortstop, from Chester Springs, helped lead the Red Devils to a 17-14 record. She was fourth in the league in batting (.398), and came within one of the school record for doubles in a season with 13. Speace was second on the team in RBIs (24) and runs (21). She ranks second all-time at Dickinson with 32 career doubles and third with 141 hits.

Pair provide relief. Two Chester County pitchers provided plenty of relief this season for the West Chester University baseball team, which will start its bid today for a second straight berth in the NCAA Division II College World Series.

Sophomore Jason Bowman, a graduate of Downingtown, and freshman Bill Woomer, a Unionville grad, are a combined 7-1 for the Rams (30-15), who will face West Virginia State at 9 a.m. today in the North Atlantic regional tournament at Kutztown. The Rams won the double-elimination tourney last season to reach the World Series.

Woomer, a lefthander, is 2-0 with a 2.76 ERA in 161/3 innings of relief. Batters are hitting only .203 against him. Bowman, a righthander, is 5-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 321/3 innings.

Contact staff writer Don Beideman

at 610-701-7613 or dbeideman@phillynews.com.