Discipline fuels Lions to eight-game win streak

About a month ago, head coach Sharon Pfluger declared that her team needed to regain their discipline after losing 3-0 to No. 1-ranked Salisbury University on Nov. 9. Since that game, the No. 4-ranked Lions have run the table, outscoring their opponents 34-4. This 8-0 stretch included two victories last week over Manhattanville College and SUNY Cortland.

While the offense has been productive, it’s been the defense that has really thrived recently. Before surrendering a goal in the 7-1 win over Manhattanville on Oct. 27, the Lions (18-2) held their opponents scoreless for over 381 minutes.

Young players have stepped up all year for the Lions. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Del Turco)

“I think a lot of it was to do with our communication,” senior goalkeeper Shannon Syciarz said. “We really focus on that in practice, making sure we know who has our back at all times, and it’s a total team effort. We always know who’s backing us up and there’s always people to feed it back up field, so we’re never in a defensive trend.”

Syciarz, who was the NJAC Goalkeeper of the Year in 2010, has been the anchor to the Lions stout defense, allowing only .78 goals per game this season.

“We have a very strong goalie,” Pfluger said. “Our defensive unit is strong and we’ve done it with kids in different positions, but that just shows that I have kids who are versatile. Other kids have learned to play defense.”

The Lions also received strong play from another senior, Alex Okuniewicz, this past week, as the defender was active on both defense and offense.

Okuniewicz had a hand in the Lions attack against the Valiants, recording two assists, as well as three goals in the College’s 5-0 victory over SUNY Cortland on Oct. 30. However, it was her work with Syciarz and junior defender Camille Passucci — a trio that Pfluger calls “the spine” of the defense — that really impressed her head coach.

“We have experience with Alex Okuniewicz, who is a great player,” Pfluger said. “(Okuniewicz) and (Syciarz) have played together for four years, and then you put (Passucci) in the mix, who is solid. Then you add in those support players and you have a very strong unit.”

Another focal point of the Lions’ recent run, and during the season as a whole, has been Passucci and junior forward Caitlyn Jenkins’ performances on offense.

After last season, a lot of people expected senior midfielder/forward Leigh Mitchell and junior midfielder/forward Kathleen Notos to lead the Lions offense, but due to injuries, a void was left to be filled.

In stepped Passucci and Jenkins.

“It was hard for (Mitchell) and (Notos) to be out the first part of the season, but it was an opportunity for other kids to really take control out on the field and we needed that,” Pfluger said. “There was no option and it wasn’t something we talked it, it was just like, ‘Hey, here we go.’”

The junior duo, who each ended the regular season tied for a team-leading 36 points, have been there game-in and game-out this year, and last week was no different.

Passucci netted a hat trick against the Valiants, while Jenkins produced a combined three goals and two assists in the two victories.

“They’ve done a tremendous job stepping up, making plays when we need them,” Syciarz said. “They’ve really been scoring, which takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the defense.”

Syciarz, Okuniewicz, Mitchell, Notos and senior defender Jessica Persicketti were all honored for their contributions as Lions on Senior Night against the Valiants.

With the regular season now at its end, the Lions will look ahead to tonight’s game against Kean University in the NJAC’s inaugural field hockey conference tournament.