Ed. Note — This story will appear in a future edition of The Eagle Tribune
Before the Merrimack women’s lacrosse program left campus for its NE10 championship game against Le Moyne last month, Merrimack head coach Julie Duffy gathered the players on the field at Duane Stadium and asked them what was missing underneath the scoreboard?
“They said there was no women’s lacrosse banner,” they told her.
For most programs in the NCAA, the season ends with a playoff loss. For the Merrimack women’s lacrosse team, the season ended with a thrilling 10-9 win over top-ranked Le Moyne to capture the 2019 NE10 Women’s Lacrosse Championship last month.
“We were the last field team that didn’t have a banner hanging up, and now we get to hang one,” Duffy said. “These are the moments you live for as a coach. Watching the players commit and reach their goal.”
Unlike other sports with automatic bids, the Warriors were left out of the NCAA Tournament. But that didn’t diminish what was a spectacular way to complete their season, and Division II history.
“A few years ago there were only eight teams that made it and now there’s 16,” said Duffy. “That says a lot. I just wrote something for the IWLCA, our coaching body, and we have a group of people making selections that are supposed to look at things deeper than just numbers, but then we generally make selections just based off the numbers. If that’s the case, why not just have a computer do it?
“With football, their process takes a while because there are all these people talking in a room. Personally, I don’t think our top-16 in this year’s tournament reflected the actual top-16 teams in the country, but we did our own damage. We didn’t have the wins in the region, so I understand it.”
Merrimack’s 11-8 overall record wasn’t that impressive on paper, but looking more inside the numbers, it was an extraordinary run.
Every single loss came against a nationally-ranked opponent (except UMass Lowell, which is Division I). In the NE10 tournament, Merrimack knocked off both the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams in the nation — both on the road — and also beat the No. 19-ranked team in the country on the road.
“We were right there all year,” Duffy said. “That was our sell to the players all season. Our games could have gone either way. Some of it was a mental thing, our ability to believe in ourselves and believe that we deserved the chance to be in those games. Three years ago we were 4-12, and to be where we are now, three years later, is huge. We started to develop that confidence midway through the year and we knew we could compete with Adelphi and Le Moyne. They are giants in our world. For a while, I think we had this mentality that we were just little Merrimack trying to hang with these teams, but that all changed in the postseason. We finally believed that we belonged with those giants.”
Merrimack’s imminent move to Division I meant that this was the last chance these Warriors would have to play for a championship trophy. That was something that Duffy and her staff continued to impress upon the players.
While the program is excited for its move up in rank, it would also be intriguing to see what this roster could have done with a few more seasons in Division II.
“I think we’d do amazing things,” Duffy said. “We have a really talented roster. They’ll be talented at the mid-D-I level as well. That’s what was so special about this postseason. The next goal for us is to win the NEC regular-season title.”
The NE10 championship also helps put the Warriors program back on the map. After six straight losing seasons, the Warriors have posted a 25-12 record over the last two seasons and capped that off with a championship trophy that they can show off to potential recruits on campus visits.
That, combined with a new stadium on campus, has created a buzz around the program with recruits.
“Last year’s senior class won more games last year than they did in their previous three years combined,” said Duffy. “Merrimack was off the map in women’s lacrosse for a while. This put us back on the map. It’s been a climb the last few years, but the last two seasons — and this season winning a championship — gets our name out there. Our first year the record didn’t change but we closed the gap as far as scoring margins. The way this year ended proves that Merrimack can be an institution that produces very good women’s lacrosse.
“Not too many programs can do what we did over a five-day period and win a championship. That’s the fun part. We did it in a historic way. It’s the first, the last and the only NE10 championship we’ll win.”