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At Stony Brook, a Lacrosse Powerhouse Built of Overlooked Recruits

New York Times - Tue May 4 21:34

“We’re going to show them what they missed,” Coach Joe Spallina says of Stony Brook’s ability to compete with Division I heavyweights in women’s lacrosse.

Stony Brook’s women’s lacrosse team beat the University of Maryland-Baltimore County on Saturday and will start its conference tournament on Thursday.

Joe Spallina had just delivered his speech and handed out his pregame assignments, but before his Stony Brook women’s lacrosse team left the locker room to play fourth-ranked Syracuse at the Carrier Dome last year, the brash head coach paused.

He looked at his players, virtually every one of them from Long Island, and asked how many of them had been recruited by Syracuse, one of the powerhouses of college lacrosse. No one raised a hand. “Yeah,” Spallina told them, “because they don’t think you’re any good.” With that, he walked out.

Encapsulated in that one motivational poke check is the foundation upon which Spallina has built a lacrosse dynasty at Stony Brook, a team built of scrappy, unheralded Long Islanders looking to prove a point. They certainly did so that day, beating Syracuse, 17-16, with the help of four goals from Ally Kennedy, a dynamo midfielder from North Babylon, who embodies Spallina’s Long Island vs. The World ethos.

“He reminds me every day that I was overlooked,” said Kennedy, a fifth-year player who was only lightly recruited out of high school. With players like Kennedy, Spallina has turned Stony Brook into a citadel of women’s lacrosse in less than a decade, taking a team at a mid-sized university with an undergraduate enrollment of about 17,000 students and making it one of the best college sports programs in the New York region, able to compete with some of the best lacrosse schools in the country.

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Ally Kennedy has 52 goals this year, giving her 245 in her career, the third most in school history.

“You look at the national rankings and there is one school that sticks out,” Spallina said of his own team. “We don’t belong with those schools. We’re the ones who walk into the party and the record stops. We savor that.”

Currently ranked No. 6 in the nation, the Seawolves have won eight consecutive America East Conference regular-season titles under Spallina and are going for their eighth straight conference tournament title this week. The Seawolves have won 52 straight conference games dating back to 2014, a streak that trails only Oklahoma softball’s 65 consecutive conference wins in the Big 12 for the most in any Division I sport that the N.C.A.A. tracks.

In recent years, the program has become a phenomenon in lacrosse circles, especially on Long Island. The Seawolves placed second in attendance among women’s lacrosse programs twice in the three years before the pandemic and their Instagram following of 16,000 is more than double any other Stony Brook team, including men’s lacrosse and football.

Stony Brook has also produced some of the sport’s biggest stars, like the 2018 graduate Kylie Ohlmiller, the N.C.A.A.’s career leader in assists (246) and points (498); her younger sister Taryn, a fifth-year attacker whose 37 assists are tied for ninth-highest in the country; and Kennedy. All are from Long Island, all were undervalued as high school recruits, and all reflect Spallina’s brassy self-confidence, both in himself and his players.

On game days, Spallina, dressed in a crisp tie and jacket, energetically struts the sidelines issuing instructions, but will pause occasionally to laugh at a joke from one of his players on the bench.

Once, when Kylie Ohlmiller was having a rare tough game during her senior year, Spallina called her over to the sideline during live action. Her defender dutifully stood right next to her, listening in while Spallina told Ohlmiller that the defender was not biting on her usual tricks. He detailed exactly what he wanted Ohlmiller to do, and it resulted in more goals.

“He didn’t care she was listening,” said Ohlmiller, who now plays professionally for Athletes Unlimited and has emerged as the face of women’s lacrosse, but still helps out at Seawolves practices from time to time. “He had such confidence in what I can do. That is the epitome of what he’s done for my career.”

Spallina calls the Ohlmillers, Kennedy and all the players on the team rock stars, and notes that they have become role models in the community, with schoolgirls from all over the island demanding autographs at games.

The hometown section of the Seawolves roster reads like the index of a Long Island atlas: Mount Sinai, Northport, Rockville Centre, East Islip, North Babylon and Long Beach. Ninety percent of the roster comes from that lacrosse-rich region, and Spallina calls it self-sustaining.

“We’re all from Long Island and we’re building this whole community of Long Island lacrosse fans, young girls coming to Stony Brook to watch women’s lacrosse,” said Kylie Ohlmiller.

In 2012, Spallina took over a program that had gone 63-80 (.441) in its first nine years as a varsity sport (20-33 in the America East). Since then, Stony Brook is 155-29 (.842) over all and an astonishing 55-2 in conference play.

To build this regional dynasty, Spallina has mined Long Island for all the hidden gems left behind after the traditional powerhouses sweep the area. The top teams, including No. 3 Syracuse and No. 1 North Carolina, also recruit well on Long Island. Each has several Islanders on its roster and the Tar Heels even plucked defender Maddie Hoffer right out of the town of Stony Brook. Maryland has its share, too, including a pair from Spallina’s hometown, Rocky Point.

Teams like that can often entice the premium recruits, while Spallina looks for the ones left behind, the gritty ones who may want it more.

“It’s the kid who carries their bag to the car instead of handing it to their parents, the kid who says, ‘Thank you, sorry and please,’ the kid that looks you in the eye. They are where their feet are, not the kid who is looking at the mountain and trips on the mole hill.”

Kylie Ohlmiller, who is from Islip, said very few other schools recruited her — none of the major powers — and that no one showed as much faith in her as Spallina. Kennedy said the only other big-college push for her was from Ohio State.

Some of Spallina’s players were even overlooked on their own high school or travel teams, only to develop later. Spallina nurtures their desire to show the world how good they can become, for many tapping into a reservoir of inner resentment over the big schools having left them dangling.

“I’ll tell them, ‘I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but did North Carolina call you? No. Did Syracuse call you? No, they didn’t. That’s fine, we’re going to show them what they missed.’”

Spallina said that Kennedy, whom he calls the best midfielder in the country, did not even start for her travel team. Many felt that at 5-foot-3, she was too small to play midfield and not skilled enough for the attack position. But she has 52 goals this year, giving her 245 in her career, the third most in school history.

Spallina’s true feelings about Kennedy are seen through the ID he programmed for her into his smartphone. When Kennedy calls him, his screen flashes the words, “The Franchise.”

“He sold me on the dream of playing on a nationally ranked team,” Kennedy said, “and now I’m living that dream.”

Spallina, 48, and his wife have five kids, all of whom play lacrosse. His oldest son, Joey Spallina, recently committed to Syracuse as the top 2022 recruit in the country. Joe Spallina played both soccer and lacrosse at Adelphi University and then taught and coached boys lacrosse at Rocky Point High School, his alma mater. One day the athletic director there asked him to coach the girls team. He initially resisted, but the move changed his life.

He also coached the New York men’s Major League Lacrosse team for nine years and the women’s team at Adelphi, where he compiled a remarkable 73-2 record, including three consecutive Division II women’s championships.

As the Seawolves enter their conference tournament on Thursday, the goal of reaching a Final Four and winning a national title has thus far been unrealized. In 2018, Stony Brook was ranked No. 1 in the country from February until the end of the regular season, but were handed the fifth seed in the tournament and lost in double overtime at Boston College in the second round.

“We got mid-majored,” Spallina said. “We don’t pay the same rent those guys do, and we got screwed.”

The Seawolves have made the N.C.A.A. tournament every year that Spallina has been at Stony Brook but have made it to the third round only once. Until they do, the players will continue to feel a little left out, much the way they did when the big college programs ignored them all out of high school.

“It’s what we’ve talked about in that huddle for the last 10 years,” Kylie Ohlmiller said at a Seawolves practice last week. “When it does happen, I will be here. It’s going to be a very, very proud moment for all of us who have ever had that Stony Brook across our chest.”