By Kyle LoJacono
Lesley Graham scans the field one afternoon watching her team warm up before practice, and in her head is a vision of what the program may some day become.
Graham is the coach of the inaugural Saint Leo University women’s lacrosse team. She spends much of her time watching the Lions (4-7) work on passes, take faceoffs and fight for ground balls.
Many of Graham’s players grew up with the sport, while others are new to the game, but all are in search of the same goal — making SLU into a perennial powerhouse.
“To be a part of the growth of the sport that I love; that’s a great opportunity,” Graham said. “It’s traditionally a Northeast/Mid-Atlantic game. When you think of lacrosse those are the areas you think of, but it’s really great to explore the talent in nontraditional areas. It’s nice to give the Florida kids a chance to stay instate and show we do know how to play lacrosse.”
Two of those locals on the squad are sophomore defender Haley Skipper and freshman midfielder Kasey Tanner, who went to Wesley Chapel High.
Tanner played many sports growing up, such as softball, swimming and cheerleading, but nothing stuck until she found lacrosse with the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association in ninth grade.
“It’s a different kind of sport from anything I’ve seen besides maybe hockey,” Tanner said. “It just uses a whole different set of skills, and it’s really fast paced. … I feel really lucky that I get to play so close to home.”
Skipper tried lacrosse in eighth grade, but put her gear away in favor of high school soccer. She didn’t touch the sticks again until college.
“I thought it was a good idea to help start something new here,” Skipper said.
Graham is one of the few who grew up focusing on lacrosse. She picked up the game in seventh grade, playing four years as a defender at Ithaca College. Her first coaching stint was with the U19 junior national team in Scotland.
“I found that I really loved coaching,” Graham said. “I got my masters in sports administration and was a graduate assistant at Canisius College.”
Graham coached one season at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, but when she learned SLU was adding women’s lacrosse she jumped at the chance to lead the program. She spent last year recruiting while scouring the university for anyone with athleticism and the drive to learn something new.
“That was really hard to recruit players to a team that doesn’t exist,” Graham said. “I was lucky because our senior captain (Kelsey Cunningham) hosted recruits and showed them around to tell them what it’s like to be a student here.”
One of the biggest additions was Stephanie Marran. The sophomore midfielder scored 52 goals and was fourth in Division II nationally in draw controls with 6.2 per contest last year while at Post University in Waterbury, Conn. She was named to the USA College Lacrosse All-American Rookie Team.
“I transferred here and I see it as an opportunity to help a new program,” said Marran, who leads the team with 33 goals.
Marran plays forward for the Lions soccer team, which went 15-3-1 and finished the year ranked No. 23 nationally. She believes the lacrosse program can be as successful.
“There’re a lot of talented girls on this team,” Marran said. “I think it’ll take a couple years because we don’t have very many people yet, but once we get more we’ll be good.”
The journey to the top won’t be easy largely because it includes many trips. The Lions are one of three Division II programs in Florida. The squad will play the first few years as an independent, giving Graham the opportunity to schedule tough opponents.
“This year we’ve played No. 3 (Limestone College) in the country and No. 5 (Rollins College) in the country,” Graham said. “People were asking me ‘why would you do that,’ but it’s good. You want to be challenged.”
Tanner sees the squad uniting.
“We trust each other on the field,” Tanner said. “Also the jitters are gone. The first games we were scared. When we lost to Limestone we played horribly in the first half, but in the second half we came back and tied their score 7-7 through the half. We’re capable of so much.”
SLU secured its first victory on Feb. 24 19-2 at Catawba College in North Carolina.
“What was nice is we got to play another first-year program,” Graham said. “It showed us a comparable opponent because they’re in the same position we are. We were able to go out and execute our gameplan and play as a team for the full 60 minutes.”
Marran had three goals and two assists in the win, while Tanner scored her first of the season.
“I’m a low shooter, and it was probably the first high shot I’ve ever made,” Tanner said. “That in itself was pretty exciting, but it also made me hungry for more.”
The Lions lost their next four games after their first win, but rolled off a three-game winning streak after that.
SLU hosted Converse College on April 2, but results were not available by press time. The Lions play Newberry College on April 13 before hosting Florida Southern College on April 18 in their regular season finale. Both contests start at 7 p.m.