Young Pirates grow during trying inaugural season

ECU’s freshman-laden women’s lacrosse team finishes 2-15 but sees improvement in first year

ECU freshman defender Jordyn Cox carries the ball against Duke during the Pirates’ season finale. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

DURHAM — Success in sports is usually measured by the numbers on a scoreboard.

But Amanda Barnes knew that wouldn’t be the case during this, the inaugural season of her East Carolina women’s lacrosse team.

As a startup program with a rookie head coach and a roster comprised almost exclusively of freshmen, the Pirates had to search for other ways to earn their victories.

According to Barnes, they were able to find enough of them to declare the season a success, despite a 2-15 record punctuated by Sunday’s 21-8 loss at Duke.

“We saw dramatic improvement in our individual play and also as a collective unit both offensively and defensively,” said Barnes, a former Blue Devils assistant who spent an emotional afternoon coaching against her former Duke players on their Senior Day.

“I’m happy with where we finished in terms of the level of play we were capable of producing. Of course, I wish we could have produced that level more consistently. But the glimpses were there, and the moments were there. If we can continue to build on that, I think the wins will come.”

One of those moments came about five minutes into Sunday’s game. It happened only seven seconds after the action resumed following a lengthy lightning delay.

Running a play Barnes drew up in the locker room during the break, Megan Pallozzi scored the second of her four goals in the game to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead.

Although Duke would respond by scoring 11 of the next 12 goals to break the game open as expected, the execution on Pallozzi’s tally was a visible sign of how far ECU’s young team has come since the start of the year.

“I think that speaks volumes for us moving forward into the future,” Barnes said of the goal. “We came out of the locker room, we knew we had 63 seconds (on the shot clock), we set something up and we scored in seven. When you have freshmen that can execute like that, it’s phenomenal.”

There weren’t many situations this season that didn’t involve freshmen.

Other than top playmaker Emma Bowman, a sophomore transfer from Oregon who led the team with 11 assists to go along with 14 goals, sophomore Mackell Schultes and senior walk-on draw specialist Morgan Cheripko, everyone else on the team was in their first college season.

The top three goal scorers — Pallozzi (25), Nicolle Legar and Ally Stanton (22 each) — are all freshmen.

Barnes said the makeup of the team was by design. She said it was more important for the big picture to develop continuity and experience with a young group going through the building process together than loading up with transfers in an effort to squeeze out a few more wins this first season.

“The amount of experience our players were able to gain this year is very unusual for a freshman class, because they’re usually playing behind upperclassmen,” Barnes said. “We had some players that never came off the field. They’re going to be able to take that and build on it in years to come and also give those life lessons to their (future) underclassman teammates now.”

Though the group has taken its share of lumps on the field against teams made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors — and in some cases, All-Americans — the young Pirates have rallied around one another to form a tight-knit group.

“Looking back to where we were in the fall when we all came in as freshmen and didn’t know each other to where we are now, we’ve made strides,” Pallozzi said. “Now we keep building. We’ve definitely laid down a foundation. We’re getting another group in here next year and we’re going to keep getting better and better. We’ve set our standards high.”

Those high standards, however, made it difficult to keep from getting frustrated at times as the losses began to mount.

That’s when Stanton said Barnes did her best work by keeping the players focused on the program’s long-term goals rather than getting caught up in short-term results.

“She had a lot of patience with us,” Stanton said. “She definitely just cared about us getting better and not necessarily about our wins.”

Still, it’s always more fun to win than it is to lose. And the Pirates got the most out of their two victories — on Feb. 18 at Gardner-Webb and March 24 at home against Delaware State.

That first win was a 15-14 overtime thriller won on a sudden death goal by Pallozzi just 40 seconds into the extra period.

“It was a close game the whole time,” Stanton said. “Then all of a sudden Megan scored and it was just the best feeling ever.”