ALBANY — Tess Federation kept ending up in the gym, lifting weights, at the same time as members of the Saint Rose women’s lacrosse program.
From a glance, head coach Kaitlin Gaghan could tell Federation was athletic enough to at least make it worth it to ask. Her team, after all, wasn’t overflowing with players. So freshman Gabrielle Panko approached Federation one day last fall to see if the graduate student had any interest in joining Gaghan’s program.
Federation did. Why not, right?
But, well, one thing . . .
“I’ve never played before,” Federation said.
But neither has Saint Rose, so — at least, in some ways — that made Federation a perfect fit for the women’s lacrosse program Gaghan has been building with a culture-matters-most ethos since she was hired in July 2018. Saint Rose will play its first game Feb. 23 at St. Thomas Aquinas, and adding a player a bit older and with a “different mindset” because of that made a lot of sense to Gaghan, whose program’s 19-deep roster for its inaugural season, includes 16 freshmen and two sophomores.
As it turns out, too, Federation — a three-sport athlete in high school who grew up a fan of men’s lacrosse — can play a little, too.
“She’s a natural lefty, and she looks like she’s been playing for years,” Gaghan said of Federation, who is from Groton and has been a student at Saint Rose for her entire college career before becoming a student-athlete for the first time at the school starting last September.
Gaghan’s plan for the Saint Rose program is a multi-year one, and doesn’t lack ambition. A Long Island native who graduated from LIU Post in 2016, the 25-year-old wants her team to flirt with a .500 record this season and compete for Northeast-10 Conference championships as early as the 2022 season. The Northeast-10 Conference is one of the top Division II leagues in the country for women’s lacrosse, but Gaghan said the way Laurie Darling Gutheil has built up her women’s soccer program — which made its latest trip to the national semifinals last year — has her group confident it can achieve similar success at Saint Rose before too long.
“Our girls aspire to be at that level,” said Gaghan, whose program’s coaching staff includes assistant coach Hayley Sabol, a 2019 graduate of Saint Joseph’s. “They don’t just want to start a program. They want to compete.”
At the college level, Gaghan previously worked as an assistant coach at Pace and spent a fall there as the program’s interim head coach. Before taking the job at Saint Rose, she spent a spring as the girls’ lacrosse head coach for Greenwich High School in Connecticut.
The chance to start her own program was one she said she couldn’t turn down, even if that meant a lot of hard work and long hours needed to be logged before a game could be played. Four of Gaghan’s players graduated from Section II programs, but the roster includes players from all over New York, plus four more states. Finding “brainiacs” was a top focus, while lacrosse talent needed to be paired with a tough-minded approach.
“We want to take that mindset onto the field,” Gaghan said.
There will be plenty of bumps in the road this first season for the program. That’s expected, but the squad has developed a strong bond to help it push through those moments of adversity. Gaghan said sophomore Ashley Burns — a transfer from Division I Wagner — is a natural leader for the club, while the team’s 16 freshmen made a point to all show up for the same accepted-student-day event last year.
“We’re still trying to get our chemistry on the field,” said freshman Samantha Ebel, a Colonie High School graduate. “We already have a lot of chemistry off the field.”
Gaghan said she likes that her young team is able to “brush [mistakes] off and keep going” as it works toward its season opener. The progress from the team’s fall-ball season to now, though, has been encouraging.
“I’ve definitely seen improvement in myself and the team,” Federation said. “It’s been awesome.”
Keeping that enthusiasm, Gaghan said, is critical for her team, which plays its first-ever home game Feb. 29 against District of Columbia. That’s true for this season, but also beyond it as the Golden Knights look to grow into a contender.
“We love the game,” Gaghan said, “and that’s what this is all about.”