With four quick goals to start Sunday’s championship game, the Siena women’s lacrosse program appeared ready to continue its dominant run through the MAAC tournament.
Fairfield, and its swarming defense that recovered from a tough start, had other ideas.
Siena was denied its first-ever MAAC championship, as Fairfield — again — topped the Saints in the league title game at its home Rafferty Stadium in Fairfield, Connecticut. Down three goals minutes into the game, Fairfield rallied back to produce a 12-8 win and secure its third consecutive league championship, and second in a row with a win against the Saints in the final.
“I think we started off really hot offensively, and then I think when we were up [three], we just had some uncharacteristic turnovers,” said Siena head coach Abby Rehfuss, who said her team “was almost too casual” after its great start and that the Saints moved “away from the confidence and composure that I think we demonstrated all season.”
Fairfield certainly played a role in that, as the Stags’ defense found a way to control a Siena offense that set a MAAC tournament single-game scoring record with 21 goals in its quarterfinal win and set an overall league tournament scoring record with 49 goals despite Sunday’s loss.
But after Siena scored four goals in Sunday’s opening 7:28, the Saints only managed that many scores in the remaining 52:32. After its initial burst of goals, Siena had scoring droughts of 11:25, 5:46, 5:59 and 26:19 before it failed to score again after a goal from senior Kerry Gerety with 3:03 left in regulation.
Siena led 4-1 after its strong start, but Fairfield scored the next four goals on its way to taking an 8-6 lead into halftime. Fifth-year senior Annie Brennan scored for Siena 38 seconds into the second half, but the Saints didn’t score again until Gerety’s goal with a few minutes to play brought them within 11-8.
“As we weren’t seeing shots go,” Rehfuss said, “we just got tight.”
Siena’s two-goal second half matched its lowest scoring half of the season, which was the first half of its first game. As Siena struggled to score in the second half, Rehfuss said the Saints turned too much to “iso ball” to try to mount a comeback.
“I think we got a little predictable in the second half,” Rehfuss said.
Fairfield, though, struggled to separate from the Saints. After Brennan’s goal made it 8-7 in Fairfield’s favor, neither team scored for nearly 14 minutes scored until senior Kelly Horning registered a goal — and, then, Horning added another goal just more than a minute later to provide Fairfield with a three-goal lead midway through the second half.
Siena (No. 2 seed, 11-3 overall) had defeated Fairfield (No. 1, 13-1) in the regular season and brought an eight-game winning streak into the teams’ championship rematch. Fairfield left the game with a seven-game winning streak as it heads into this year’s NCAA tournament as the MAAC’s representative.
Siena received two goals apiece from Brennan, redshirt junior Kaitlyn Dowsett, Gerety and Nicole McNeely, while Gerety also added an assist. Junior Mary Soures — who had seven goals in the Saints’ regular-season win against Fairfield — was held without a point. For Fairfield, five players scored two goals, and senior Diana DeVita led the team with four points.
Siena had lost in overtime of the 2019 final. The goal to make it back to the MAAC final was delayed an extra year when the 2020 MAAC season and postseason were canceled because of concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For Siena’s seniors, Sunday’s result was extra tough to handle after waiting so long to get back to the MAAC championship game.
“It was really emotional [after the game] because we’ve been through this whole process together from the start, turning the program around, and it’s been so nice to be a part of that,” said Gerety, a Guilderland High School graduate.
Siena finished 1-15 in 2017. The team produced a 5-12 mark the next year in Rehfuss’ first season leading the program, then won a program-record 12 games in 2019 and 11 games in 2021 during the Saints’ next two full seasons. With those winning 2019 and 2021 campaigns, the Saints doubled the 25-year-old program’s total number of winning seasons.
“I give all the credit in the world to this senior class and Annie Brennan,” Rehfuss said.
Later, she added: “My heart just absolutely breaks for these guys. I think the world of them, and Siena lacrosse has started a new chapter because of them.”
Given the NCAA’s decision to allow every student-athlete an extra year of playing eligibility because of the shortened 2020 campaign, every Siena player except for Brennan is eligible to come back next season. Rehfuss said Siena has “some kids that will be coming back” for the extra year, while others are still deciding.
For the most part, Gerety sounded after Sunday’s game like a player whose college career is complete, but acknowledged Sunday’s result could affect her decision.
“This definitely makes it a little more tough,” Gerety said. “I was hoping to end on a MAAC championship win, so maybe I’ll have to give it more thought.”
If Gerety’s Siena career is complete, the former Section II high school star will leave the Saints as perhaps the program’s most-accomplished player. Gerety’s 163 career points total ranks No. 3 all-time for Siena, while she ranks No. 1 in program history in assists with 66 and draw controls with 321. Gerety, the 2018 MAAC Rookie of the Year and two-time All-MAAC first-team selection, also owns the program’s single-season scoring record with the 72 points she scored in 2019 and the single-season draw controls mark with 105 after she collected four in Sunday’s game to break her own record of 104 set in 2019.
Regardless of which Saints return for next season, Rehfuss said the goal will be to secure the program’s first league championship. The work of the program’s 2021 seniors and Brennan, Rehfuss said, leaves the Saints no other choice.
“It’s now an expectation because of all the work they’ve done to create this winning culture here at Siena,” Rehfuss said.
Halftime score: Fairfield led 8-6. Siena scoring: Brennan 2-0, Dowsett 2-0, McNeely 2-0, Gerety 2-1. Fairfield scoring: Horning 2-0, DeVita 2-2, Grefenstette 2-0, Graham 0-3, Reynolds 0-1, Lavelle 2-0, Rowe 2-0, Fort 1-1, Talluto 1-0. Goalies: Siena, Mervine, 5 saves. Fairfield, Conquest, 6 saves.