Almost two months ago, not long after her team lost to the University at Albany women’s lacrosse team, Siena College head coach Abby Rehfuss delivered a message — a prediction, really — to her Saints.
Rehfuss loved how they had played against the Great Danes, a traditionally stronger program that Siena has never beaten in 16 tries. The way the Saints played in that 14-8 loss in March, though, left Rehfuss bullish about what her group could accomplish this year — and she let her players know it.
“We’re winning the MAAC tournament this year,” Rehfuss told them. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Saturday at noon, the third-seeded Saints (12-6) will get that chance to do that with a game at No. 1 Fairfield (14-3) for the MAAC title. Not too long after, second-seeded UAlbany (11-6) will get its chance to win a conference title, too, as the Great Danes play at No. 1 Stony Brook (14-4) in the America East Conference’s 4 p.m. championship game.
Despite Rehfuss’ belief and optimism, Siena is the surprising success of this year’s Capital Region lacrosse landscape. The Saints were a one-win team in 2017 before Rehfuss took over after that season, and the Saints are only making their second-ever championship game appearance amid just their program’s third-ever winning season.
UAlbany? The Great Danes are right where nearly everyone expected them to be — and, again, that position has them facing long odds as they get set for their ninth consecutive championship game appearance, but against an opponent that has defeated UAlbany in each of the last six championship games.
“They’re in a great place. They’re hungry to win. They’ve faced Stony Brook twice every season for a while now,” said UAlbany head coach Katie Rowan, who is in her first season leading the Great Danes. “They’re really driven and focused.”
Overall, Stony Brook has beaten UAlbany in 13 consecutive meetings, as the Seawolves have won each game between the programs since UAlbany’s win in the 2012 championship game. Earlier this season, the Seawolves topped UAlbany 17-9.
“We believed we’d be able to get here,” said Rowan, whose young team doesn’t include any seniors. “We’ve worked really hard all season, from beginning practices in the fall until now. It’s a long season, but this has always been our goal, and we’ve believed in ourselves and had the confidence that we could do it.”
Both local Division I programs won their Thursday semifinals in similar fashion, as each produced a memorable comeback highlighted with a starring individual effort. UAlbany trailed before a 10-1 run sent the Great Danes on their way to a 20-16 win against New Hampshire, as junior star Madison Conway led with six goals and three assists.
“The girls played so hard,” Rowan said. “So we’re definitely taking it easy [Friday], but we have to go over some things, too.”
Meanwhile, Siena trailed by as many as six goals in the first half, but used an 8-0 run to take control in what became a 16-15 win against Monmouth that sophomore Nicole McNeely sparked with three goals and four assists.
More than her scoring, Rehfuss credited McNeely for the extra effort she gave the Saints. Siena struggled in the first half to earn draw controls, and the Saints turned to McNeely — who had previously taken zero draws this season — for a spark in that area. McNeely ended up winning four draw controls for the Saints who outdid Monmouth 9-3 in draw controls in the second half after they lost 14 of 19 in the opening half.
“We needed someone aggressive and she’s probably our grittiest player,” Rehfuss said of McNeely. “The girl probably eats nails for breakfast.”
Fairfield defeated Siena 12-11 last month. In that game, Fairfield controlled the tempo and took advantage of its depth against the Saints.
“They did a really good job of exploiting our lack of depth, just in terms of our numbers,” said Rehfuss, whose team’s roster includes only 20 players. “They pushed the ball super-hard in transition against us.”
Siena cannot let that happen in the championship game rematch, and the same goes for UAlbany in its meeting with high-powered Stony Brook.
“The biggest focus [is winning draws] because we need those possessions,” Rowan said. “Draws are huge.”
While UAlbany is seeking its first conference championship since 2012, the Saints are seeking their first-ever league title. A lack of success in the program’s past, Rehfuss said, won’t stop her team from believing it can upset defending champion Fairfield.
“If you can believe that,” Rehfuss said, “you can do it.”