Vanderbilt lacrosse embarking on 2022 campaign with high expectations

The Hustler sat down with head coach Beth Hewitt and junior midfielder Mikela McCauley to preview Vanderbilt lacrosse’s upcoming 2022 season.

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Vanderbilt lacrosse during its first-round game against No. 16 Jacksonville in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Andy Carr, Assistant Sports Editor

Nearly nine months since its historic 2021 season—which culminated in the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010—ended, Vanderbilt lacrosse will return to the field this Saturday against Liberty.

The Commodores, ranked 21st in the nation according to RPI, traveled to Ohio State University this past weekend for an exhibition match against the Buckeyes, but the regular season begins this Saturday in a home match against the Flames.

Last year, the Commodores finished second in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and notched 12 wins, seven of which were within the conference and one over the then-No. 24 Colorado Buffaloes. The 2021 campaign elevated the program to heights it has not seen in over a decade.

“I think [last season] has helped the whole team and staff’s confidence for sure,” head coach Beth Hewitt said. “I think we’ve all gone into this year with a little more swag than we have in the past knowing what we are able to accomplish as a group.”

As successful as 2021 was for the Commodores, however, it did not end as they had hoped. They were upset in the AAC semifinals by Temple, a team they had beaten just 11 days before, and although they qualified for the NCAA Tournament, they were beaten 20-12 in the first round by the No. 16 Jacksonville Dolphins.

Thus, the 2021 season was a milestone, but this year’s Commodores have even higher expectations.

“I would say we’ve definitely tried to up it a notch in terms of structure and discipline and knowing how hard we had to work last year in order to get to NCAAs and then falling short in the first round,” Hewitt said. “I think all of our expectations are raised from last year knowing how hard we had to work and wanting even more now.” 

This year’s team returns 26 student-athletes and welcomes 12 newcomers. Included in those coming back are four players elected to the preseason All-AAC team: seniors Bri Gross and Maddie Souza, as well as fifth-year seniors Gabby Fornia and Melissa Hawkins. 

Fornia was also named the preseason Attack Player of the Year by the AAC. Last season, she played in all 19 games, leading the conference with 55 assists and trailing only Florida’s Shannon Kavanagh and Brianna Harris in the AAC with 76 points. In last year’s 14-12 win over East Carolina on March 28, she totaled an astonishing 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) and single-handedly took over the game for the Commodores.

Hewitt spoke to the importance of having such a talented player on offense in Fornia. 

“I think it’s key,” she said. “Obviously, Gabby [Fornia] has been in our system for five years and the confidence that she’s got—and leading the nation at different times throughout the years in assists—she’s just a really smart player. So having her on the offensive side of the ball is honestly like having a coach on the field.”

While the team leans on Fornia for offense, it also has a talented, reliable leader on defense in Hawkins, who last season led the team in caused turnovers (30) and was second in ground balls (43) only behind goalkeeper Paige Gunning. In the Commodores’ 10-6 win over Temple on April 25 last year, Hawkins scooped up seven ground balls and caused six turnovers, both season-bests.

Hewitt emphasized how crucial Hawkins’ defensive presence is to the Commodores’ success.

“On the flip side, you’ve got Melissa Hawkins,” she said. “Same thing—she’s been with us for five years and she knows exactly where the breakdowns are and she’s able to make some of those adjustments in the huddle when we get scored on.”

Junior midfielder Mikela McCauley, who had 12 points last season in the same number of games, is confident that the Commodores’ mix of youth and experience on this year’s roster provides the opportunity for the team to develop to where it wants to be by the end of the season.

“I think obviously the upperclassmen are role models for the freshmen and we’re trying to take them under our wing,” she said. “The freshmen are really good and skilled—they just need to learn the nuances of the way we run things, and they are for sure getting there.” 

Among the biggest challenges ahead in this year’s schedule for Vanderbilt are games against Notre Dame, Denver and Florida, who rank fourth, 11th and eighth respectively in RPI. The Commodores host both the Fighting Irish and the Gators (on Feb. 19 and April 16), and they go on the road to face the Pioneers on March 6. 

Vanderbilt heads into this year with a lot of anticipation for the season to get started. On Saturday at 1 p.m. CST, the Commodores will get the chance to start building towards their ultimate goal: making the NCAA Tournament once again and looking towards advancing beyond the first round. 

“I think that’s our big mark,” McCauley said. “We’ve moved our program there and we’re not going to sink back below that. That’s the standard now.”