Vanderbilt lacrosse ready to compete in 2021 with ‘something to prove’

The Hustler sat down with head lacrosse coach Beth Hewitt to preview Vanderbilt Lacrosse’s upcoming 2021 season.

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Vanderbilt lacrosse after its program-defining upset over No. 10 Denver in 2020. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Bobby Kent, Staff Writer

335 days since its 2020 season was cut short and the sporting world seemingly came to a halt, Vanderbilt lacrosse will return to the field this Saturday against No. 2 Notre Dame.

“We are sick of talking about it. We are ready to just do it,” head coach Beth Hewitt said, as she enters her third year at the helm.

During the shortened 2020 season, the team went 4-5, facing all non-conference opponents with many games decided by only a few goals. Despite a 1-4 record against ranked teams, Vanderbilt earned a hard-fought, program-defining victory over tenth-ranked Denver in what was likely the highlight of the season. The victory gave the program its first win over a top-10 ranked opponent in six years.

“It was pretty huge. [The win] gave us a level of confidence that we can play with these [top programs] and beat them,” Coach Hewitt said.

Having run through a gauntlet of top-tier teams, Coach Hewitt’s team had positioned itself well for conference play. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Vanderbilt was forced to cancel the remainder of its season, a heartbreaking decision that fueled the team heading into 2021.

“It was pretty awful. We end [our season] with this tough game [a 16-6 defeat to No.2 Notre Dame] and at one point we think we’re staying and playing, but basically within 24 hours, we were moving out,” Coach Hewitt lamented.

The sudden nature of the cancellation has given Coach Hewitt and her team a new perspective on the season, understanding how every game could be their last.

“It has definitely changed everyone. You never know if it is going to be the last game so you have to play like it’s your last,” she said.

Over the summer, training looked different than any in years past. Traditional fall practices turned into individual drills and practices with an emphasis on stick skills, ground balls and dodging. While Vanderbilt has resumed full-team practices with a season of games on the horizon, this year will be different in many respects. No parents are permitted to visit team hotels, mask-wearing on the field is required and even a change in routine with stick checks highlight the abnormalities. A limited number of parents and family members of student athletes will be allowed to attend home games, per an athletics press release. Despite the chaos, the team has embraced the situation and is ready to do whatever it takes to play out a full season.

“I can’t say enough how impressed I’ve been with these girls and what we’re asked of them. It’s been a [mentality] of whatever we need to do, we’re on board”, Coach Hewitt explained.

Vanderbilt returns many impactful starters from last season for its 2021 campaign,  including junior Bri Gross, who returns to anchor the midfield as an experienced and high-scoring threat. As a sophomore, she led all Commodore goalscorers with 25, coupled with 10 assists in nine games. She was one of four Vanderbilt players named to the 2021 Preseason All-AAC team. While initially struggling to find her role on the team as a freshman, Gross has settled in; much of that is attributed to her success last season and her experience playing in the World Cup in the summer of 2019.

“[She has] made tremendous strides after [the World Cup], and I think she [has] carried that confidence into the season”, Hewitt said of Gross. “She has done a lot in terms of communicating with her fellow [midfielders] and some of the younger players and has taken more of a leadership role this year.”

If Vanderbilt is going to improve this season, Gross will be relied on once again to provide a spark to the offense.

Another standout starter is senior attacker Gabby Fornia. Like Gross, Fornia was also named to the Preseason All-AAC team. This marks the second consecutive season Fornia has been named to the Preseason All-AAC team, with this nomination coming on the heels of a standout season during which she led the team in assists with 17, many times providing the critical set up pass that led to a decisive goal. She enters the 2021 season just 19 shy of the Vanderbilt program record. In the win over Denver, Gross put together an eye-catching performance with a hat-trick and four points. As a result, every defender now knows where Fornia is at all times.

“She’s a top target for us, and she knows that target [is] on her back.” Coach Hewitt said.

Vanderbilt will look to maximize her ability this season by using her to draw out the opponent’s best defender. On the defensive side, Vanderbilt will rely on two stalwarts, seniors Melissa Hawkins and Halle Regan. Both were named to the Preseason All-AAC team. Halle Regan paced the AAC with 25 ground balls and 15 forced turnovers, while Hawkins added 14 ground balls of her own. Vanderbilt will try to turn many of those turnovers into points this season.

The season ahead features a number of intriguing matchups and most importantly for the players, the long-awaited chance to compete once again. The combination of the sudden shutdown and a few close losses from 2020 has the team hungry for more.

“We were left with a bad taste in our mouths,” Coach Hewitt said. “We are really fired up to prove something.”

Vanderbilt will get its first opportunity to see just how far it has come in a tough first matchup on the road with second ranked Notre Dame. Vanderbilt capped off its season against Notre Dame before the shutdown began. The schedule features six other non-conference contests against a variety of teams, most notably Colorado and Notre Dame, two schools with strong traditions of success. AAC conference play begins March 19th on a date with Cincinnati.

As for expectations?

Coach Hewitt is taking it one game at a time with her squad, living out each moment for what it is.

“We are excited,” she said. “We just want to compete. We want to be confident in what we’re doing and the product we’re putting on the field.”