Fresno State lacrosse making every day count in program’s final season

Hennessey Evans passes the ball in a lacrosse match against Yale on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Fresno State athletics announced the cancellation of all spring sporting events indefinitely earlier Thursday. (Larry Valenzuela/The Collegian)

Last year, the Fresno State lacrosse team was the last athletics program to play in a game before the pandemic put a stop to all competitions. The future was uncertain at the time.

But on Oct. 16, its future was made clear. Fresno State announced that three sports will be cut at the end of the academic year — wrestling, men’s tennis and lacrosse. The team is also dealing with threats of a lawsuit that would allege a potential Title IX violation by the school.

Still with only one season left, head coach Kara Concheck said there’s nothing negative about the players’ attitude heading into the spring campaign.

“They have a really strong mindset of building a culture of dedication and commitment of achieving whatever goals we have set for the season,” Concheck said. “Every day they are exhibiting a lot of gratitude and staying in the moment and focusing on what we can control.”

Senior attacker Megan Walaitis said the team’s passion to play has certainly gone up since last season.

“We don’t take any day for granted,” Walaitis said. “We only have three months to practice and play together. You have to take each day at a time.”

Concheck is entering her first full season as the Bulldogs’ head coach. Concheck — an alumnus of the program —was named interim coach last season when former head coach Jessica Giglio stepped down just a month before the beginning of the 2020 season. Concheck was officially promoted to head coach on Nov. 1, 2020. 

“I was the right leader for them to build confidence and restore that positive team culture and chemistry,” Concheck said. “They are my why. They are why I’m here and nothing else. I felt really blessed to be part of their experience here.”

The Bulldogs are working on a short return schedule. The team has only had four weeks to gear up for a strong non-conference schedule, which features  Pac-12 powerhouses No. 14 USC and No. 22 Stanford. But according to Concheck, many other lacrosse programs are in the same situation.

The Bulldogs are also working with a shortened roster. Concheck said that many players decided to sit out this season or transfer to a different school, trimming the squad down from 34 to just 18. But she said the team didn’t lose too many key players and is returning most of its starting lineup.

“We’re playing against Pac-12 schools who have 50 players in their roster that are subbing the midfielders every five minutes,” Concheck said. “We don’t have the luxury. So we’re making sure we have enough fuel in our tanks and we are playing complete and united throughout 60 minutes.”

Last year, Fresno State went 2-6, ending on a five-game losing streak before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short. The Bulldogs played a schedule that included Pac-12 teams Arizona State and Oregon, and No. 14  Denver.

But the ‘Dogs managed to rearrange their record books during the condensed season. In their game against Stetson last season, the Bulldogs scored 31 points — 21 goals and 10 assists. That is the fifth most in single-game points. The 21-goal performance by Fresno State is its third best in school history.

Two returning players that had an impact in that game were attackers Sydney Skalstad — who was named the 2018 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation rookie of the year — and Lauren Kiszely. 

Skalstad broke the program’s single-game goal record by scoring eight times, and Kiszely had six assists. She’s the first Fresno State player since 2012 to have six assists in a game.  Concheck describes them as a good tag-team.

Concheck also said that she expects her five freshmen to play a key role this season, highlighting attacker Logann Eldredge to be a potential starter for the team. Concheck added that Sloane Skalstad will connect well with her sister Sydney.

Junior Courtney Walburger is taking over the reins at goaltender and spent last year learning under the wing of Laurel Maunder — who ranked No. 18 in saves in the NCAA. However, Walburger will be the lone goaltender for the season. Still, Concheck said that the transition has been smooth for Walburger after seeing her confidence at practice.

Senior Abbigayle Roberts said the team’s best feature is the chemistry, adding that the team’s close connections translates to a sisterhood off the field too.

“We ride or die for each other.” Roberts said. “Anyone who comes to look at our team will see the level of respect we have, regardless if you play or not.”

Everyone brings something unique to the table, Roberts said. She highlighted that the attack is well operated with Hennessey Evans and Megan Walaitis. Between Skalstad and Walaitis, the two combined for 40 goals last season.

Defensively, Roberts had two caused turnovers and had eight ground balls last season. 

Another player that could contribute to the Bulldogs defense is senior Lauren Gonzales. She played in all eight games for Fresno State in 2020, starting in seven of them. She also had a single-game career-best two caused turnovers against Marquette.

The Bulldogs will open up its season on the road on Feb. 14 against UC Davis, the beginning of a four-game road trip that also includes Kent State, Robert Morris and Arizona State.

Fresno State’s first home game will be Friday, March 5 at 5 p.m. versus Cal.

Correction: May 2, 2021
An earlier version of this article referred to Fresno State’s goalkeeper as Hannah Walburger. In actuality, she is Courtney Walburger, not Hannah. The article also refers to former Fresno State player Laurel Maunder when in actuality the writer meant Walburger.

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