Red Dragons led by play of Di Fato
Sophomore is second on team in points, goals
After making an instant impact last season at SUNY Cortland, Maria De Fato has found that being known has its plusses and minuses.
For Di Fato, a sophomore from Camillus, N.Y. majoring in sports management, one of the benefits of playing close to home - in a region where lacrosse enjoys a privileged place on the sports landscape - is the opportunity to have her success on the field with the No. 5 Red Dragons appreciated and acknowledged.
“When I go home,” Di Fato said, “people recognize me, because the school’s local. People know Cortland, they hear about it, so people come up to me and ask, ‘How’s your season going?’ Younger kids, they look up to you. They know who you are, and maybe make me a role model. I work at lacrosse camps here, so people know where I go, and they’re close by, where they can come by and watch games. I can be some type of role model. I take pride in that and try to do my best every game.”
Of course, after being named the Division III Rookie of the Year by womenslacrosse.com and a second team All-American by the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosses Coaches Association, Di Fato is also much more recognizable to her opponents this season, which Red Dragons head coach Kathy Taylor tried to prepare her for heading into the season.
“Anytime a freshman has a great season,” Taylor said, “there’s always a concern that they’re going to draw a lot more attention sophomore year, and it’s going to be harder to come and maintain what they did as a freshman, let alone try to build on it.
“Maria is a known entity this year, and we’ve made her aware that it’s very common that you come out pressing in the beginning of your sophomore year, and the pressure is more difficult, because you’re pulling a more experienced, stronger defender. Perhaps they’re sliding earlier. There’s a lot of ways that that pressure can be felt. Then, that aside, you take the internal pressure – the athlete says, ‘Hey, I was a second team All-American last year. I want to try to do something even bigger this year.’ There’s lots of different pressures out there. We talk about it with our athletes: ‘Let’s try to make sure that we don’t get too closed-minded chasing stats or trying to do things that aren’t there.’ Our goal is for Maria and her teammates that play a big role to take the younger kids with them so we can succeed as a team.”
So far, so good. The Red Dragons are 6-1 on the year, with the lone loss coming at the hands of No. 1 TCNJ back on March 13. Di Fato herself is second on the team in goals with 19 and points with 25, and leads the team in caused turnovers with 24 while sharing the team lead in ground balls with 16.
“It’s going pretty well,” Di Fato said. “Overall, I think I’m definitely doing better with goals and with being more of a leader out there than last year.
What’s more, this success has come almost entirely in road games, as Saturday’s game against Oswego in the Red Dragons’ SUNYAC opener will be the team’s first home game since starting the season with an 18-10 win over Nazareth.
“It’s difficult,” Di Fato said of playing so often away from home, “because coming right off the bus, your legs are relaxed, and it’s difficult because we don’t have as much home support with our fans. It’s definitely better playing at home. We’re doing pretty well with the away games, but we’re kind of tired of them, to be honest.”
Still, with 12 freshmen and 10 sophomores on the roster (compared to three juniors and just two seniors), the extended stretch of road games has had its benefits as well.
“We have a young team,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of people getting to know each other, both as players on the field and as people too. The time on the road has certainly helped develop a closeness on the team.”
The Red Dragons will try to put that closeness into action as they head into their SUNYAC schedule, taking on conference opponents who may pressure Di Fato even more than she’s been pressured already by non-conference foes. Still, Di Fato will deal with the pressure the only way she knows how: keep pushing forward.
“I just play my hardest and I do what I can,” Di Fato said. “I never give up; I keep going at it until I’m successful in getting the goal, or picking up the ground ball, making the extra play to help our team be successful.”
It’s certainly worked pretty well so far.