Elliot Olshansky, NCAA.com

When preseason No. 5 Limestone takes the field for its season opener on Saturday, the Saints know they will have to be at their best. The defending Conference Carolinas champion is diving right back into league play to open the 2011 campaign, and will be facing an Erskine team that is hungry to erase the memories of a winless 2010 season.

Still, as much as the Flying Fleet may want to throw at the Saints, it’s hard to imagine head coach Scott Tucker’s team being tested any more by Erskine than it has been already in the preseason.

The No. 5 team in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches’ Association Division II Preseason Poll prepared for the 2011 season by traveling to the University of North Carolina for the Tar Heels’ South of the Border tournament. There, the Saints scrimmaged against three Division I programs – High Point, Vanderbilt, and reigning National Lacrosse Conference champion Longwood – in an effort to ready themselves for the rigors of the upcoming season.

And, while the Saints acquitted themselves well against the DI opposition, the focus remained on preparation and improvement with the season set to officially begin this weekend.

“We went up there in the hopes that we could see where our weaknesses were,” Tucker said. “Obviously, we want to become better as a team, and the only way you do that is by identifying the weaknesses. I think, ultimately, we figured out what we needed to do defensively. Playing against higher caliber teams, we spent a lot of time on defense, Basically, I think our main focus was to come together defensively as a team.”

For Limestone sophomore attacker Chelsea Treat, a big part of the tournament at UNC was just to get out and play, something she finds much easier to do on campus in Gaffney, S.C. – or even further north in Chapel Hill – than in her hometown of Penn Yan, in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

“It’s usually freezing at home,” Treat said.

Still, playing against teams from the top level of competition brings out the best in the Saints, even if it is early in the season.

“Ultimately, it’s a challenge for them,” Tucker said of his players, “and they rise to that challenge. They look forward to playing teams like that, because they know it’s going to make them better.”

“I think that the South of the Border tournament is a great opportunity as a player and for our team,” Treat added. “When we play teams that are better than us, or have more depth than us, DI teams, we learn a lot about ourselves as players, and they tend to be more aggressive, which is what we need, because our best competition is typically ourselves.”

The Saints went 7-0 in Conference Carolinas play last season, and finished with an 18-2 record overall. More of the same is expected this season, as Limestone led the conference preseason poll, coming in seven points ahead of Pfeiffer. The Saints, however, aren’t fazed by the high billing.

“I think we have a lot of high expectations,” said Treat, who scored 50 goals last season, “but I think we had them last year, too, and I think we lived up to them last year. We have a really good team this year, and we have a lot of depth in a lot of areas on the field. A lot of our freshmen and transfers help us out, and I think that we have the talent to be really good.”

For a while, though, Treat wasn’t sure it was going to work.

“I was actually concerned at the beginning of the year that we weren’t going to play well together,” Treat said, “but we’ve grown a lot together, and we’re really close, and I think that helps.”

And now, Treat and her teammates have seen that in action, testing themselves against successful teams from the DI level as they look to improve on last season’s 18-2 record.

“It’s fun to play teams that are good,” Treat said, “because a lot of times, when we play teams, we say, ‘Don’t play down to their level,’ so it’s good to play teams that are better than us, or just as strong as us, because then we play at their level, and it’s just a faster game.”

Treat has been briefly sidelined by an injury, which kept her out of the team’s final preseason against Conference Carolinas foe Queens University, but having seen the way her team has played in the preseason, she has no doubts that the Saints are ready to hit the ground running.

“I think everyone’s really excited for the season to start,” Treat said. “It’s one game at a time. Whether it’s Erskine, and whether or not they’re one of the stronger teams on our schedule, we’re still excited to play, because game experience is where you really learn and see what you need to work on.”

And, when it’s all said and done in May, Treat, Tucker and the Saints hope to have a game experience where they learn what it feels like to finish up as NCAA Champions.