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Steven Hemphill | | May 18, 2014

The rebuilder

adelphi-headcoach-cry.jpg It's been a long road back for Adelphi head coach Rob Grella (right) and his team.

SALEM, Va. – To say the situation Rob Grella stepped into back in August 2012 was dire or even critical would probably be overstating it.

But when the first-time college coach was introduced as the new women’s lacrosse coach at Adelphi , he certainly had quick patch-up work ahead of him. And in his mind, he didn’t have much time to make the fixes.

“I thought we’d be right back [contending] that first year,” Grella said. “I don’t think we had a choice. When you win that many national championships and you’re a high-profile program, they’re expecting you to win.”

Grella’s Panthers reached that definitive expectation for the first time since he became the coach on Sunday. In the lowest-scoring game of the year for Adelphi and in the 14-season history of the NCAA Division II women’s lacrosse tournament, the Panthers prevailed 7-5 against pesky Lock Haven to claim national championship No. 6 for their school.

And maybe for just a minute, Grella can breathe a sigh of relief.

When former coach Adelphi coach Joe Spallina resigned following the 2011 championship season to take over the women’s lacrosse program at Stony Brook, he didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare, but it was thin. Only 11 players that had been on the previous season’s roster were still around.

And he only had 13 days to put together a recruiting class, and get all those young women enrolled. Grella said he ended up with about 27 players on the team by the time school started. As an Adelphi graduate and plenty of friends in the area, he was familiar enough with the lacrosse programs on Long Island to get a few players there. But he also went down to Maryland, where family members knew of some talent, and back to New Jersey, where he had spent much of his post-college life coaching high school lacrosse.

“We kind of threw it all together pretty fast,” he said. “And then they were off.”

There were some painful moments that Grella and his team had to endure after that. After winning three championships in a row, it doesn’t feel too good when the quest for No. 4 falls short. It feels even worse when the team that ends your season – LIU-Post – is literally located down the road, and goes on to claim the championship instead. … And then when the whole process is repeated again – LIU-Post again beat Adelphi last season on the way to claiming its second consecutive title – those feeling chew on you even more.

“This group … has fought through some hard times,” Grilla said. “I wouldn’t say it was all glorious, but that’s how you build your character in life. [The last three years] did that for our girls, and I think myself, too.”

By the start of this season, everyone involved in women’s lacrosse knew that Adelphi was as talented as it’s ever been. The Panthers confirmed that speculation over and over with lopsided victories. But Grella said no matter how much potential Adelphi had this year, the results would depend on how well his young team managed the pressure as the season wound down to the postseason.

The first two games of the tournament were pretty much business as usual – Adelphi beat Saint Anselm 20-6 in the quarterfinals, then dispatched their nearby rival LIU-Post 17-10 in Saturday’s semifinal.

Lock Haven, however, was determined to make a serious run at the Panthers, who only led 2-0 at the half. By the middle of the second half, Lock Haven had tied the score at 4-4, meaning that Grella’s young squad was going to get a test.

The Panthers answered that rally by scoring three of the last four goals. Senior Devan Crimi got the lead back for Adelphi with a free-position shot, then tournament most outstanding player Alexa Froccaro clinched the victory by scoring one goal and assisting on another in the last nine minutes of play.

“Any time you’re playing for a national championship, and you’ve got younger players, sometimes they’re in situations they’re not used to,” Grella said. “But they fought through it and did a good job responding to the situation on the field.

“We stuck together. This was our goal. We stuck together, and this year we got it.”