To be OK as a newcomer is to be OK with a little discomfort. For most people, there will be nerves. Uncertainty. Maybe some fear.
And when you are the newcomer to a team full of talented veterans in a sport they have dominated in recent years, the stakes seem to rise. Throw in the fact that you’ve barely played the sport your peers excel at, and you might even find yourself asking why you signed up.
But Kelsey Malles and Taylor Salmon knew exactly what they were signing up for when they joined the Adelphi lacrosse team during their final semester as undergraduates. They were close friends with the senior captains on the team and weren’t quite ready to shed the identity of “student-athlete” after finishing their four-year soccer careers. So when they learned the lacrosse team – the two-time defending Division II national champions – was looking for a couple extra bodies for preseason practice, Malles and Salmon started seriously considering what had started off as a joke.
“We always hung out with the lacrosse seniors, and we would say, ‘We’re going to fifth-year in lacrosse,’ since we’re both going to be at Adelphi for our master’s,” Salmon said. “Then the joke suddenly turned into, ‘Well, if you want to do it… you can.’”
The Panthers had brought in just two freshmen this season after graduating eight seniors the year before. That left the team with 23 players, including two goalies. The addition of two soccer players meant the lacrosse team would have enough people to scrimmage in practice. And even though Malles had never played lacrosse in her life, and Salmon had played only one high school season, head coach Pat McCabe agreed to bring them on when his senior captains raised the idea.
“I knew the seniors wouldn’t jeopardize what we’re trying to do by saying, ‘Hey, I want my friend around.’ It’s not like that,” McCabe explained. “It’s two people they admire, two people who have been an important part of the athletic department and the university. I knew the kind of careers they had on the soccer field; you don’t attain that level of success by accident.”
Salmon, a defender in soccer, and Malles, a forward, had helped lead the Adelphi soccer team to a Northeast-10 Conference championship and an overall record of 18-3-2. But they fell short of their ultimate goal in the NCAA tournament, losing by one goal in the third round.
“Our season ended on a note that we didn’t want it to end on,” Malles said. “We didn’t really have closure on that. I think we just weren’t ready to be done. So, why not be a part of something that is so successful and go out the way we think we should have gone out?”
Adelphi lacrosse is seeking its eighth national title, a Division II record. Malles admits that joining the accomplished group was intimidating, regardless of existing friendships. The two soccer players made their decision during finals week in December and started training just a few weeks later. They dropped balls, hurried to pick up on the rules and worked to shake habits honed through years of soccer that would not serve them on the lacrosse field. Salmon, a defender in both sports, learned that contrary to the way she stayed back and jockeyed side to side to contain an attacker in soccer, she was supposed to rush to the offensive player in lacrosse. “I would be running backwards and they would be like, ‘Run to the ball!’” Salmon said with a laugh.
Still, the arrangement would not have been possible if it weren’t for the girls’ stamina, work ethic and natural athleticism. They played in about a third of Adelphi’s games this season and celebrated small accomplishments, such as a caused turnover, that landed them in the box score. “If we had them for three or four years, they’d end up on the field,” McCabe said. “In a short time they’ve put themselves in the position where I look at them and say, ‘We could do something with that. We could develop them.’”
Malles and Salmon are quick to laugh about the unusual situation – they even get questions from parents about “that lacrosse experiment.” But the senior rookies are far more to the team than just a couple extra bodies to help out in practice and occasionally in games. They keep the team positive on the sidelines. They cheer as loudly as anyone at games. They fetch water, jump into community service activities with the team and bust out in dance in the locker room. Salmon braids everyone’s hair before competition.
“We did this exercise in preseason where you pick one word that was basically what you were going to bring to the team,” Malles said. “My word was support. We’re obviously not the best lacrosse players, but for me it was important to go out with this group of seniors and support them and do anything we could to get them to their third national championship.”
On Saturday, Malles and Salmon won’t be in uniform for that championship game. Adelphi could dress 24 people for the tournament, which meant that one of the senior rookies would have to sit out. Instead, they both volunteered to. The seniors will likely miss their graduation ceremony on Sunday, but Malles and Salmon figure they can walk when they receive their graduate degrees. (Malles is pursuing education; Salmon, business administration.) This opportunity in Denver was too good to pass up.
It’s also given them a confidence boost heading into life after college sports.
“I’m going to start working soon, so I’m like, what am I going to do when I’m the new person and I’m not the go-to?” Salmon said. “I felt like this might be the perfect opportunity to learn how I could bring something else to the team. I think it really opened my eyes.”