Yanni Kouiroukidis, Contributing Writer
Isabella Evans-Riester remembers getting the news a year ago that her senior season with VCU’s women’s lacrosse team was going to be cut short due to COVID-19. The graduate student didn’t know what the future held.
“As a senior, you get to your last few games, and you’re trying to prepare yourself for the end,” Evans-Riester, who plays the attack position, said. “It was like, ‘what do I do now?’”
Since a majority of last season was canceled due to COVID-19, the NCAA granted all athletes another year of eligibility this season. Athletes that were seniors last year were able to return for a final year. Underclassmen this year will have the opportunity to add another year of eligibility at the ends of their collegiate careers as well.
This season, four seniors — redshirt midfielder Keriann McTavish, graduate student defender Victoria McCarl, graduate student goalie Gillian Belfiore and Evans-Riester — are taking advantage of getting a second chance to return for a final season.
Before the abrupt halt to the season last year, the team had won three of the seven games played, not losing any games by more than five goals. While at first the standstill had seemed like an extended spring break to the lacrosse players, the team was left with no answers.
“When the NBA season canceled, that’s when it felt real,” McTavish said. “I just remember being so sad that we didn’t have any control of how our season ended.”
The team made the best of the canceled season last year, as McCarl said they held Zoom meetings as a team on their originally scheduled game days.
“Every single game day at game time we would meet up on a Zoom with our team and check in all around,” McCarl said. “Just having that gratitude and having each other’s backs I think has really kept us checked in.”
Going into her fifth year as the head coach of VCU women’s lacrosse, Jen O’Brien was just as shocked and hurt as her players when they heard the news.
“My immediate reaction went to these seniors who had put in so much time,” O’Brien said. “I needed more time with them. It was definitely emotional.”
Since becoming head coach O’Brien has built a program that ended UMass’s 61-game conference winning streak in 2018, which has served as a major recruiting point for her.
“We told kids we want them to come here and want to be the first team to beat UMass,” O’Brien said. “That kick-started a whole different recruiting and type of kid we were able to get to.”
With this group of seniors from last year returning, the team dynamic has remained the same, according to McCarl.
“This is a really special group of girls that we have right now,” McCarl said. “The people we have are so special and are so tuned in. We are all ready and gearing towards the same goal.”
Now, that goal leads back to the one thing that all athletes desire — victory.
“Our goal was always to win an A-10 championship,” Belfiore said. “That wasn’t accomplished last year so having one more opportunity at that is everything I could’ve wanted.”
The team has had a strong start to their season with two victories — knocking off Old Dominion in their season opener 11-7 on Feb. 12 and following up with a 20-8 win over Longwood in the home opener on Feb. 17.
Belfiore was named A-10 Defensive Player of the Week after her 10-save performance against ODU.
“Lacrosse is something to take your mind off of everything else that’s going on in the world,” Evans-Riester said. “During our game, I told coach Jen that I felt like COVID wasn’t happening but after the 60 minutes it was a snap back to reality.”
The Rams take on Radford this Wednesday at Cary Street Field at 4 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN+.