by Megan Schneider
In less than one week after Dowling College announced its closure on May 31 due to financial struggles, the former Golden Lions women's lacrosse team shifted from hitting the panic button to opening a new door and continuing to make history at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT).
"They literally told us at 5 o'clock one day that it was closing at the 5 o'clock the next day," said former Dowling athletic director Melody Cope, who is now the associate athletic director at St. Joseph's Long Island, where some Dowling men's lacrosse players transferred to also be a part of an inaugural team. "Everyone knew that New York Tech had been thinking about adding lacrosse, and so the second that Dowling was closing, the conversations started being had – 'Is this something that you want to do, and if so, would you be interested in taking a look at our coach?'"
Soon after NYIT first contacted Dowling coach Kerri Handras on May 31 to gauge her interest, NYIT athletic director Duane Bailey, also a US Lacrosse board member, immediately spoke with president Edward Guiliano that night about the feasibility of adding women's lacrosse for the 2016-17 season – and not just adding any team, "but a highly ranked team at the same time," Bailey said, recognizing its historical first-round win as the No. 4 seed in the 2016 NCAA Division II tournament.
NYIT's original five-year plan to expand the school's sport offerings and add women's lacrosse involved a startup program kicking off its inaugural season in 2020 or 2021. But within 48 hours of his conversation with Guiliano in "a whirlwind" of a week, Bailey drafted a proposal and received the green light to hire Handras, which was announced on June 6 and effective June 13, and offer scholarships to as many players who wanted to make the 34-mile trip West with her.
"We wanted to stick together because we've built this from the ground up and we went so far last year," said senior goalie and captain Lauren Young, who earned first team all-conference honors in 2016. "For us to really finish it out together would be the best thing. When coach contacted us, we all basically jumped on it."
Upon being hired, Handras invited her Dowling team to campus to meet with Bailey, administrators and counselors to get a better understanding of the school and look into potential new majors since NYIT didn't offer education like Dowling.
However, she still encouraged her players to look elsewhere if desired. Handras, who also coached soccer at Dowling, received many emails from interested coaches – a lot from her rival East Coast Conference teams – joking her phone nearly broke through the process.
"I said, 'Don't sell yourselves short. You are worth something to somebody,'" said Handras, who earned Victory Club recognition Nov. 17 at the annual IWLCA banquet for achieving 100 career wins at Dowling. "[But] they were waiting on me and saying, 'If this is what's going to happen, we want to be there and be a part of it.'"
Of the current 21-player NYIT roster, 16 players had a previous connection with Handras and Dowling. Fourteen Golden Lions transferred and the two freshmen – Lexi Ruiz and Shannon Donovan – were Handras' incoming recruits at Dowling.
"It's really just a testament to the program that Kerri built when she was at Dowling and just the type of coach that she is," said Cope. "Just the fact that pretty much her entire team followed her, I don't think that would be the case at a lot of places."
Three newcomers to the roster, who also play soccer at NYIT, played lacrosse in high school – Caitlin Appel (West Islip), Erin Lankowicz (Sayville) and Brooke Skahan (Islip). The Bears also gained Whittier College transfer Angelina Cuevas and former Manhasset standout Anne Marie Ardito.
Ultimately, NYIT invested $475,000 in its women's lacrosse program, with approximately $320 thousand allotted from its scholarship pool. According to Bailey, it is funded at the same level, if not higher than Dowling, which was a key factor in the decision-making process for the former Golden Lions.
NYIT will compete in the ECC, the same conference Dowling women's lacrosse played in this past spring. The Golden Lions finished 8-0 in conference play for the regular season title and tallied a 17-4 overall record, falling to LIU Post by one in the ECC tournament championship. Dowling then made history with its first-ever NCAA tournament win, 9-8 over Grand Valley State, before ending its season with a 15-3 loss to top-ranked Adelphi in the second round.
With the team's recent success and Handras' proven track record at Dowling with two ECC titles for lacrosse and two for soccer, as well as being named Coach of the Year three times, Bailey expects the new NYIT team to be successful right out of the gate.
But it won't be without some challenges. While their new team has some ingrained chemistry and is familiar with the ECC, senior midfielder and captain Trisha Serras said it will be more difficult than anticipated to carry that success to NYIT.
"Now that we're at a new school, we have a lot more to prove," said Serras. "It's like we're almost all freshmen all over again. ... We just have to be able to bring our A game and bring what we've done at Dowling."
Handras is approaching the 2017 season just like any other, but understands why her players are nervous, reassuring them that the game is still the same. Their goals are the same. Their sets are the same. They just have a new name on the front of their jerseys.
"We're going to practice like we did over there – just with a new name," she told them. "New name, new field. Same rules, same expectations."
Working in the newcomers is just like any other team who graduated seniors and welcomes freshmen, Handras added. Ruiz looked at this upcoming season as a great opportunity because of the wealth of talent and her teammates' welcoming attitudes – "It's not hard to fit in," said Ruiz.
As the former Golden Lions settle in at their new home, complete with their own Mannequin Challenge on their new field, their goals are to continue to be the best that they can be and not dwell on the past, according to Young. The nine-member senior class wants to "end it off on a good note [and] make history here," she said.
"Knowing Kerri and knowing those young ladies, I think they're extremely optimistic," said Cope. "Things could've been really tough, and instead, they're pretty much intact as a team with their coach – just on a different team."