SAINT LEO, Fla. -- Christina Minneci liked the landscaping and the palm trees when she made her recruiting visit to Saint Leo in February of 2011 as a high school senior. She had family in Florida, and was willing to get away from her native New Jersey and the northeast for her collegiate lacrosse career.
But head coach Lesley Graham, who had originally recruited Minneci during a stint as head coach at Chestnut Hill University in Philadelphia, couldn't show her the stadium and the turf on which she'd be playing. Graham also couldn't introduce her to the upperclass returnees on the team.
None of that existed yet.
Minneci, like current senior teammates Alix Murray, Brittany Millsap, and Joanna Chadwick, were all recruited on faith and a vision for what Saint Leo's not-yet-on-the-field start-up program could be, as much as the Florida sun and the swaying palms.
"I made my decision and signed here to start a program," said Minneci. "I figured that would be a little different, history-wise. I might as well do something I've never done before."
"It wasn't like I was coming to a school that didn't have lacrosse and didn't know anything about it, because I knew they were recruiting other students from up north that also had the skills. I knew that if there were good lacrosse players, then no matter where it was in the country the wins would come," said Minneci.
And oh, how those wins have come. 32 victories over the last four seasons, including three seasons with a winning record.
Four years down the road from Minneci's 'might-as-well' commitment to Saint Leo women's lacrosse, the wins have most certainly followed and the program takes the next step in its development with this weekend's Sunshine State Women's Lacrosse Championship in Lakeland, Fla. – the culminating event of the inaugural SSC season.
"After four seasons here at Saint Leo, it's nice to reward the players for their hard work and dedication with the post season tournament," said Graham. "When we started the season, we talked about post season play as motivation to stay focused, and how hard we would have to work to earn this chance to get there."
Third-seeded Saint Leo, 9-7 overall and 2-2 in the SSC, will face second seed Rollins College (11-4, 3-1 SSC) in Friday's first semifinal at 3:00 p.m. at Lakeland's Bryant Stadium. Top-seeded Florida Southern (18-2, 4-0 SSC) and fourth-seeded Florida Tech (7-8, 1-3 SSC) will square off in the second semifinal at 6:00 p.m.
The semifinals winners will do battle on Sunday, April 26, at 1:00 p.m. at Bryant Stadium.
Friday's matchup with Rollins will pit comparative newcomer Saint Leo against a Tars squad that has been around since the 2008 season, making it the oldest program in the conference. The Lions are 1-4 all-time versus the Tars, including a 14-5 loss earlier this season. However Saint Leo hung a 12-9 defeat on Rollins last year, gaining a measure of revenge for the Tars' 23-7 win over the Lions in the program's first game on February 11, 2012.
"We are looking forward to playing Rollins again. They are a very talented and disciplined program and our last outing against them wasn't our best, so we are hoping to put the pieces together and make a run at them," said Graham. "That's the best part about post season—it's anybody's game, on any given day. Whoever shows up with the most hustle and heart can take the win, and that's exactly what we plan to do."
This season, the Tars boast Division II's second-leading scorer in Tyler Thomas, who enters Friday's semis with 62 goals and 68 points. Kristina Coppolino has charted 34 goals and 26 assists for 60 points for Rollins. The tandem of Thomas and Coppolino pace a Tar offense that ranks third in the SCC with 14.27 goals per game.
Saint Leo's offense is not nearly as prolific, averaging 10.19 goals per game, but the Lions offer a more diverse attack with three players charting 20-or-more goals this season and 15 players scoring at least once. Freshman Abbie Ross leads the Lions with 29 goals and three assists for 32 points, while sophomore Kelsey Burns is close behind with 24 goals and six assists for 30 points.
Minneci is not far off that pace with 23 goals and six assist for 29 points this season. Over her four years, she has amassed a record 85 goals with 34 assists for 119 points, and was the first player in program history to surpass the 100-point mark.
This season, the opportunity to play for a conference championship has been omnipresent for Saint Leo women's lacrosse, from the mere knowledge that they finally had a championship to play for, to the sight of the conference championship and post-season banners at every Saint Leo venue.
"I think it's motivated us little bit more - now we can actually win something big in our conference," said Minneci. "The men's lacrosse team – they've been conference champs and they have the banner on the field… and we want our banner up there too. Especially before we graduate, it would be great to have something up there to show… our legacy, I guess."
"That's definitely been a motivating factor for us" said Minneci, laughing, "because we came in here and started with nothing. But now look at us. Now we're playing in the Sunshine State Conference, and we want that banner to show that we can excel."
Come Friday afternoon, they'll have that chance.