Through the highs and the lows, the rain and the snow, Heidelberg lacrosse has endured just about everything in year one.
The journey began in late 2015 when Athletic Director Matt Palm tabbed Bill Schmoldt as the first lacrosse coach in school history.
“With a strong pool of applicants, Bill is the one who had everything we wanted. We felt like he was ready for that first opportunity as a head coach.”
Only a month later, Rosie Knisley would be selected to coach the women’s squad. With several years of experience and Ohio ties, Knisley fit the bill.
“Rosie has a great understanding of what it takes to succeed at a small school. She has the characteristics that we were looking for and came highly recommended,” Palm said.
With both head coaches in place, a new era of Heidelberg athletics truly began.
“How do I recruit a kid when we don’t know when we’re going to practice?” Schmoldt wondered.
The process of putting together a new team in a new program provided many challenges. Recruiting was a top priority but many pieces needed to be in place first. Setting a budget, getting equipment, having proper accommodations at Hoernemann Stadium in addition to arranging schedules fell into place over several months.
Then it was time to hit the road.
“From February into May, I was trying to watch as many games as possible,” Schmoldt said, explaining the nonstop pace of recruiting a new team. “My spring was watching all sorts of games in as many places as I could.”
The challenging part was finding student-athletes willing to take a chance on a new program. Freshman Chris Storrs came to Heidelberg by way of Benedictine High School in Cleveland. Coming here meant taking that chance. “I knew that it was going to be difficult with a new team but I wanted to be a part of something that we can build on,” he said.
Having limited practices in the fall with the coaches, junior transfer Max Rennillo organized practices run solely by the players. “I knew that if we wanted to be anywhere near the level of success we wanted, we needed to take things into our own hands,” he said.
Fifty miles from Pittsburgh in the small West Virginia town of Bethany, ‘Berg lacrosse was ready for game action. After a back-and-forth battle, the Student Princes fell by the score of 9-8 in double overtime. Schmoldt, still fiery about the game, remembered every detail. “I felt like we should’ve won. We played like a young team that had 14 freshmen on the field — which we were. It was a learning experience.”
That learning experience would pay off just 11 days later in Illinois against Monmouth College. Double overtime would prove to be sweeter this time around. Tied 10-10 in the second overtime, sophomore captain Matt Wernerspach found the goal to give the program its first-ever win.
“I knew as soon as Nick (Selfridge) passed me the ball that I was going to score,” Wernerspach said. “It was a little surreal. The whole team played together, which opened up my opportunity to score the game winner.”
“We made a lot of young mistakes in that game, but we battled back and never gave up,” Schmoldt said. “That first win was a big one.”
After jumping out with a 2-2 record, the men finished 3-13 on the season with wins against Monmouth, Kalamazoo and La Roche. “It's been a very rewarding yet trying experience for myself as well as the team,” Rennillo said. “We continue to push each other to strive for success.”
“You have to think long term,” Knisley explained. “The biggest thing is trying to get the Heidelberg name out there when recruiting. Even if we didn’t find anyone, we still were able to make connections with area coaches.”
With new recruits, some familiar faces were still around. Dana Dudley transferred from Slippery Rock, where she had already worked with Knisley during her time as an assistant coach. Dudley already had the experience of being a college athlete. “She works hard 100 percent of the time,” Knisley said. “She’s been a great example to follow, especially with her work ethic.”
“Knowing (Knisley) beforehand helped with early practices because I could be a leader and help anyone who needed it,” Dudley said. “Knowing the grind of a student-athlete, I knew that if I pushed myself during practice my teammates would as well.”
Getting used to everyone’s playing style was a challenge. For senior Janessa Scott, it was her first experience playing lacrosse. “We knew we were going to have to work super hard if we wanted to be competitive. It’s a tough journey but we were up for the challenge.”
Knisley noted that she continued to see improvement with each practice. “They worked hard on the fundamentals from the beginning and have really improved with each game and practice.”
“I kept telling them, the weather isn’t going to change for a game so you have to get used to it in practice,” Knisley remembered. That advice proved to be on the money. Hoernemann Stadium saw windy conditions and rainfall throughout the opener. Oberlin College bested the Student Princes 17-2 in the squad’s first game.
Several season-ending injuries plagued the women’s team throughout the grind of the season. The resulting injuries and lack of depth for a new program would cause them to often play down one or two players. It’s certainly not the first time a new program has seen challenges like this. “It’s unfortunate the way the injuries have put them down players,” Palm said. “The hope is to build the recruiting base so this isn’t an issue moving forward.”
The absence of depth hasn’t affected the process of growing together as a team. “Our chemistry really improved in a short time, which is huge,” Knisley said. The progress hasn’t gone unnoticed from the athletic director either. “They’ve really grown as a team and showed great signs of improvement,” Palm said.
While the women finished winless on the season, many of them already look forward to next year. Though Scott has since graduated, she is one of them. “I’m so excited to see the improvements that next year’s team will show. With all the student-athletes who played this year for the first time, next year will be different.”