Commentary

TCNJ coach credits assistants, players and alumni for Lions' success

Updated: August 3, 2007, 11:42 AM ET
By Dave Reed | Special to ESPN.com

This week, ESPN.com is looking at a number of great college sports programs that don't garner the attention that they deserve. This is a small sampling of some of the nation's best programs, regardless of sport and division.

High expectations come with the territory for members of the women's lacrosse team at The College of New Jersey.

Karen Doane
Steve SmithWith All-American Karen Doane back,TCNJ should contend for its 14th national title.

They expect to work hard in the classroom. They expect to work hard in practice. And they expect to continue the program's tradition of winning national championships.

Since the NCAA began sponsoring women's lacrosse in 1985, the Lions have won 13 Division III titles (although one was later vacated), finished second five times and have four third-place finishes. In the 23-year history of the program, only one class came up short in its quest to win at least one championship during its four seasons at TCNJ, but that class did make two appearances in the final.

Much of the credit goes to head coach Sharon Pfluger, who took control of the program at her alma mater in 1986. Under her direction, the Lions have posted a 318-26-1 record (.923), which includes a 102-game winning streak and six undefeated seasons.

But Pfluger, who is also the head coach of the field hockey team, is quick to share the kudos with everyone involved in the program. That includes her assistant coaches, the players and the program's alumni.

"The credit can't go to me," said Pfluger, who recently was named to the 50th class for the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. "It's the giant family that we have here. Everyone believes in the program and they work incredibly hard. It's a bunch of different ingredients, you mix it all together and you come up with the right combination that helps the program be successful."

Because of Pfluger's dual roles, she relies heavily on her assistants, whom she refers to as co-coaches. It should come as no surprise that Robin Selbst, Gina Carey-Smith and Jackie Scullin are all products of the TCNJ program.

Selbst was part of national championship teams in three sports: field hockey, softball and lacrosse. Carey-Smith won titles as a member of the field hockey and lacrosse teams, while Scullin was a member of the 2005 lacrosse team that won the NCAA title.

Toni-Anne Cavallo
Steve SmithSenior Toni-Anne Cavallo aims for her third national title this season.
In addition to being familiar with Lions' methods and traditions, they understand Pfluger's concept of coaching through teaching.

"The teaching process is the learning process," Pfluger said. "So much of what I try to do is get myself, the coaches and my players all on the same wavelength. I want them to understand where my head is and I think the players trust me and the other coaches."

Former Lions continue to contribute to the program's process, since several are currently coaching in the high school ranks in or near the state of New Jersey.

"I have a lot of former players out there coaching, especially in New Jersey," Pfluger said. "One of the greatest rewards I have in coaching is seeing my girls share their passion for their sport and all the things they learned.

"We don't get all of their kids, but at least I have a really clear indication of an athlete's ability when I call one of my former players."

One of those former players is Jill Cosse, the head coach at West Essex Regional High School in North Caldwell, N.J. When she found out that two of her players -- twin sisters Christine and Toni-Anne Cavallo -- were going to play soccer at TCNJ, she suggested they give lacrosse a try.

Every time you step on the field you are playing to win a national championship. But we're playing for more than ourselves and our team. We're playing for the whole program and the tradition behind it. We're playing for all those players who worked so hard before us.

Christine Cavallo

"Originally I was looking to play soccer, because that was the sport I grew up playing," Toni-Anne Cavallo said. "At that point, we had only played lacrosse for about four years. When we decided to play soccer at TCNJ, my high school coach said that if we were going to play soccer there, we should definitely play lacrosse. "We didn't decide to play until after our freshman season of soccer. In the beginning, I wasn't sure how it would go playing two sports, but my soccer coach was supportive about the decision."

Based upon the two- and three-sport careers of the lacrosse coaches, there was never really a question if they would support the Cavallo sisters and their decision to play two sports. It turned out to be the right decision for Toni-Anne and Christine, who will be aiming for their third national championship in lacrosse as seniors in 2007.

The Lions were denied a chance to make it three in a row when they dropped an 11-10 decision at Middlebury College in a regional championship game last year. TCNJ jumped out to a 5-0 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half, but the Panthers rallied and scored the game-winning goal with 12 seconds remaining in the game. It marked the first time in the program's history that TCNJ did not qualify for the national semifinals.

"That loss to Middlebury has put that extra fire in us," Christine Cavallo said. "We thought we gave it our all, but obviously it wasn't good enough. As seniors, we're going to demand even more from ourselves and the team because we never want to lose like that again. We have to make sure we learn from that."

With virtually the entire team returning next season, including All-Americans Karen Doane and Toni-Anne Cavallo, TCNJ will be a threat to win its 14th national championship.

"Every time you step on the field you are playing to win a national championship," Christine Cavallo said. "But we're playing for more than ourselves and our team. We're playing for the whole program and the tradition behind it. We're playing for all those players who worked so hard before us."

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.