Sometimes it seems like the rest of the country knows more about the Towson women's lacrosse program than people in the team's own backyard.
That may change soon.
A nationally ranked program for most of head coach Sonia LaMonica's seven years at the helm, Towson is off to a 2-0 start that includes a season-opening, 14-13, upset of then-No. 4 Penn State. That was the first victory against a top-five opponent in program history, and this week the Tigers leaped eight spots to No. 11 in the IWLCA national Division I coaches' poll.
They are pushing for their first appearance in the IWLCA top 10 in eight years and are ranked 11th and ninth in two other polls.
"It's definitely so exciting being a senior and seeing the team progress the way it has since I've been here," said midfielder Kaitlyn Montalbano, a preseason second-team All-American. "Coach always tells us that rankings don't matter, and they don't, but it's really nice to get recognized finally after working so hard."
LaMonica seemed almost relieved to have beaten one of the sport's giants after knocking on the door for so long.
"In all honesty I was like, 'Finally. Finally,'" LaMonica said of her reaction to the Penn State win. "When I came to Towson, I understood that it would be a process, but it was always my goal to be a national contender. I knew there were hurdles and challenges, but I always really believed that we could do something special here with the types of student-athletes we would recruit and attract."
Towson has been a dominant force in the Colonial Athletic Association under LaMonica, advancing to the CAA championship game in six of her seven seasons and capturing four conference titles. The Tigers also have forged a consistent presence among the nation's top 20 during that time, occasionally sneaking into the top 15.
Still, when it comes to local women's lacrosse, people often think of programs like Maryland, Loyola and Johns Hopkins before Towson. And last spring, Navy became the talk of the area as the Midshipmen made a Cinderella run to the national semifinals.
Photo Credit: Kevin Tellekamp/Towson Athletics
"I think when people come to play us a lot of times maybe they underestimate who we are," said junior attack/midfielder Natalie Sulmonte, a first team all-region selection a year ago. "So beating Penn State proved a point, but we're not basing our season on that. We know we always have to go out and play our game, because if you don't, any team can beat you."
LaMonica has embraced and attacked the obstacles she's faced in building a nationally recognized program.
"We've had some in-state challenges for sure," LaMonica said. "I think there was a bit of stigma and some people formed an opinion on Towson as a backup school or whatever before ever setting foot on campus. Sometimes the names of certain schools draw more attention, and we have been seen in a certain light for a long period. That just kind of motivates me more."
Another statement win would propel Towson closer to LaMonica's goal of being a top-five program, and with a schedule that features five more top-25 opponents and two more top-five foes, the Tigers will get plenty of opportunities to prove they are among the nation's elite.
Towson travels to Loyola, a consistently ranked program for many years, March 7 and faces second-ranked Stony Brook and fourth-ranked Florida in consecutive road games March 17 and 21.
"We go one game at a time, even though that sounds like a cliché," LaMonica said. "We have to keep the focus on ourselves and keep getting better so we are prepared to show up on game day and position ourselves favorably. We have always scheduled great teams since I've been here. That's how we get better as a program, because we can learn so much from the challenges, setbacks and losses."
While LaMonica has had the Towson program on a steady upward trajectory since taking over in 2011, it has taken time to bring in the types of athletes needed to be a top-ranked team consistently. LaMonica feels this is the first time the majority of her players possess the total package -- skill, athletic ability and lacrosse IQ -- needed to compete with the elite programs in the country.
With the necessary pieces in place, the rest of the equation is upperclass leadership and buy-in from the entire team. LaMonica goes out of her way to make sure each member of her program -- from the backup goalie to the top scorers to the team manager -- understands she is a valuable component of the program and vital to the team's success.
"It all goes back to culture," she said. "Outside of recruiting players who can make a significant impact, we want to create a winning culture where we know that players are going to come to work every day and not look too far ahead. We have long-term goals that we set, but we want to focus on the day-to-day and help the players understand how important that is. The other piece is that all the players feel like they are part of the group and play hard for each other. I don't need them to play hard for me; they need to do it for each other. That's when the magic happens."
Montalbano said the inclusive atmosphere LaMonica has created, along with the opportunity for the players to be themselves on the field, has played a significant part in the team's success.
"The coaches bring such a positive culture to practices each day and to the games," she said. "We are very comfortable as players and are not afraid to make mistakes, because we know we won't be ripped from the game if we do. They know we aren't perfect and are going to make mistakes, and they let us play. That definitely gives us good vibes on the field."
Photo Credit: Kevin Tellekamp/Towson Athletics