It was quite a string of unfortunate luck for the Becker College women’s lacrosse team.
In the spring of 2019, the Hawks had a program-best 13-2 record, but lost their New England Collegiate Conference championship game in embarrassing fashion to New England College, 18-6. They reloaded and were ready for revenge — and then the pandemic hit.
After the hiatus, the Hawks came back ready to make up for lost time. Hopeful, they took the field in March, but found themselves 1-2 through three games. How could that happen? They did the hard work. They had pure athleticism.
Then on March 29, the team received an email that had been rumored, but still seemed far off. The 237-year-old college in Leicester, which tried to keep itself afloat despite a 300-student drop in enrollment since 2015-16, was shutting its doors, effective at the end of the academic year.
“It seems like it was bad news after bad news after bad news for us at Becker,” said junior attack Clare Conway, a Billerica native.
Coach Stephanie Blakely was at a loss. Although higher-education researchers and consultants will try to sell you a playbook on handling a college closure, none of them gives you a step-by-step guide for running a practice the day your school has made such an announcement.
“We had a meeting, and truthfully, we put out some arts and crafts and talked,” said Blakely, who has been at Becker since December 2019. “We went through it together. They had questions, which we didn’t always have the answers to, and we talked about our feelings.”
The Hawks dropped their next two games, and sat at 1-4 with five games left in the season. But then practices started to click, and players were on the same page. Going into their first matchup of the season against New England College — the opponent that started the string of bad news in 2019 — the Hawks felt good.
“The energy and atmosphere that we brought into that game was unmatched,” said Conway.
Conway scored six goals and Becker won, 15-12.
“We all wanted to prove who Becker was with everything that was going on,” said freshman goalie Chloe Isola of Oviedo, Fla. “After that, all of our efforts went towards winning the league.”
The Hawks went undefeated through the remainder of the regular season, then won their NECC semifinal against Mitchell, 20-4. In this past Sunday’s NECC final, things went the exact opposite of 2019. Conway scored five goals to lead the Hawks to a 15-4 over Elms College, earning the program’s first-ever conference title and NCAA Division 3 tournament berth — in its very last season as a program.
“It was a total 180 degrees from my experience as a freshman, when we were embarrassed and on the other side of winning,” said Conway, who was named the tournament MVP. “I had a sigh of relief. In the last few minutes, [teammate] Arianna Calouro kept turning around, looking at me and asking, ‘Did we really just do this?’ ”
This week, the players juggled finals, preparing for their Saturday morning first-round matchup against Catholic University and getting their transfer plans in order. Finding a new college isn’t easy for all, given that Becker offered programs such as veterinary technology, animal care, and esports management that are difficult to find elsewhere.
A Becker student-athlete isn’t just trying to find a suitable school academically, but hoping to find a place to continue playing their sport, which is made harder because the NCAA is allowing student-athletes an additional year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
For those whose next steps will not include athletics, their lacrosse careers are about to meet a premature end. That could include Conway, despite her 103 career goals. A two-sport athlete (like many at Becker), Conway will join several of her women’s hockey teammates at Worcester State, which announced it was adding the sport days after Becker announced its closing. Conway is unsure whether she will play lacrosse there, however.
Isola, one of just four non-New Englanders on the roster and a nursing major, still isn’t sure of her plans. Blakely says the majority of her players have made their transfer decisions.
With the end in sight, the Hawks are trying to make the best of every moment.
“We’re making this count,” said Blakely. “We’re laughing a lot. There’s a lot of dancing.”
Conway hopes that her team can tell a different tale of Becker College: not just another small Massachusetts college to close its doors, but a tale of resilience.
“I think we are just who Becker is,” said Conway. “We never give up. We never quit. We got the news about our school and did what we needed to do. It shows how tough we are.
“Our name will always be there. Despite the school closing, it will always say, ’2021 NECC Champions: Becker College.’ ”