The St. John Fisher women’s lacrosse team is closing in on another Empire 8 Conference championship. That is no small feat but the Cardinals want more. The conference title, you see, is a rite of spring on this western New York State campus the same way that tapping maple trees is in Vermont. The Cardinals have won the last seven E8 championships.
“We all have a goal to win the NCAA championship,” Rutland High graduate Alyssa Sabotka said.
A national crown is a lofty goal but Sabotka said this could be a special season with all the starters returning from last year.
“We knew we had grown a lot from last year,” she said.
It has been pretty special so far. SJF is 11-1 and has reeled off 10 straight victories after an overtime loss to nationally ranked York College.
The 10th straight win came on Wednesday, a 16-4 rout of Utica in which Sabotka had a goal and an assist.
Teammate Mallory Eymer scored her 100th point in that game. It must have reminded Sabotka of that day as a Rutland senior when the game was stopped and she was honored for scoring her 200th career point.
She has played in all 12 games, coming off the bench where she has been very productive. The sophomore has scored seven goals, already matching her total from her freshman year. She also has three assists.
Lacrosse has always been her passion even though she also played soccer and basketball for the Raiders in high school.
“I always played travel lacrosse growing up,” she said.
While Sabotka is the lone non-New Yorker on the team, Vermonters have made their mark on the Pittsford campus in the past. Rutland High’s Jesse Smyrski wore the SJF softball uniform and Mill River’s Becky Armstrong was inducted into the St. John Fisher Hall of Fame for scoring 1,273 points in women’s basketball before graduating in 1993 as a two-time All-American.
Sabotka chose SJF both for its academics and successful lacrosse tradition. It has a quality program for her career objective of being a nurse practitioner, and the state-of-the-art athletic facilities didn’t hurt either.
“Fisher has the best Division III facilities. We have two separate stadiums and another practice facility that was built for the Buffalo Bills,” Sabotka said.
The St. John Fisher campus is still the training camp for the Bills.
Sabotka is part of a Division III lacrosse power that has been making steady progress under veteran coach Linda Michele. Last year, the Cardinals hosted an NCAA first-round playoff game for the first time.
The nurse practitioner major involves a rigorous six-year curriculum. Initially, Sabotka was nervous about the demands of balancing the sport she loves with her academics.
But Fisher has proven to be the perfect fit and she has thrived on the field and in the classroom.
“My coach is all about academics first,” Sabotka said.
Rutland High girls basketball coach Nate Bellomo wrote the college letter of recommendation for Sabotka and he is not surprised at the way she has adapted to the college level.
Sabotka missed her senior soccer season at Rutland due to surgery and worked hard to get back to playing full time that year in basketball.
“Alyssa has that bubbly personality and she is always smiling. That is the exterior and that is what people see,” Bellomo said. “But deep down she is an intense competitor.”
Bellomo saw that on display each day in practice when she went full bore the entire time.
“Coming back from the injury challenged her mentally. I think she matured during that time and that it helped her at the next level. I think it helped her to set goals differently,” he said.
“She is one of those athletes that comes along only so often that you talk about from year to year,” he continued.
Both of her parents were college athletes and Rutland High graduates. Traci Terenzini Sabotka played softball at Western New England and TJ was a football player at Siena.
An exciting possibility for her parents and all Rutland fans to think about is the chance of Sabotka and the Cardinals earning a trip to nearby Middlebury in the postseason.
St. John Fisher is ranked No. 15 in the national poll and Middlebury No. 3. The Panthers have hosted a four-team Regional for years and the possibility of the Cardinals showing up in Vermont is not that remote.
“Sometimes our coach will say during practice, ‘I wonder what Middlebury is doing right now,’ or ‘I wonder what (No. 2) Gettysburg is doing,’” Sabotka said. “She does that for motivation.”
College is always an adjustment and that was especially true on the lacrosse field during Sabotka’s freshman year.
“The rules are so different. We have a shot clock in college so the game tempo is completely different,” Sabotka said.
But meshing with her teammates was a pretty seamless transition.
“Lacrosse is the favorite sport of every player on the team. We are all here for the same reason,” Sabotka said.
They are also united by that goal — to hoist another trophy besides the Empire 8 hardware.
“We are hoping to go all the way this year,” Sabotka said.
A national crown is a destination and Sabotka has always known where she was going.
She took advantage of Rutland High’s Year-End-Studies (YES Plan) program to work in the emergency room at Rutland Regional Medical Center her senior year. Last summer, after her first year of college, she got more experience in Labor & Delivery.
She has always had a life road map and it has served her well. She would love to be playing in the biggest game of all and if the road happens to run through Middlebury, that would be a thrill for her and Rutland lacrosse fans.