NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In her first season as head lacrosse coach at Vanderbilt, Beth Hewitt often finds it difficult to explain the positive vibes around her program this spring.
Instead, Hewitt just shrugs and smiles.
“Winning helps,” she said.
Vanderbilt has been doing a lot of winning in the early goings of Hewitt’s tenure as head coach. The Dores are currently 7-1 – the best start in program history – and rank in the top 10 nationally in several statistical categories. Next up, Vanderbilt faces its toughest test yet with a road meeting at No. 12 Notre Dame.
A sense of camaraderie has made a world of difference for the Commodores in 2019, Hewitt said.
“They’re bought in to enjoying the experience, they continue to work and they just want to get better,” Hewitt said.
Last spring, Hewitt was promoted to head coach at Vanderbilt after four years as an assistant primarily in charge of defense. Hewitt knew that despite her familiar face, she would be tasked with revamping the culture of a program that had gone 8-9 overall in 2017-18. That meant on-field and off-field changes.
Hewitt said she first prioritized the installment of an up-tempo style of play. But it was equally as important to make lacrosse fun again for the Commodores. Nowadays, for example, Vanderbilt’s staff makes it a point to begin each practice with a team-favored drill or one that emphasizes teamwork and activity.
“That gets the energy up,” Hewitt said. “We really wanted to bring a fast-paced game, but it was also important to us that they enjoy the sport and their time together. Sometimes the grind of the season can get to you. We want them to enjoy the mornings they’re here and feel fortunate they get to compete at the highest level.”
The results have been positive. Vanderbilt’s 7-1 start has included key nonconference wins at Louisville, 9-8, and at Arizona State, 15-14. Its only setback this season has been a double-overtime loss at San Diego State, 15-14.
The Dores are likewise seeing marked improvement on both sides of the ball. Led by the likes of sophomore Gabby Fornia (28 points) and sophomore Emily Mathewson (26 points), Vanderbilt currently ranks fourth in the nation in assists/game (9.13) and sixth in points/game (25.13) as part of the country’s eighth-ranked offense (16.00 goals/game). Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s defense caused 14.00 turnovers/game, third-most in the country, behind sophomore Melissa Hawkins (2.38 caused turnovers/game).
Unlike years past, the Dores’ production has seemingly come from a number of players on any given day. That’s an advantage for Vanderbilt.
“I think we’re a little harder to scout this year,” Hewitt said.
That blend of teamwork has transferred to the locker room, as well.
“I think we just have really good team chemistry,” said Fornia, who ranks 11th nationally total assists (20) and ninth in assists per game (2.50). “Everybody is buying into everything the coaches are telling us to do, and we’re really taking our time and being patient and trying to execute. I would say this year, we’re more of a cohesive unit instead of trying to do individual things and get our stats up. It’s more about the team winning.”
The intensity ratchets up this week as the team travels to Notre Dame. After the matchup with the Irish, Vanderbilt hosts Butler on Sunday before conference play begins in the American Athletic Conference the following Sunday at East Carolina.
As a wave of momentum begins to crest for the Commodores, Hewitt said her upperclassmen, in particular, have proven ready to put the past behind them.
“I would say the senior class leadership and their work ethic has played a big part,” Hewitt said. “They expect a lot of themselves and individuals, but they also expect it of their teammates. That’s been contagious this year. Everybody is diving in and bought in to the game plans and scouts and extra work.”