WATERVILLE — Karen MacCrate Henning celebrated her 100th career coaching win at Colby on Sunday by meeting with her three captains. The players congratulated their coach on the milestone, huddled with her for about 10 minutes, then, after everyone else had long-since left Bill Alfond Field, went back to the bench to round up their equipment with smiles on their faces.

It’s always good to be a Mule this time of year. As sure as the snow starts to melt, Colby women’s lacrosse starts flexing its muscles in March, even when it seems to have sent too many players off into the real world the previous spring.

A season-opening win over four-time New England Small College Athletic Conference champion Trinity served immediate notice that the Mules aren’t going anywhere this year. It vaulted Colby to fifth in the NCAA Division III. The Mules suffered a tough one-goal loss to NESCAC rival Hamilton on Saturday, but bounced back with a 16-0 non-conference win over Husson University.

The Mules have been to the NCAA tournament every year since MacCrate Henning took over the program eight years ago and reached the national quarterfinals four of the last five years. They are already showing signs of making another appearance despite graduating their top four scorers, including two All-Americans, all of their starting attackers and a part-time goalkeeper.

Rather than dwell on what they lost, the teams’ leaders saw this season as an opportunity to form their own identity.

“It gave us a chance to revamp it, like, let’s figure out our new strength, figure out what we can do now,” senior midfielder and tri-captain Abby Hatch said.

“I think something that is pretty unique about our team this year is it’s a total team effort,” said fellow captain Sara Miller, another senior midfielder. “We lost some big scorers, but right now we have a lot of people that are filling in their own roles and some making new ones.”

Not that anyone had reason to feel sorry for Colby for losing so much firepower. It still had outstanding depth and experience on defense and in the midfield. Hatch, the leading returning scorer, and Miller combined for 23 goals last season. Senior Claire Dickson, another captain, returned to the net after playing 16 games in goal last year and leading the Mules in save percentage and goals against average.

Add a veteran defensive corps and a blue chip freshman class that includes Maddie Hatch, Abby’s sister, and it’s easy to understand why Colby was ranked ninth in the nation in the preseason.

Regardless of what the polls say, MacCrate Henning always lets her players know each season is what they want to make of it. The players, led by this year’s seniors, responded by making a commitment to this season the day after the last one ended and carried it through the entire off-season.

“They’re not just talented, they’re workers,” MacCrate Henning said. “They have a lot of pride in this team and it feeds everyone around them. The combination of the work ethic and the belief just puts us in a position to keep improving.”

It’s not just a one-way street for the seniors, though. The lines of communication go beyond them barking orders at the underclassmen.

“I think every player out there wants each of us to get better,” said Hatch, who earned NESCAC player of the week honors after scoring the game-winning goal against Trinity with 16.2 seconds left to play. “We are always teaching each other new things. I can learn things from the freshmen and the juniors can learn things from the seniors and sophomores. I think that’s very unique about our ream. I think everyone is open to listening and learning something new.”

And when the players listen, what they hear is always positive.

“We know that a good word is going to fuel you so much more than something negative,” Dickson said.

A shared love of the game provides even more fuel, the captains said. So does playing for MacCrate Henning.

“We don’t have enough words to show how much we appreciate her and how much she really does for this team,” Miller said. “She cares about you not only as a lacrosse player but as a person. That just makes playing for her so much more fun.”

Prior to joining Colby in 2007, MacCrate Henning started the women’s lacrosse program at C.W. Post in 1999 and two NCAA Division II championships, in 2001 and 2007. She’s compiled a 203-55 record as a head coach.

She enjoyed even more success when she played at the University of Maryland, where she was an All-American attacker on the Terrapins’ back-to-back undefeated national championship squads in 1995 and 1996.

That was the start of seven consecutive national titles Maryland won under coach Cindy Timchal, from whom MacCrate Henning learned success doesn’t happen overnight; It comes when each day is spent giving the maximum effort to improve.

“That’s what my college coach always said, and I’ve taken it with me, because that’s all you can do,” she said. “You can go to bed at night if you know you’ve done everything you can that day to get a little bit better. If we improve a little bit each day, that’s pretty impressive.”

The 11-10 win over Trinity was pretty impressive. It was Colby’s first since 2009 and gave the Mules an early shot of confidence.

“It was great to see what we’re capable of as a team,” Miller said. “The seniors, we hadn’t beaten them since we’ve been here.”

But McCrate Henning insisted the players use the win as a way to continue to improve, not as evidence they had reached their peak.

“It’s one game,” she said. “That’s one of our things this year — one step at a time, one game at a time. You’ve got to stay focused on each one.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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