WATERVILLE — When Thomas College women’s lacrosse head coach Jennifer Nardi decided to step down for personal reasons in January before coaching a game at the school, co-captains Erin Nelligan and Crystal Leavitt remained calm faces of the program’s uncertain future.

The players liked Nardi, who had replaced Sarah Merrill, and were optimistic about the upcoming season with her at the helm, even though they were losing much of the core that had led them to three consecutive North Atlantic Conference finals. Nelligan and Leavitt, both seniors and four-year Terriers, were confident their young team would be ready for the season, which was a little over a month away.

“Our program goes a lot deeper than the people on the sidelines. And that’s perfect for us,” Nelligan said. “When we were wondering about what was going to happen, we knew that we had the support of everyone at our school.”

Enter Deb Biche-Labbe, women’s soccer coach and associate director of athletics, who agreed to take over head coaching reigns on an interim basis for the season and brought the program immediate stability.

“I had a couple of years where I worked as an assistant for lacrosse and I just loved watching the game. It’s a whole new situation to be coaching it,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure that they had something stable to work with going forward. I have two great assistants. I think we’ve got all of our bases covered.”

“She came in without really any transition. It worked so well,” said Nelligan, who is happy to be back on the field after missing most of last season with a torn ACL and meniscus. “She has a great personality and she’s a great coach, so there was no bump in the road.”

“If anything, it brought us closer together,” said Leavitt, a defender. “We knew who she was. She helped us get a lot of girls ready to go, with a lot of new girls on our team. We’ve grown ever since she’s been here.”

Tom Sheridan, long-time men’s coach, is the associate head coach while holdover goalie coach Sean Carey also returns. Both have played big parts in that growth.

“Sheridan’s knowledge of the game, Deb’s personality and fitness and ‘Scarey’s’ goalie work and just aggressiveness. They all bring something to the table and it helps our team tremendously,” Nelligan said.

Sheridan, who stepped down after his second stint as men’s coach last year, is the link between the two programs as both adjust to new coaches. The men’s team is now coached by a well-known name in the NAC, former Husson University coach Marsh Gray, with Sheridan remaining on as associate head coach.

Kade Strout, of Richmond, a senior co-captain, said Marsh brought instant credibility to the Terriers.

“At Husson, he turned that program around,” Strout said.

Gray spent two years at Husson after a stint as an assistant at University of Southern Maine and head coaching jobs at the high school level. Husson was 14-15 during his two-year tenure, but reached the NAC final his first year and semifinals last year.

“He brings a great philosophy of just working really hard. As opposed to just going out and playing lacrosse, he wants you to do double that,” Strout said.

Gray, who led Husson to a school record 9-7 mark last year, said his familiarity with Thomas as a conference foe and the growth of the athletic department’s infrastructure made the program an attractive new home.

“We have a beautiful brand new field house and two artificial turf fields (Smith Field and Bernatchez Field),” he said. “Our lacrosse team is extremely privileged to have these facilities. We have a brand new weight training facility and all of our lacrosse players participate in an offseason strength and conditioning program.”

Gray expects his players to make the most of the facilities and their time, holding early morning and mid-afternoon practices.

“I often tease my guys about bulking up for the beach,” he said. “But the truth is, they’re working very hard and improving their speed and power. And they’re learning about proper periodization, technique and nutrition.”

“He’s really set on the fundamentals, you know, pass, catch, make sure you move on the ball and ground balls are the game,” Strout added.

The Terriers were 2-6 in the NAC last year, 3-9 overall. Thirteen of 20 players from last year are back, including leading scorer sophomore midfielder Colby Blondin and senior attacks Zac Crimmin and Bryan Ferris. Picked to finish sixth in a preseason NAC coaches’ poll, Thomas opened its season with an 8-3 home loss to Wheelock and dropped a 9-5 non-conference game to Saint Joseph’s on Saturday.

In addition to working with a coach with limited lacrosse experience, the women’s team lost stalwarts Jennifer Day, of Gardiner, and Brittany Primo to graduation and has a number of freshmen and sophomores with virtually no experience playing the sport already in the starting lineup.

“They’ve developed really quickly. You can almost not even tell with a couple,” Biche-Labbe said. “They’ve done the work and picked it up pretty quickly. We have some good athletes, for sure.”

They’re off to an 0-3 start that includes a 9-8 triple-overtime loss to Wheelock, but the Terriers — who hope to have a permanent, full-time coach in place shortly after the season — are looking to the future.

“It’s great because the new girls are catching on so fast,” Leavitt said. “Some of them are out playing on our off-day. They want to get better. They ask us questions, and that’s great.”

“We hold them to that standard because we want our program to continue succeeding,” Nelligan said.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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