Everything changed when Maria Kotas committed to Canisius.
She had collected honorable mention All-America accolades while leading her Lancaster girls lacrosse team to sectional titles and state tournament berths. She had perennial top-five schools, including North Carolina and Northwestern, recruiting her. She could have written her ticket to a number of schools that wanted her.
But Kotas decided to stay local. She chose Canisius College, swayed by her connection to family and friends.
Thus began the Golden Griffin women’s lacrosse dynasty.
The Griffs won their fourth straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and will play Penn today in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Maryland.
The success didn’t come out of thin air.
The Griffs had been contenders in the MAAC for a few years. In 2006 they lost in the championship game while 2008 started a string of three straight trips to the conference semifinals, all of which resulted in losses.
Head coach Scott Teeter was looking at what kind of program the Griffs were going to be. Would they be satisfied being competitive in the conference? Or did they want to create a national presence?
All of that came into focus when Kotas chose Canisius.
“Basically when she gave me her commitment here, it changed the way that I viewed our program and the future of our program. It changed right from that conversation,” Teeter said. “The way we do our recruiting changed. The expectations changed. It wasn’t, ‘OK, we just want to try and compete in the MAAC.’ No, we want to see if we can raise it to the national level. We want to dominate the MAAC and chip away at a national championship.”
Ask Kotas about her decision to come to Canisius and she sees it as a combination of family and fate.
“Definitely the whole family and friends aspect,” she said. “I wanted to play Division I lacrosse, but there aren’t a lot of Division I programs here in Western New York. I think it was destiny; it was fate for me to come to Canisius. To come here and play in front of all my family and friends and to win four MAAC championships, it’s a huge deal. Not many people can say they did that.”
Not many people can say they’ve been on the MAAC All-Tournament team four years in a row. In fact, only Kotas can say that. She was the tournament’s most valuable player the last two years and on Monday night was named the Canisius Female Student-Athlete of the Year.
But her maturing into a star, much like the success of the program, was a work in progress. Kotas didn’t dominate her freshman and sophomore years, playing with some of the best players in Canisius history, including all-time leading scoring Carly Quinn and all-time career goal scorer Megan Oosting. She sees her success as continuing the tradition.
“It’s something special, but I want to credit people before me who showed me what it was all about when I came in my freshman year,” Kotas said. “I followed their leadership and tried to replicate that myself.”
There’s something about the pressure of winning and the expectations it creates that motivated Kotas to continue to improve. Winning the MAAC title was special, but it was also partly a relief. The goal was to win in the NCAA Tournament, so winning the MAAC championship became a step to reaching their goal, not the end goal in itself.
That, however, didn’t mean the conference title was an easy get.
“The target on our back gets bigger every single year, so you have to raise your level of play,” Kotas said. “In my senior season, there are no options to play lacrosse after this. I wanted to walk away from the field having no regrets. So every day, I leave everything I have and try to influence the other players and leave your mark on the program so the winning tradition keeps going.”
The winning tradition may have been enhanced by Kotas, but it doesn’t end with her. The Griffs swept the conference’s major awards. Kotas won the Midfielder of the Year honor for the second straight year. Junior Tori Quinn was the MAAC Offensive Player of the Year while sophomore Ashley Bull was the Defensive Player of the Year.
“We had a lot of people step up, but I think overall we were just a strong team. On the defensive end, in the midfield and on the offensive end,” Kotas said. “We swept the MAAC awards, so that just goes to show you the character of this team.”
The next task is the NCAA Tournament’s first round. They take on Penn today at 4 p.m. in College Park, Md. The winner faces No. 1 seed Maryland on Sunday.
The Griffs are looking for their first NCAA Tournament win. Last year they lost to No. 7 Penn State, 14-13, after holding a 7-6 lead with 25 minutes to play.
It was a different playoff structure in 2012 and 2011 with Canisius in play-in games in the NCAAs. In 2012 the Griffs fell to No. 15 UMass, 13-12, as the Minutemen scored with four seconds left in regulation to win. It was also UMass that defeated Canisius in its first NCAA Tournament game, 16-8, in 2011.