Hauppauge High School's Taylor Ranftle was an All-American lacrosse player in 2012 and wanted to play at a well-established and highly ranked college program.
Ranftle, a junior attacker, figured Stony Brook did not meet her requirements and chose Virginia. "What I thought I wanted was to be at a huge program," she said. "The atmosphere, the big-name thing. Every kid looks at these top schools and that's where they want to go, and that's what I wanted at that time."
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Three years later, Virginia is ranked eighth in the country. Stony Brook is ranked sixth. And Ranftle is back home playing for the Seawolves, joining a roster loaded with former Long Island high school players on a climb up the national rankings.
"From Day One, that's been our goal: to make kids want to make this a big-time lacrosse university," coach Joe Spallina said.
Stony Brook (16-1) is trying for its third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The top-seeded Seawolves will host fourth-seeded UMBC (8-8) Friday in an America East Tournament semifinal game. The winner will face second-seeded Albany (13-3) or third-seeded Vermont (11-6) on Sunday for the title.
Ranftle, who has 11 goals and 19 assists, transferred in this season after an injury and diminished playing time at Virginia. "If you were to tell me this is where I would end up in my junior year of college, I never would have guessed I would be here," she said. "Now it's a place where our team name is up in the top 10. Younger kids look at Stony Brook and they say, 'That's a top program, that's where I want to go to.' I don't think that's how it was years ago."
Stony Brook entered Division I in 2003 and had not made the NCAA Tournament before the hiring in 2012 of Spallina, who parlayed three straight Division II national championships at Adelphi as a part-time coach into a six-figure multiyear contract at Stony Brook. Spallina's salary reportedly is over six figures.
"Joe had a bodacious vision for the program when we interviewed him,"' former athletic director Jim Fiore said. "He had a track record of success and met all the attributes we looked for in a head coach. Passion, potential and people skills, and we knew he would recruit with the best and keep the best talent in the country home on Long Island. Clearly, he is attaining the vision and goals set forth when he was hired several years ago and he deserves all the credit.
"We knew there would be an adjustment period and significant transition for Joe going from being a successful high school, then Division II coach, to leading a Division I program with aspirations and expectations, but we knew he had all the natural ability and unteachable qualities to build the program and recruit the best local talent on Long Island. With Joe, it was only a matter of time.''
Spallina, who also coaches the Major League Lacrosse Lizards, is in his fourth season at Stony Brook. He has a career record of 64-13 and the Seawolves are on course for a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the second round the last two seasons.
This year, they expect to go deeper. Victories over highly ranked Florida and Northwestern have fueled that belief.
"I'll be honest,'' Spallina said. "When I got the job here, I was gung-ho. I walked in here, took a look around and said, 'What did I get myself into?' Caitlin [Defliese, his assistant] and I went after it. We had to really sell a vision, but that vision only lasts so long unless you make it come true. When I bring a kid in now and say this is our goal, we're not selling a pipe dream, we're selling something that's reality-based. It's real.''
And the players know it. "We have proved to ourselves and the rest of the lacrosse world we can beat teams like Northwestern,'' freshman attacker Kylie Ohlmiller -- the Seawolves' leading scorer with 38 goals and 35 assists -- said of the seven-time national champion. "If we can be in the top five, we can be in the top four. I think that's our ultimate goal to be in the Final Four.''
Ohlmiller scored 255 goals in her high school career at Islip. She called herself an "under-the-radar'' player because a leg injury prevented her from playing summer ball and left her out of the thoughts of college recruiters.
"Coach Spallina found me and I'm really grateful for that because he made an empire out of the team," she said. "Back a couple of years ago, it definitely wasn't a top choice for a top player. I guess the whole idea of how Coach put it when he was recruiting me was, 'I want to make this an all-Long Island team with the players that everyone overlooked and make it to the national championship.' I guess you just gotta believe it when he says it.''
Ohlmiller became a sensation from the first day of practice. "Kylie is an amazing player,'' said Courtney Murphy, a sophomore attacker from Floyd who has 60 goals and seven assists. "She really molded the offense. How successful we've been is definitely a tribute to Kylie. Whatever [publicity] Kylie gets, she deserves it. She's an awesome player. We would not beat Northwestern, Florida or Notre Dame without her. We would not be the same without her. If you just look back last year, not having a dominant lefty like Kylie, we were missing that one piece.''
It was like moving-up day earlier this month when Stony Brook defeated visiting Northwestern, 11-9. The Seawolves rose to No. 5 after that win. "The last time they played on our field , they won a national championship,'' Murphy said. "No one even knew of Stony Brook two or three years ago.''
But Spallina assembled star power. Comsewogue's Michelle Rubino, a midfielder, is the team's best all-around player, adding 34 draw controls to her 17 goals and 16 assists. On defense, Florida transfer Meagan Merits of Farmingdale leads with 38 ground balls and 15 caused turnovers. Goalie Kaitlyn Leahy of Bayport has a 5.48 goals-against average. Stony Brook leads D-I in scoring defense, allowing 5.24 goals a game.
Northwestern redshirt senior Kara Mupo, who played for Spallina when he coached at Rocky Point High School, said, "Stony Brook is an amazing team. They deserved to win that day. I have the most outward respect for Joe Spallina.''
And if the teams meet again in the NCAA Tournament? "I can assure that we're going to come out guns blazing,'' Mupo said. "Obviously, you lose to a team, there's nothing more in the world you want than redemption. [When] the final whistle blew at Stony Brook, we all wanted another chance right away."
Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller added, "I think it was a big statement game for them in terms of, hey, it wasn't a fluke we beat Florida, we're a good team. The kids, you can just tell they're motivated, they believe in themselves. They're determined. They've got some really good key players all over the field. They definitely got what it takes.''
Northport's Dorrien Van Dyke, a sophomore midfielder and attacker who has 53 points and 40 draw controls, said Spallina told the team not to dwell on beating Northwestern.
"Coach says put it behind us and look forward,'' she said. "We are pedal to the metal. We're not letting up just because we beat a big team. We're going to continue on to hope to beat more big teams.''
That's not just for this season. Elizabeth Fey, one of the players who transferred from Adelphi to play at Stony Brook under Spallina, now coaches youth lacrosse. "What I tell all the girls now is you don't need to go away from Long Island anymore to get that high level; it's right around the corner,'' said Fey, a senior research and development scientist at a firm on Long Island. "The mentality around the team is, 'You are the best, you are No. 1, you can do this.' He's put together his puzzle before these kids even come to the school. He really knows what he wants at each position and how everything works together. He finds these kids that may be under the radar and together they just mesh and they're a top-five team now.''
Ohlmiller said of Spallina, "I know that he's not a one-shot guy. He's going to want to keep the empire that he's building here going. I know all the little girls that came to the game against Northwestern, they were all rooting for Northwestern. Just like us growing up rooting for Northwestern. They came here rooting for Northwestern and left rooting for us.''