Patrolling Penn State’s defensive third the past five years, Erika Spilker has had quite a vantage point for the resurgence of Nittany Lion women’s lacrosse.
The senior out of Severna Park, Md., holds the rare distinction of serving as a three-year captain, and her leadership has played a major role in the team making three straight NCAA quarterfinals, including Sunday’s 1 p.m. home clash with Princeton.
On top of helping Penn State’s veteran defense to the second-most caused turnovers in the Big Ten behind only No. 1 Maryland with 172, Spilker has tallied a career-high 28 ground balls through 19 games — all starts. Though Spilker’s first season as a captain in 2015 was spent on the sidelines due to a torn ACL, it offered an opportunity for her to experience the broader aspects of what it takes to build and sustain a winning program.
“Being able to be an all-around leader rather than just on the field pointing fingers and telling everyone where to go,” Spilker said of her approach. “In the locker room, making sure everyone’s got good vibes going to practice and has their heads up.”
While Spilker and senior midfielder Abby Smucker will take a combined five years of captaincy into the real world after this season, they’ve laid a tremendous foundation for their younger teammates to build on. Their current co-captain, junior attacker Katie O’Donnell, is enjoying a phenomenal season and couldn’t be more prepared to take the reins. One message that will remain consistent is the importance of maintaining an even keel no matter how big the stage.
“This team, we don’t get rattled. That’s a huge thing with our composure that we’ve learned this year, and just being confident in each other is so big for us,” Spilker said.
Last spring, the Nittany Lions advanced to their first Final Four since 1999, but they would fall 12-11 to the eventual national champions, North Carolina, in Chester, Pa. They’re one win away from a trip to New England’s Gillette Stadium and a semifinal showdown with Maryland, but Spilker isn’t thinking about a potential rematch against her home-state Terrapins, at least not yet.
“When you’re an 8-year-old girl in Little Sticks Lacrosse, you’re like, ‘I would love to play in a national championship,'” Spilker said. “So that’s always a dream, and we are close, but we really thrive on focusing on one game at a time.”
What does Spilker, a dual major in labor and employment relations and CAS, think her defense needs to do to take care of Princeton? “It’s really just working in your moment and making sure that we’re all staying active and not just standing and waiting for the play to come to us,” she said.
Penn State’s starting defense in its 19-14 second-round win over James Madison featured four seniors — Spilker, Natalie Schmitt, Taylor Bleistein, and goalie Cat Rainone. Sophomore Lucy Haubold is the lone underclassman tasked with protecting the Nittany Lion net. Rainone discussed the advantages of having such a dialed in back line, especially when it comes to non-verbal communication in the postseason.
“It’s super helpful,” Rainone said. “Just playing together, the lacrosse language, you can say whatever you want and they’re gonna know what you’re saying. They’re right on top of it and they’re ready to back you up.”
Penn State (16-3) handed the Tigers their lone home loss of the season in an impressive 13-8 showing March 21 in New Jersey. If head coach Missy Doherty’s bunch can take care of the ball like they’re accustomed to Sunday, the Nittany Lions will have an excellent chance of repeating their success.
“This program has grown immensely in every way,” Spilker said. “I’m so proud to be at this point.” One of her younger sisters, Rachel, is committed to Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class, so the Spilker legacy is in good hands here in Happy Valley.