Nov. 16, 2010
By Matt Muzza
Navy Sports Information
"No women's lacrosse player in the country can match what Katrina Nietsch has done here at the Naval Academy."
These words, spoken by Navy women's lacrosse head coach Cindy Timchal, serve to encompass the impressive achievements of the well-rounded senior midfielder from New Canaan, Conn.
Nietsch is a standout all-league lacrosse player who has helped take a first-year program from its inception to the NCAA Tournament in just three years. She has represented the Naval Academy all over the world, including Africa, Mexico and England. Also, she is a quantitative economics major with future aspirations of serving as a Navy Pilot and eventually attending medical school.
"It's truly inspirational to see someone so young know what she wants to accomplish in life, and has done so much already," said Timchal.
The Rise of a Program
The story of Nietsch's Navy athletic career begins at a high school summer lacrosse camp at Penn in 2006. That's when some exciting news began to be passed around by the campers: Timchal, a women's lacrosse coaching legend, was leaving Maryland to go the United States Naval Academy to begin a Division I lacrosse program, beginning in the 2008 season.
"That was the best news I have ever heard," said Nietsch. "I was already really interested in the Naval Academy, so being able to play Division I lacrosse at the place where I could also serve my country was just icing on the cake. Plus, they had one of the most esteemed coaches in the country in Cindy Timchal. That really solidified my decision that the Naval Academy would be my number one choice for college."
So Nietsch was on her way to Annapolis, and her physical skills and approach to the game helped lay the foundation of a brand new lacrosse program.
"She had tremendous athleticism coming in and we thought she would be a perfect fit at Navy," said Timchal. "She just loves being an athlete. She loves conditioning and weight training. She gets excited about learning new lacrosse skills."
However, heading into the program's inaugural 2008 season, it was unknown how the squad would actually fare on the field against a full slate of Division I competition. The 34-member team was comprised of a number of Timchal-recruited freshmen, some holdovers from the existing Navy club team and a handful of other players from the Brigade.
"The expectation from an outside perspective was that it would take a while for the program to get started," said Nietsch. "But as soon as I got here, I was so thrilled about the talent we already had. We had all the tools, we had an impeccable coaching staff and we had the facilities. It was just a matter of putting it all together."
The Mids did put it all together right away, advancing to the Patriot League semifinals and setting an NCAA record along the way for most wins by a first-year program with 13.
Nietsch was a starting midfielder and ranked third on the team with 40 goals. She was also a standout in Navy's transition game and would routinely take control of the ball in Navy's defensive zone and clear the ball herself. At the conclusion of the season, she became one of the first Mids to earn an all-conference accolade, as she was chosen to the All-Patriot League Second Team.
The bar was raised for Navy in the following season and the team immediately found success early in the year. However, as the Mids were playing a key league game against Lehigh, Nietsch's season took an unexpected turn as she suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
Although Nietsch was no longer able to take the field, she remained a steady and positive presence on the sidelines and was a tireless supporter of her teammates. Nietsch also used the time away from playing to take a more cerebral approach to the game of lacrosse.
Nietsch has scored 97 goals in three years at Navy
"Whether you get an injury or whether something else happens, you need to stay positive about it," said Nietsch. "That experience helped me become the player that I am today. I learned to not take anything for granted and I know that every game that I play could be my last. I also matured a lot as a player as I got to see a different side of lacrosse when I was on the sidelines."
Nietsch's positive attitude during her recovery was not lost on her head coach.
"She did what many athletes aren't capable of doing or aren't willing to do, and that is to stay positive," said Timchal. "As much as she wished she could be out on the field helping, she served in other ways. I can really say from a coaching standpoint, it was truly refreshing. How she reacted to that situation really showed her character."
After the loss of Nietsch, the Mids regrouped to win their next three games and entered the Patriot League Tournament with a 12-4 record, but the team would have to compete without one of its top playmakers. The Mids won a tight 12-11 game over Lehigh in the semifinals, but lost to Colgate in the championship game, 17-4. The Mids had definitely progressed since the previous year, but fell short of their goal of winning the league title.
"It was hard to watch my team play in the Patriot League Championship without me out there," said Nietsch. "But I also felt blessed because it was a huge mental test for me and I learned so much about myself. I learned that being a part of a team went beyond me being out on the field playing next to my teammates."
Although Nietsch provided a great deal of encouragement and support to her teammates from the sideline, it couldn't possibly compare to her contributions to the team when she is on the field.
Nietsch made a full recovery during the offseason, and the 2010 squad entered the season as a team on a mission.
Navy stormed out of the gates to a perfect 7-0 record, outscoring opponents 121-41 during the span. Midway through its conference schedule, Navy was 13-2 overall and both of its losses were at the hands of ranked opponents.
However, the turning point of the season would come in a regular season contest at Colgate. The Raiders were the one team in the league that Navy had yet to beat, and the same team that ended the Mids' season in the Patriot League Championship a year ago.
Colgate controlled play in the first half and took an 8-5 lead into halftime. But the Mids would rally in the second half, outscoring Colgate, 7-0, to claim a 12-8 victory.
"We came out with a lot of fire and I think at the end of the day we just wanted it more," said Nietsch. "That was a huge turning point for us. The whole team came together to fight and we weren't willing to give up. Colgate was definitely a talented team, but it's all about the pure desire to win, and I think that day we had more of it."
The Mids carried the momentum from defeating Colgate into the Patriot League Tournament, where they were the number two seed. The Mids faced Colgate in the semifinals and claimed a 15-11 win to advance to the league championship game against top-seeded Lehigh.
Lehigh had dealt Navy its only league loss earlier in the year, but this outcome in the championship game would prove to be different.
In a very hard-fought title game, Navy overcame a halftime deficit and defeated the Mountain Hawks, 11-9. Nietsch had two goals and an assist and was chosen to the all-tournament team. In just its third year as a program, Navy captured the Patriot League Championship.
Nietsch with her teammates following Navy's Patriot League Championship
The league crown, however, did not guarantee the Mids a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Navy was required to take on Sacred Heart in an NCAA Play-In Game to battle for the final spot in the tournament's 16-team field.
Navy hosted Sacred Heart at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and when Nietsch and her teammates stepped on the field, they exhibited a combined focus and determination that would ensure their advancement to the NCAA Tournament First Round.
Behind two first half goals from Nietsch, the Mids jumped out to a 6-2 halftime lead over the Pioneers and played a flawless second half to secure a 12-2 win and clinch a berth into the NCAA Tournament in just the third year of the program.
"By that time, the dream of becoming a part of the NCAA Tournament was so close to becoming a reality," said Nietsch. "There was nothing that was going to stop us from walking off the field that day without the win."
Along with her two goals, Nietsch also contributed an assist, ground ball, caused turnover and a draw control. For her efforts, Nietsch was one of six players in the country to be named to the WomensLacrosse.com National Weekly Honor Roll.
A day later, the Mids gathered as team to watch the NCAA Selection Show and learned they would be playing at No. 3 North Carolina in the NCAA First Round. Navy lost to the Tar Heels, 18-5, but the team gained valuable experience from playing in the tournament.
"We learned a lot about what it takes to compete at that level and what it's going to take this year to go beyond the first round and advance in the NCAA Tournament," said Nietsch.
Nietsch earned her third straight All-Patriot League honor at the conclusion of the year and will enter her senior season with career totals of 97 goals, 30 assists and 127 points. During Nietsch's three seasons, Navy has won 43 games, the eighth-best total in the nation over that span. In addition, the team finished the 2010 season ranked No. 19 in the Inside Lacrosse Media Poll.
"It's pretty unbelievable to think that four years ago there wasn't even a women's lacrosse program here at Navy," said Nietsch. "I think the possibilities are endless as far as the potential this program has. Ten years from now I will be able to look back and say, 'Wow I was a part of those first years,' and that's something that I will be very proud of."
It is clear to see that Nietsch, classmate Caitlin Mandrin Hill and the rest of the seniors have left quite a legacy at Navy, and they will soon become the program's first four-year letterwinners this spring. When the team opens play in February, the Class of 2011 will look to take the program to even higher levels.
"What a very special group of young women," said Timchal. "We've built up a tradition to get better every season and do things that previous teams haven't been able to do or accomplish. And I know this senior class is right on track to do those things for the 2011 season."
A Busy Summer
Nietsch spent three weeks in Africa last summer
Just weeks after playing in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Nietsch began her summer by touring Africa as part of a mission with Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). She was one of eight midshipmen and seven cadets from West Point who spent three weeks observing and taking part in a variety of training evolutions known collectively as Operation Unity Haven.
Nietsch spent time with a number of different militaries and in villages in Djbouti, Tanzania and Uganda and saw how CJTF-HOA is working with Africans to develop solutions to their problems abroad, and strengthen security in the region.
"The big takeaway from my trip to Africa is that there is so much more than just the mainstream operations that the military, as we know it, does," said Nietsch. "Some of these operations are not necessarily tangible in the respect that we're seeing the direct results the next day. It is more of a long-term mission and I hope that we will get to see the results of it in due time."
Nietsch returned from Africa to Annapolis to serve as a Plebe Summer Squad Leader. Nietsch was one of the upperclassmen responsible for training the plebes and leading them through their daily schedule.
"The plebes come in on Induction Day and you are literally the first image of the military that they see," said Nietsch. "So much comes along with that, so you have to be setting the right example, teaching them the right things and making sure that they are doing everything that they can to become prepared midshipmen by the fall."
Following her Plebe Summer detail, Nietsch went overseas once again, traveling to England where she studied at the London School of Economics. Nietsch took a three-week summer course titled "The Economics of European Integration."
Although Nietsch did return from England and was back at the Academy when the Brigade reformed in August, she would be off on another trip a few weeks later. This time Nietsch went south, heading to Mexico City to march in Mexico's Bicentennial Parade.
Nietsch traveled with a group of 20 midshipmen from the Academy and marched in the parade with a number of other militaries and service academies from around the world.
"It was very humbling to be able to take part in those trips," said Nietsch. "Not every midshipman has the opportunity to do the things that I did. I feel very blessed. I definitely took in the experiences and shared them with others."
Nietsch is a very accomplished student at the Naval Academy. She carries a 3.4 cumulative GPA in quantitative economics and is also taking pre-med courses. Later in life, she plans on attending medical school and becoming a doctor in Emergency Medicine.
Nietsch also excels in the military aspect of the Academy and has been selected to the Commandant's List in each of her first six semesters. She has also been named to the Superintendant's List and the Dean's List multiple times. She ranks in the 83rd percentile among her classmates in Overall Order of Merit.
Always taking her academic work seriously and putting in the proper time and effort is something that Nietsch has always practiced and it is a key component of her success.
"You can only control so much in life," said Nietsch. "But you can always control how hard you work and what you do to better yourself."
Nietsch has found ways to help her fellow teammates and midshipmen with their academics. She is in her third year of serving as a Midshipmen Group Study Program Leader. This program places academically gifted students in a tutoring role with other students who may need extra help.
Nietsch also leads informal group study sessions for some of the freshmen on the lacrosse team and is always prepared to help the younger players with any obstacles they may run into while at the Academy.
Naturally, the younger players on the lacrosse team see the way Nietsch presents herself and look up to her as a role model.
"If you are always positive and working hard in the classroom and on the lacrosse field, your example will really reflect on the freshmen," said Nietsch. "You can always set the positive example and your attitude is critical. If you're coming to practice positive or helping them out with their homework or just being there to answer a question, it makes a big difference."
"The things that Katrina really stands for are the same as what the Academy stands for: leadership, mentoring and compassion," said Timchal. "If another person is struggling academically or if a teammate gets hurt, she is the first to be there for that person."
Although Nietsch has future aspirations of going to medical school, her more immediate goal is to be awarded a service selection in Naval Aviation.
"The aviation pipeline is long," said Nietsch. "But I think it is going to be a ton of fun being able to fly and learn about the community. It is a lot of work as far as studying and putting the time into it, but I'll be thrilled if I get the opportunity to do it."
She will find out in December if she will be following the footsteps of her grandfather, the late Gordon Clark, a former commander in the Navy who served as an aviator.
With all that Nietsch has already accomplished, she remains motivated to take on every upcoming challenge in her life.
"I am ready to put to good use the multitude of tools and skills that I have learned here at the Naval Academy," said Nietsch. "I'm really looking forward to stepping up to the plate upon commissioning."