A few months after leaving College Park, Md., and thinking her lacrosse career was over, Nikki Sliwak still had the bug. With the NCAA granting all spring athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sliwak had a chance to play one last year.
She decided to use it about 45 miles north of College Park at Towson, and the Tigers are thankful she did. Sliwak, who played sparingly in her four years with the Terps, had 16 goals and a team-high nine assists entering the Tigers’ matchup against William & Mary April 10.
“I decided it wasn’t something I was ready to let go of,” Sliwak said of lacrosse. “And having an extra year, I would regret it if I didn’t take the opportunity, so I’m really grateful that I did.”
The 5-foot-4 graduate attacker said it didn’t take long to decide to play at Towson. Having grown up in Wantagh, N.Y., on Long Island, she considered playing closer to home at Hofstra. But she had grown fond of the state of Maryland during the past few years, and like most schools in college lacrosse, Towson had a connection to College Park.
Towson head coach Sonia LaMonica played at Maryland from 2000-2003, and her husband Mike, who is an assistant coach for the Tigers, played for the Terps from 1999-2002. The other Towson assistant, Shanna Brady, was a defender under current head coach Cathy Reese from 2012-2015. If that wasn’t enough, defender Natalie Miller, whom Sliwak lived with at Maryland, is also spending her extra year of eligibility at Towson.
“Anywhere you go in the lacrosse community nowadays, someone has a connection to Maryland, which is how it goes,” Sliwak said. “I think it’s really cool and really awesome. … And the fact that I get to do it with Natalie, she’s been my roommate for three and now four years. It’s something really special.”
After committing to Towson, Sliwak dealt with a challenge common to athletes during the past year: connecting with teammates. The Tigers had to separate into two groups to practice in the fall, so Sliwak was only able to practice with half the team. They also did some COVID-appropriate team-bonding activities as well as Zoom calls to try to connect with one another. Sliwak believes that helped build chemistry, leading to a 4-0 start that included a 13-7 win against then-No. 8 Loyola.
“Something about this team is really special,” Sliwak said. “I think [we were] able to kind of just gel faster and just really work for each other and talk with each other and it showed.”
Sliwak also had to adjust to a new on-field role. She scored seven goals in 24 games across four years as a midfielder at Maryland. But during fall workouts at Towson, Sliwak began playing closer to the crease on the offensive end of the field. She’s played mostly attack this spring, shifting to a role behind the cage.
That allows her to see the field from a different angle. She’s able to find cutters sprinting toward the goal and go to the goal herself. The dodging angles are different, too. Instead of charging toward the cage from the middle of the field, she approaches the net from behind the goal and works her way around the crease for goal-scoring opportunities.
The change has come with some challenges, but according to LaMonica, it’s been worth the effort.
“Nikki, she’s just super coachable,” LaMonica said. “She’s putting in film work with our assistant, Mike, and she seeks to be the best version of herself. And she has her challenges and she’s aware of that, but she’s constantly working to improve those things, and that’s why she’s having the success that she’s having.
“But if you are willing to put in the work, you’re going to find success in that, and that’s what we’re seeing here with Nikki, but she’s certainly provided an important role for us in our offense [given] that she’s two-handed. And she’s comfortable with the ball in her stick. And she’s been a great finisher.”
After scoring two goals and posting an assist during Towson’s first two games, Sliwak broke out against Loyola Feb. 24. She had four goals and one assist in the Tigers’ win, then topped it four days later with two goals and four assists against George Mason. She figures to be a consistent threat on Towson’s attack throughout the season.
With Towson pushing for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018, Sliwak is excited to see where the team goes the rest of the season. After starting 4-0, the Tigers lost to Stony Brook and Temple but bounced back with wins against Georgetown and Saint Joseph’s.
“For the rest of the season, it’s a whole process of learning, really, and whether or not we really take it and learn and apply it to the next game,” Sliwak said. “That’s the fun of it. That’s the fun of lacrosse and sports. I think we have a really great group here, and I’m fortunate to be a part of this team that gets along so well — and we all do work together really well.”
Photo Credit: John Malamphy/Towson Athletics