Gettysburg College lacrosse fans remember the moment well when Steph Colson '19 (Westminster, Md./Manchester Valley) dashed halfway up the field at Kerr Stadium, juked past two College of New Jersey defenders, and fired a shot past the Lions' goalkeeper for what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the 2017 NCAA Division III Women's Lacrosse Championship. It was the end of an amazing season for the Bullets and the clinching moment of an MVP performance by Colson.
But that memory nearly didn't come to pass. Colson, for all her heroics in the NCAA playoffs, missed half of the 2017 season and her participation in the postseason was an unknown entity in the early weeks of last May.
Gettysburg was on a tear to start the 2017 campaign, racing through the first five games of the season and taking down three nationally-ranked teams. Colson was a catalyst from the outset, tossing in the game-tying goal in the final seconds of regulation against No. 17 Messiah College in the season opener and racking up a team-best 26 draw controls in the first five games of the year.
Then in a spring break match up against SUNY Fredonia, Colson took a hard hit to the upper body. She shrugged it off and managed to play the next game against No. 8 York College, basically putting the team on her back with three goals, two assists, and three draw controls in a 9-5 victory.
Following that game against York, Colson's symptoms took a turn. She was suffering from a stiff neck and decreased range of motion as well as headaches and vision abnormalities. Her breakout campaign was about to hit a big speed bump.
"When I had my injury, I couldn't do anything," said Colson. "I couldn't read, watch shows, stay up late, study, hang out with friends, or anything that many college students get to do. I couldn't play lacrosse either and that was very hard for me because that is my escape and something I'm very passionate about."
For the next seven weeks, Colson was stuck on the sidelines watching her teammates compete on the lacrosse field without her.
"It was such a shame to lose Steph in the early part of the 2017 season," recalled Head Coach Carol Cantele '83. "She was really hitting her stride and was playing with such confidence and intention."
Colson worked closely with the Gettysburg athletic training staff and team doctors to figure out the nature of her injury and how to treat it. The treatments ranged from medications for pain and muscle spasms to modalities and range of motion for the neck and headaches. The medical personnel used ocular training to help with some of the visual symptoms she was experiencing as well as acupuncture to combat all the signs and symptoms.
Not only was Colson unable to compete on the field, she was also limited beyond the field. She was unable to stare at a computer screen for long periods of time, making it difficult to complete some of her class assignments and carry out her campus job in the Office of Athletic Communications. Through it all, the coaches, athletic trainers, doctors, and faculty worked together to help Colson recover.
"There was a great working relationship between the academic and medical professionals to help Steph be successful in the classroom and prepare her for a return to athletics," said Head Athletic Trainer Mike Cantele '88. "Fortunately, Steph is the type of athlete that is always in shape so we did not have to concentrate much on the cardiovascular aspect of her return and could concentrate on the other areas."
"My coaches and everyone were there for me if I ever needed to talk," recalled Colson. "They were constantly checking up on me and helping me get my academics together."
Despite the restrictions on her daily activities, Colson still found plenty of ways to contribute to the team. She made it to as many practices and team meetings as she could and supported her teammates on the field with her own brand of witty humor.
"It was extremely important to give Steph all the time that she needed," said Carol Cantele. "Sure we wanted her back because she is such a dynamic player, but she was there every day and was valued in other ways. She was always ready with a fun prank or a great one-liner to keep us on our toes."
Gettysburg ascended to the top spot in the national poll when Colson first went down, but back-to-back losses to TCNJ and Muhlenberg College knocked the team out of the pole position. The Bullets took down then-No. 1 Franklin & Marshall College 12-6 in Lancaster, but with Colson still watching from the sideline, the Diplomats extracted revenge with a 7-6 victory in double-overtime in the Centennial Conference championship game at Clark Field in early May.
Colson was taking note of everything that was happening on the field as she watched from the side. Every mistake and every success was a lesson to be learned.
"I think mostly it helped me to see how I should act under pressure and that the little things really do matter," said Colson. "Doing things like winning the draw or getting a ground ball or finishing a shot are the things that add up and win games and championships."
Following the loss to Franklin & Marshall, Colson received good news just days before the start of the NCAA tournament. Her patience and hard work rehabbing through the previous seven weeks had paid off and she was inserted into the lineup for the team's national playoff opener against FDU-Florham. In her first taste of action in 53 days, the sophomore posted a goal and an assist.
It was the start of an incredible postseason run for the team. Gettysburg cruised past FDU-Florham (13-5), Rhodes College (19-1), No. 9 Salisbury University (10-2), and No. 7 Trinity (Conn.) College (8-4) to reach the title game. TCNJ overcame a 4-1 halftime deficit to take a 5-4 lead in the second half, but the Bullets scored the final two goals. Colson sprinted up the field for the game-winning goal with 2:57 to play.
In addition to being named MVP of the championship, Colson was featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" for her performance in the title game.
"The biggest attributes of Steph that allowed her to return and have such a successful postseason were her positive attitude and her determination that she would get better and be a success on the field and in the classroom," stated Mike Cantele.
The 2017 season helped build a stronger foundation for Colson this spring. The junior midfielder has taken Division III by storm, aweing even the most novice lacrosse fans with her ability to track down draw controls. Colson has already set new program standards for draw controls in a game (14) and draw controls in a season (122) heading into the final weekend of competition.
Colson also leads the team in ground balls (48) and ranks second in goals (48), assists (22), points (70), and caused turnovers (24). She was named All-CC First Team and All-Metro Region First Team and seems a lock for national acclaim as well.
"Last year made me realize to never take anything for granted," said the junior. "Every game and practice is a gift from God and I should be thankful every day for my health. This year I was able to really understand what I can bring to this team."
Over the last three seasons, Gettysburg is an incredible 41-3 when Colson appears in a game. In early May of this season, she was named MVP after leading the Bullets to a victory over F&M in the CC title game. Colson's success has carried over to the rest of the team. Her ability to control the ball off the draw has set the stage for the second-best offense in program history which includes four players with 40 or more goals.
"She would be the first one to say that she did not do it alone, but rather that it took the entire team to achieve that success," noted Carol Cantele. "She is a player who goes all-out, all the time and because of that she makes others around her even better. She is a humble, team-first kind of athlete and a remarkable person. We are so blessed to have her wearing the Orange and Blue!"
Colson and the Bullets are two games away from adding another trophy to the case and they'll seek to do it on the Kerr Stadium turf on the campus of Roanoke College once again. Third-ranked Gettysburg (19-2) meets No. 2 Salisbury University (21-1) in the national semifinals Saturday at 11:30 a.m. Top-ranked TCNJ (20-2) meets No. 4 Middlebury College (19-2) in the second semi at 2:30.
The two semifinal winners will square off the NCAA title Sunday at 2 p.m.