New London — After suffering a humbling defeat in the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament semifinals Saturday, senior Clay Hillyer figured his career was over.
"You feel empty," Hillyer said. "It was the worst feeling that I ever felt."
Hillyer's and his Connecticut College teammates' spirits were lifted late Sunday night when the Camels received an at-large berth in the 28-team NCAA Division III men's lacrosse tournament field.
Conn (10-6) will host Western New England University (12-4) at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Silfen Field. The news softened the disappointment of Saturday's 13-2 loss to Tufts. The Camels had won five straight games.
"To have a chance at redemption means a lot," Hillyer said.
Despite the lopsided NESCAC loss, the Camels still had a tournament-worthy resume. They play in perhaps the toughest conference in the country and own three wins over ranked teams.
Still, coach Dave Cornell put his team's odds of making the postseason at about 50-50.
"To be honest with you, we were given a gift," Cornell said. "After not winning the other day, we were blessed some other teams did not win."
The berth, which is the program's second in three years, is evidence that the Camels are on the rise. Only the men's basketball team (1998, 1999) has earned multiple NCAA bids in school history.
"To me, it says we're on the right path," Cornell said. "From a foundation standpoint, we're doing the right things that we need to do with our recruiting and the way we're preparing."
Cornell just wants to make sure Conn takes advantage of the opportunity.
"These guys have to understand these things just aren't given to you," Cornell said. "You don't know if you're ever going to get this chance again, so you've got to show up ready to roll here."
Western New England, the Commonwealth Coast Conference champion, is certainly a serious threat. The Golden Bears played two NESCAC teams during the regular season, beating Trinity (12-5) and losing to Tufts (13-9).
Cornell had a chance to watch Western New England play earlier this season.
"They're very good," Cornell said. "They're probably the second best team that we played this year behind Tufts. They're very athletic. They're tough. They're very skilled.
"Top to bottom, they really don't have a weakness. We're going to have our hands full."
The Golden Bears have extra reason to be motivated. A paperwork error prevented them from filing in time to serve as first-round host.
Experience is on Conn's side, with 15 players on the roster from the 2010 team that lost to RIT in the NCAA tournament. Cornell is hoping that the Camels learned from their recent stumble on the NESCAC tournament stage.
"We just need to come out and compete for 60 minutes and we have to stick to our game plan for 60 minutes, and that's something we didn't do against Tufts," Cornell said.