Weather permitting, the Maryland women's lacrosse season will get underway Thursday (see note below) with the Terps scheduled to make the short trip up I-95 to take on the UMBC Retrievers. The 2014 Terrapins will be a noticeably different squad from the one that has won five consecutive ACC Tournament Championships, won a National Championship in 2010, and made four straight NCAA Final Four appearances including last year's triple overtime loss in the title game.
Gone from the midfield is two-time Tewaaraton Award winner Katie Schwarzmann. Gone from attack is Alex Aust who scored an absurd 125 points in 2013 on 70 goals and 55 assists. Gone from the back line are ACC Defensive Player of the Year Iliana Sanza and goalkeeper Kasey Howard. In their place fans will see, a young, energetic, and very talented squad. Like Missy Meharg in field hockey, Cathy Reese doesn't rebuild, she reloads.
"That's the excitement in college athletics. Every year you graduate some great players. We were fortunate to have three of the top players in the nation in our lineup last year," Reese said talking about the upcoming season. "When they graduate you look at the next year to see who's going to step up and who's going to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to them."
Emphasizing the team's blend of youth and experience, Reese pointed out, "We only return one senior starter out of last year's lineup. We're young this year but we've seen a lot of great things from our returning players and our freshmen. It's a new team. It's a different look. We'll fill these holes in a different way."
Because there is no shot clock or stall warning in women's lacrosse, controlling the draw is likely more critical to a team's success than controlling face-offs in the men's game. So, much of Maryland's success will begin with crosse and technique of Taylor Cummings. Already a star in her own right, Cummings certainly has the potential to be among the top players in the country despite being only a sophomore. Cummings' college shelf is already filled with a significant amount of hardware: All-ACC first team, ACC Freshman of the Year, IWLCA first-team All-American. In addition to scoring 43 goals and dishing out 14 assists, Cummings had 94 draw controls nearly three times as many as anyone else on the team. And she's had another year to get stronger.
Okay, Cummings has won the draw, Maryland has the ball on attack but can't look to Aust or Schwarzmann and their 128 combined goals. Reese says there's no superstar this season and that the offense will be more of a collective effort pointing out that the Terps return six players who scored twenty or more goals last season. Still, look for the Terps to build their attack around Brooke Griffin. Last season, Griffin not only put a strong 82 percent of her shots on goal, she converted on nearly 56 percent. Of the opportunity Griffin said, "I'm looking forward to it. I'm a redshirt junior so I count myself as a senior. I'm excited to step up and be a leader and a voice on the team this year." Early on fans can expect to see Kristen Lamon and Halle Majorana join Griffin as an attack unit. Last season Lamon and Majorana alternated coming off the bench, "We've had a really nice preseason with those two," Reese said. "They're doing a really nice job working together - those two and Brooke Griffin on our attack. That offensive unit of those three is really playing well together and working well together which is what we need."
But it's unlikely that Maryland's goal scoring will be entirely predicated on this unit. Remember, Schwarzmann came out of the midfield and this year's edition of the Terrapins has two strong returning midfielders. Beth Glaros, the only senior starter, put an astounding 86 percent of her shots on goal in 2013 and she finished with 27 goals. She'll be joined by Kelly McPartland who chalked up 25 goals of her own. McPartland also expects to take on a leadership role, "I think compared to last year, as Cathy has told me, that I need to step up and be more of a leader and more prominent on the field. But I'm excited. We're all excited."
Since no one's perfect and the Terps won't control every draw, what will happen when Maryland is defending? Admittedly, it's not easy to replace the conference Defensive Player of the Year but the foundation is solid with three defensive starters returning starting with Alice Mercer. Said Reese of Mercer, "She's an all-around outstanding athlete. She's going to do huge things for us on the defensive end of the field and through our transition." With respect to Mercer's compatriots, Reese called Megan Douty the vocal leader and praised the play of Shanna Brady. "Those three will be back there and we'll replace Ilie with somebody new. We've got a freshman (I suspect Nadine Hadnagy) who could jump into the mix and a couple of returners who are ready for their time to get out there. So we'll play through that spot until we find out what our best fit is."
And what of the last line of defense, the goalkeeper? This is a job that's still up in the air as no clear winner has emerged from the competition between redshirt junior Abbey Clipp and heralded California freshman Emily Kift. "We were at this same point last year between Kasey and Abbey. I just didn't know. This year again, they're both doing a really good job but they're very different style goalies. I think as we start the season we're going to see both of them play and playing a fair bit whether we're splitting halves or taking each game as it comes. We'll see how the season plays out from there." Expect each goalie to play a half against UMBC if the snow doesn't intervene.
As she reloads for the coming years, Reese brought in a heralded ten player freshman class ranked second best in the nation by Inside Lacrosse. Naturally, I had to ask which of the freshmen had stood out thus far. "Zoe Stukenberg (a 5'7" midfielder from Marriotts Ridge in Howard County) has been phenomenal. I expect a lot from her as we head into the season. Nadine Hadnagy (confirmation!) is one of our defenders and she's been doing a really good job. But on defense it can be hard to get adjusted to the college game. It's quite different from high school. Morgan Torggler is another one who will be in the midfield for us as well. I think those three will make some good contributions for us this year." An x-factor in the freshman class could be Australian Theo Kwas. The Terps have had some good success with players from down under (think Jen Adams and Sarah Mollison). I asked Reese about Kwas, "We'll see. Theo came to us in January. So her transition's been kind of funny because she gets here and a week later we play the U.S. National team down in Florida. We just threw her on the field. She hadn't learned half the things we're talking about and she comes off the field laughing like, ‘What was that?!' She's doing a good job but she's got a lot to learn. She's adjusting well and I'm looking forward to watching her develop as we go through the course of the year, that's for sure."
Despite all the changes, look for the Terps to continue the fast paced style of play that has become their trademark under Reese. "I don't like it any other way," Reese said with a smile. "Obviously as a coach you want to play to your strengths. With that said, I think we have a very fast midfield. We have good stick handlers on attack and a very athletic and fast defense. You put those together and we're going to look to control the tempo of the games we play."
As for the schedule, Maryland faces seven ACC opponents and ten out of conference foes. Six of the seven ACC opponents are ranked in the preseason polls. The Terps will be on the road facing North Carolina (1), Syracuse (3), and Duke (6). The teams coming to College Park are Virginia (8), Notre Dame (11) and Boston College (17). Virginia Tech, the lone unranked ACC squad closes out the home schedule. Out of conference, four Terrapin opponents are ranked. The first of these comes at future B1G foe and seventh ranked Penn State on February 22. After they host Notre Dame, the Terps will travel to sixteenth ranked Penn for a mid-week game on March 19. Nineteenth ranked Towson comes to College Park on March 26 and on April 9, Maryland travels to Princeton to face off against the fifteenth ranked Tigers.
The last question I asked Coach Reese was about any rule changes that would continue to baffle me. "The big change for this year is that the defense is allowed to go through the crease. So we won't have anymore of those fouls called for the defender being in the crease and in that way it will be more like the men's game." I don't think she was humoring me when she added, "But, yeah, women's lacrosse does have some very baffling rules. I totally agree with you one hundred percent. I'm interested to see how this change impacts the game once we get going."
And, if the weather allows, the Terps will get things going Thursday at UMBC. (Writer's note: Thursday's scheduled opener at UMBC has been rescheduled to Friday at noon.)