Last season, Maryland women's lacrosse team was under an immense amount of pressure. The Terrapins started the season as the defending national champions and the top-ranked team in the country. The team was also the subject of an Inside Lacrosse magazine article titled, "Best Team Ever?"
They handled it like pros, beating 10 ranked teams en route to an undefeated regular season. After losing in the Big Ten quarterfinals, the Terps made it back to the NCAA Championship game where they completed a historic, come-from-behind victory to beat UNC, 9-8.
Maryland will start its next season in a familiar place. The Terps still the defending national champions and will start the year ranked as the top team in the country. However, this team is very different and this season will feel very different.
After the Terps won the first of their two championships, they brought back all but two of their starters. This season, after winning their second consecutive title, the Terps only return five of their starters. There are legitimate question marks on this team.
"We have a really different look this year," said head coach Cathy Reese at media day on Friday. "We're filling in these other pieces right now."
Reese cut right to the chase. "We have a lot of work to do. I thought we saw a lot of growth this fall...So far, so good. We're definitely gonna have some hiccups this season, but we have a lot of potential and a lot of room to grow."
That will be the key for this team. I could write an entire column on the contributions of the seniors that graduated off of last year's championship team. Let's look at what they lost and what they still have.
Megan Douty was a Tewaaraton Award finalist and one of the best defenders in the country. She defended the other team's best player every single game. Shanna Brady was a captain and veteran defender. Erin Collins was a hustle, grit and glue player who scooped up ground balls and did all of the little things that don't show up in box scores, but make the difference between great teams and championship teams.
Casey Pepperman was a savvy, experienced defender with great instincts and a high lacrosse IQ. Alex Fitzpatrick was a seasoned transfer with ice in her veins in goal. She was outstanding in big games. Kristen Lamon was a match-up nightmare off the bench with her size, speed and quick release. Kelly McPartland was a scoring machine and was borderline unstoppable at times when she went isolation from the left wing.
And of course, Brooke Griffin. Griffin quarterbacked this offense the way an adept conductor would conduct a symphony orchestra. She knew all the moving parts. She was a crafty scorer, had the best shot-fake in women's lacrosse and excelled in finding teammates in position to score.
Maryland has some legitimate scoring threats in sophomore Megan Whittle, who led the team with 67 goals last season, and Taylor Cummings, who is a midfielder. Midfielder Zoe Stukenberg added 38 goals last year. The real question mark is who will replace McPartland and Griffin's production. Griffin ran the offense. Caroline Wannen is a very good player, but she is not Brooke Griffin.
There might be a lot less scoring balance this season than we have seen in year's past. "I think we're going to have a completely different look offensively," Cummings said. "I think we're going to be attacking from spots you don't expect us to and throwing new things at you. I think our offense in particular is going to be a lot of fun to watch."
Maryland's offense is fast-paced and fun to watch. In past seasons, it has been a dynamic offense. With so many new contributors, expect to see a drop in consistency and production, at least early on.
Maryland should feel pretty good about its midfield because it has Taylor Cummings and everyone else doesn't.
Cummings is a transcendent college player who impacts the game on offense, defense and on the draw. She has the opportunity to become the most decorated women's college lacrosse player of all-time. She led last year's team in points, assists, draw controls and ground balls and was second in goals with 63.
Zoe Stukenberg, the former ACC Freshman of the Year, was second on the team in assists and fourth in goals. She will make three or four plays this season, as she does every year, that make your jaw drop. She has size, speed, athleticism, and a rocket shot.
Last year, teams could key in on her because she almost always attacks from the left and hasn't developed as quickly going to her right. If Stukenberg can consistently and confidently score from either side, she's going to be very tough to stop.
Sophomore Taylor Hensh saw time in the midfield last season and will probably be back. The rest of the midfield will be a mix of talented freshmen and returning players who have little to no experience.
Regardless of who is in the midfield, expect Maryland to trap and cause a lot of turnovers. There are only a few certainties in life: death, taxes, and "the Maryland ride".
The Terrapins have one of, if not the, best one-two punches in the country on defense with Alice Mercer and Nadine Hadnagy. Mercer is quick, physical and aggressive. Hadnagy is workman-like and is simply rock-solid fundamentally. Mercer and Hadnagy have both been starters since they stepped onto campus. Mercer, a senior, has held down her spot for three years and Hadnagy, a junor, started for both national championship teams. Hadnagy is under-rated because she's not a flashy defender. She doesn't fly all over the field making plays like Megan Douty did, but she should and probably will get more recognition this season.
When asked about the defense this season, Cummings said, "We're going to get some new looks back there."
Reese addressed the biggest question mark on the defense, the goalie position.
"Our goalie play has been outstanding...They really stepped it up. All three of them bring something different. Emily Kift, a junior, is very confident this year...Megan Taylor, she's a freshman, she just steps right on the field and runs the show. We're gonna watch them battle it out. I don't have my head set on one person."
Maryland's defense was one of the best in the country in each of the last two seasons. Abbey Clipp and Alex Fitzpatrick weren't under siege every game because the defense was dominant. That probably won't be the case this year. It will be even tougher considering that the Terps will be playing two top-five teams in their first five games...and they're both on the road.
Kristen Lamon is going to be sorely missed this season. This year's bench might have a lot of talent, but they are very thin on experience.
Maryland brings in the second-ranked freshmen class in the nation. They have a lot of talent. Can they produce right away and can they grow and improve during the season? Those are important questions that even the Terps can't answer just yet. Reese said that multiple freshmen will make an immediate impact.
Which ones? At what positions?
Caroline Steele and Jen Giles are two players that I think will make an impact on offense. Steele is Kristen Lamon's cousin, her mom played lacrosse at Maryland and she was the MVP of the Under-Armour All-American game. She scored A LOT of goals in high school. Giles has three sisters who all played Division I Lacrosse. It's in her DNA.
On defense, Megan Taylor will have a chance to win the goalie job as a freshman. If that's the case, she could be the next Brittany Dipper. Another freshman to keep your eye on is Alice Mercer's sister Shelby. Katherine Dunn of the Baltimore Sun told me that she has a very high ceiling.
Until I see them in actual games against top competition, I can't pass judgment on this talented freshmen class. Reese hasn't said much about which ones will play, and I don't see any of them being as dynamic as Megan Whittle was last year.
Maryland's schedule this season is not easy. They play 11 ranked teams in the regular season. "We're gonna go 1-0 23 times. At least, that's our goal," Cummings said.
The big problem for Maryland is that they play No. 2 UNC on the road in their third game of the season, No. 3 Syracuse on the road in their fifth game of the season, and No. 10 Florida on the road in their sixth game of the season.
This is a great team, but the last three seasons have spoiled Terp fans. I expect Maryland to lose some games in the regular season.
The bottom line
Reese is one of the best coaches in the sport, and I am confident that when she finishes her coaching career, she'll be regarded as one of the best in the history of women's college lacrosse.
That being said, I have no idea how Maryland is going to navigate this ludicrously difficult schedule when the Terps don't have a consistent lineup. They are going to be experimenting on defense early on and they don't know who their goalie will be yet. Will the offense be able to score enough goals? Will the defense be able to get stops late in games? We already knew the answers to those questions going into last season. This year, we don't.
Can this team win the national title? Absolutely. Am I comfortable predicting them to win the title right now? No.
There are a lot of questions marks on this team, and the Terrapins might not be able to answer them by the time they leave for Chapel Hill and Syracuse.
At the center of it all is Taylor Cummings. If this team is going to win the Big Ten title, much less the national title, she'll have to be great in each and every game. She'll need to dominate on the draw. She'll need to score 60 goals or more and rack up assists like she did last year. On top of that, she'll have to play really good defense and create turnovers.
Taylor Cummings is already one of the all-time greats and is the odds-on favorite to win her third straight Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. If Cummings can lead this team to a three-peat, what she and Reese will have accomplished will be nothing short of legendary. That's the bottom line.