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No. 7 Maryland women’s lacrosse preview: No. 21 Penn State

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After last week’s game against Johns Hopkins was postponed, The Terps will kick off their season Sunday.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

After having its season opener against Johns Hopkins postponed last week, No. 7 Maryland women’s lacrosse will travel to Happy Valley to go up against No. 21 Penn State in its opening match of the 2021 season this Sunday.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Maryland was enduring a difficult season by its standards, staggering to a 3-3 record thanks to a three game losing streak. Reese’s squad began to pick up the pieces in two solid showings to get back to .500, but before the Terps were able to kick off its conference schedule, the season was cancelled.

With the roster being on the younger side — with sophomores and freshmen alike never playing against a Big Ten foe — it will be interesting to see how the Terrapins respond in a season unlike anything else.

“Expect nothing, be ready for everything,” head coach Cathy Reese said. “This is our chance to focus on Maryland. It’s not about who we play, it’s about us.”

Maryland has never lost to the Nittany Lions and will put their 17-0 all-time series record on the line at 1 p.m. on BTN+.

Penn State Nittany Lions (1-0 Big Ten)

Head coach Missy Doherty is entering her 11th year with the Nittany Lions and will look to continue her success with the program. Excluding her first year with the team, Doherty has guided Penn State to ten NCAA Tournaments, making it as far as the national semifinal in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017. A 5-2 start in 2020 was led by a relentless defense that ranked fourth in the nation in save percentage (.531). That defense carried over to this season, as Penn State’s 20-11 victory over Rutgers saw them only allow three second half goals for the Scarlet Knights.

Players to know

Graduate student attacker Maria Auth (No. 26) — Penn State’s star player Auth is returning for her graduate year after only getting to play seven games in 2020. In those seven games, however, the attacker was very effective. Leading the team with 22 goals, Auth made her claim to fame in free position opportunities, as she led the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the country with 1.57 free position goals per game. Last weekend, Auth added another free position goal to her name to go along with four others as she led the team in scoring.

Junior goalkeeper Taylor Suplee (No. 55) — A team that prides itself on the defensive end needs a special type of player in between the pipes. That player is Suplee, who last year was second in the nation in saves per game (12.43) after placing 24th and second in the Big Ten with 9.71 saves per game across a full season. Suplee shut down Rutgers in the second half of last weekend’s game to the tune of a .522 save percentage and will look towards shutting down nationally ranked Maryland on Sunday.

Sophomore midfielder Olivia Dirks (No. 11) — As a freshman, Dirks only started one game, but she certainly made her presence known on the draw controls. Dirks had 32 draw controls to the tune of a 4.57 average, placing her third in the conference. The former top-10 recruit has started off hot in her sophomore campaign, corralling 12 draw controls and even chipping in with two goals, one shy of her career total.

Strength

Defense. Penn State has one of the top goalkeepers in not just the Big Ten, but in the country in Taylor Suplee. In her two seasons, Suplee has been one and two, respectively, in the conference in saves per game, and that’s not to mention her top-25 finishes in the category across the NCAA. Freshman midfielders Kristin O’Neill and Samantha Dupcak round out a stout defensive side after the two combined for five caused turnovers in their debut against Rutgers.

Weakness

Avoiding turnovers. Last year’s abbreviated season saw Penn State rank dead last in the conference in turnovers per game with 16.3. The Nittany Lions showed that that issue remains prominent in 2021, as they gave the ball away 14 times in the season opener. Penn State only ceded 11 goals in the contest, but even their stout defense could find difficulty in stopping a tough Maryland offense given all the extra chances they give up.

Three things to watch

1. Maryland will be on a mission. Coming off a national championship in 2019, the Terps underperformed in 2020. Reese was handed her worst losing streak and her worst start to a season in her illustrious tenure at Maryland in a lost season. Now, a team that returns three of four captains from the previous season will be eager to put a mediocre 3-3 record in the rearview.

“It’s definitely motivational in the sense of I don’t think we’re showing everything that we could last year,” sophomore midfielder Shaylan Ahearn said. “I think we’re gonna come out and we’re gonna surprise a lot of people with the talent that we have and that team chemistry that we have developed.”

2. Will Shaylan Ahearn be the answer at the draws? With Maryland’s top two draw control leaders Kali Hartshorn and Emma Schettig gone, there exists a hole in that department heading into this season. Ahearn is one of those players who will aim to fill that void as she becomes more assimilated with the Maryland way.

“The attention that she has to detail is amazing,” Grace Griffin said. “Knowing that she’ll do whatever it takes to be there and make her teammates better [has been] really important.”

Coach Reese added to Ahearn’s endorsement: “You’ve got Shaylan, who’s working on her art and her craft, and then having a player like Lizzie [Colson] on the circle with that speed and that level of leadership has been a good combination.”

3. Which underclassmen will be up for the task? Not only are the freshman playing in their first collegiate game, but the sophomores for Maryland will experience their first Big Ten matchup after not getting to this point last season. It’s an unusual occurrence, but something that coach Reese believes her girls are ready for.

“[The sophomores] know what it’s going to take to compete at this level and now the question is on our coaching staff and can we put these pieces together to help them be successful as a group,” Reese said.

As for the freshman, Reese said to keep an eye out for midfielders Eloise Clevenger and Kacy Hogarth as key impact players in the early going of the season.