AL’S FEARLESS 5IVE
So much of the story of lacrosse over the last four years has been all about the insurgency of North Carolina as a national powerhouse in the women’s game.
After all, the club had exhibited a boatload of promise when it made the 1997 Final Four, just the second year of the program’s existence, but the Heels took a decade-long detour when the program kept on stumbling to second-round exits.
More recently, however, UNC has found success, winning the 2013 and 2016 national championships. They are looking for more this year as defending titlists. Maggie Bill comes off the soccer team to rotate back onto the women’s lacrosse team and joins a resurgent Carly Reed, defensive midfielder Alex Moore, center Sammy Jo Tracy, and Team USA’s Marie McCool in what could be the most devastating and unpredictable talent pool since the University of Maryland’s run of titles in the mid-1990s.
Maryland, for its part, looks to life after three-time Tewaaraton winner Taylor Cummings. There is plenty of talent — from Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) and elsewhere — on the attack. I think if the front seven — starting with Zoe Stukenberg and Megan Whittle — can figure a way to share the ball and do it with pace and timing, they will be as or more effective than with Cummings in the lineup.
You see, Stukenberg has made her living in playing off the space afforded her after her teammates got onto the board, and the attacking midfielder has often scored her goals after Cummings, Whittle, and her teammates had the first dibs. I think she’ll take it to the goal with much more initiative this year, which could change the way opposing teams mark her.
I think another big part of the Maryland attack will be freshman attacker Brindi Griffin. The younger sister of all-time great Brooke Griffin, the McDonogh grad will have all the expectations of Terp Nation on her.
Another team reloading for another Final Four run is Syracuse. The Orange, despite having graduated such immense talents over the last four years, have at least one more run in this cohort. Nicole Levy was an absolute star a year ago, scoring 46 goals as a freshman, while Riley Donahue had 47. Both return along with a resurgent Taylor Gait, who is finally healthy after numerous knee problems. The Orange also get the services of Allie Jimerson, who played last year at Albany. She will provide immediate savvy and cunning on the attack end.
Florida, like its compatriots, is looking to try to sustain the efforts from the past as it attempts to win its first national championship. The Gators return Sammi Burgess and Lindsey Ronbeck to the attack line, and have highly-touted prep player Cara Trombetta to bolster the front line.
But if there is one team which could upset this apple cart of experienced Final Four teams, it is the University of Southern California. If UNC and Maryland are the Exxon and IBM of lacrosse, and Florida and Syracuse are Google and Facebook, USC is trying to become Tesla Motors.
Southern Cal disrupted opponents to the tune of a 20-1 record, and were perhaps the width of a post away from beating Syracuse in the national quarterfinal round. The Women of Troy boast attacker Michaela Michael, who had 68 goals last spring. But just as important, the team has goalie Gussie Johns.
Johns is the player from the 2013 Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.) team you weren’t watching when Carly Reed and Besser Dyson were putting up spectacular offensive numbers for the Saints. But Johns has played youth lacrosse with Reed, Dyson, and a cohort of other Alexandrians for years. She has absorbed the coaching of U.S. goalie Devon Wills, and earned her way onto the senior women’s national team roster.
If USC is to make a Final Four, it will have to be on defense. And Johns might be the disruptor to do it.
ELSEWHERE IN DIVISION I: A lot of eyes will be on Virginia this year. Despite returning eight starters, the Cavaliers are project to finish as low as fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But with Besser Dyson (the team’s assist leader) joining up with leading scorers Kasey Behr and Posey Valis, I get the feeling that a few of the prognosticators are going to be wrong.
Stony Brook returns 100-goal scorer Courtney Murphy, U.S. trialist Kylie Ohlmiller, and 53-goal scorer Dorrien Van Dyke. The Seawolves have serious talent, and have been unlucky to have made a Final Four with all the talent that they have had the past few years.
DARK HORSE: Elon. No, not Elon Musk.
Elon College last year developed a penchant for winning close and low-scoring games, including a win over Duke. But will the presence of the big, bad clock change the mindset of head coach Josh Hexler’s teams?