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July 14, 2018 — A critical analysis of the professional women’s lacrosse landscape

BACKGROUND: In 2016, former U.S. women’s lacrosse international Michelle DeJuliis partnered with former Brown University ice hockey coach Digit Murphy to create a four-team post-graduate professional women’s lacrosse league, called United Women’s Lacrosse.

After that first season, however, Murphy and DeJuliis parted ways. Murphy went to coach a women’s professional hockey team in China, and DeJuliis formed a second pro circuit, the Professional Women’s Lacrosse League. That league did not play in 2017, because a number of the members it had signed were part of the United States’ historic gold-medal double at the FIL World Cup and the World Games in Poland.

This year, both leagues are operating simultaneously, in conjunction with major youth lacrosse tournaments up and down the East Coast from suburban Washington, D.C. up to greater Boston, giving both leagues ready-made audiences.

CURRENT STATUS: This evening, the WPLL crowns its first champion at U.S. Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Md. Meanwhile, the UWLX will have its penultimate regular-season doubleheader in Bel Air, Md. at mid-week before league semifinals in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the championship game in Allston, Mass.

COACHES: Both leagues have engaged top talent from the NCAA; eight out of the nine coaches of the North American pro teams had a job on the sidelines this past season. Interestingly, the UWLX’s head coaches are all male: John Sung of Virginia Tech; Syracuse assistant Regy Thorpe, Louisville’s Scott Teeter, and Boston University assistant Mike Beford.

In the WPLL, four of the five coaches are women: Sonia LaMonica of Towson, Ricky Fried of Georgetown, Katie Rowan of Albany, Shannon Smith of Hofstra, and Amy Patton, the former Dartmouth coach.

PLAYERS: When DeJuliis formed the WPLL, a lot of top players, including Tewaarton winners like Taylor Cummings, bought into the league. A raft of World Cup/World Games veterans such as Gussie Johns, Marie McCool, Kylie Ohlmiller, and Alice Mercer permeate the teams.

At the same time, however, other U.S. national team veterans such as Michelle Tumolo, Cortney Fortunato, Liz Hogan, and Alyssa Murray have suited up for the UWLX.

AT PREGAME: If there’s one commonality between the two leagues, it is the fact that both play some very loud and thumping hip-hop music for pregame warmups. About the only difference is that the music is turned off during UWLX play and the music is left on while the game is going on in the WPLL, giving it a feel like pro basketball.

TIMING: The UWLX has been using past international rules, playing two 35-minute halves with the final two minutes of each half being on stop-time. The WPLL is using the future FIL standard of four 15-minute quarters. The clock, in this league, continues to move in the final two minutes as is the case currently in the NCAA.

Both teams use a possession clock; the UWLX’s clock is 90 seconds, the WPLL is 60 seconds. That gives WPLL teams not a lot of time to substitute and make decisions about what to do in their set offense. If a player is knocked down and fouled, the possession clock and the game clock keep running, which has led to situations late in the 60-second cycle when an attacking player has little to no opportunity to take advantage of a foul.

GAME PLAY: Both leagues use 10 players a side, with only six on attack/defense at any one time. The restraining line is the midfield stripe, just like in men’s lacrosse. As has been the case since the founding of the UWLX in 2016, there is free movement in both leagues.

In the attack zone, the UWLX uses the conventional arc-and-fan system for free-position shots. In the WPLL, a player fouled in the scoring area receives the ball at the top of an 8-meter wedge that looks like a grapefruit being sectioned by slicing off the top and bottom ends.

The UWLX maintains the usual 95-to-100 yard distance between goals. In the WPLL, the goal circle is moved to where the men’s crease is, making the distance between the goals 80 yards, meaning that the league is taking advantage of U.S. Lacrosse’s “unified” standard when it comes to lining the competition surface.

STRATEGY: The UWLX teams take advantage of their 90 seconds, sometimes too casually. There is a failure-to-advance rule where a team must get the ball into the attacking half within 30 seconds of gaining possession, and teams can sometimes run afoul of that. But the pace is very much like a good NCAA game, with time enough to substitute and get a play and personnel in before running it.

In the WPLL, the 60-second clock goes by very quickly, especially if enough pressure can be applied as the ball is advanced upfield. This has led to a frenetic pace of play as well as a number of improvised goals under pressure as the possession clock winds down. All manner of behind-the-back and level-change shots are attempted as the players, I think, are rushed into getting a shot attempt on frame.

OVERALL AESTHETICS: If you’ve seen men’s college lacrosse and compared that to men’s Major League Lacrosse, your two instant impressions are an increase in speed and an increase in physicality.

You can say the same when it comes to the WPLL. Like the UWLX in its first year, the umpires pretty much let most contact go and allow the players to settle the game between themselves. The pace of play in the WPLL is at warp speed; we especially noticed how quickly the players moved the ball in the game involving the Philadelphia Fire and the New York Fight for at least one last-second goal at the end of a quarter.

It’s a little more deliberate in the UWLX, a function of the longer possession clock. In addition, not all of the plays are as automatic in the UWLX. However, the players in the league work just as hard as those in the WPLL.

OUTLOOK: I wouldn’t say that the existence of two leagues of women’s lacrosse teams isn’t a bad thing, especially in watching some players who are blossoming in the pro ranks such as Dana Dobbie, Tumolo, Elena Romsberg, Ohlmiller, and Murray.

I think there will also be a handful of players who may have been role players for their college teams which will find the 10-a-side game more to their liking. Frankly, I think there are more undiscovered diamonds in the UWLX with most of the World Cup veterans — known quantities — in the WPLL. Let’s see how things progress, though.

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July 13, 2018 — United States Coach of the Year: Richard DeSomma, South Riding Freedom (Va.)

South Riding Freedom (Va.) is a scant two miles due west of the Udvar-Hazy facility of the Smithsonian Institution, an enormous hangar-like building that houses a number of historic aircraft including a Concorde and the Space Shuttle Discovery.

In 2018, the school’s girls’ lacrosse team went to the stratosphere.

Thanks in large part to veteran coach Richard DeSomma, the Eagles were able to vault a key mental hurdle during this season in order to attain success: winning the Virginia High School League Class 5A state championship over previously undefeated Atlee (Va.).

For his efforts, especially in his personal comeback as a coach, he is the recipient of the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year for 2018.

Freedom’s very existence is a symptom of the enormous growth in population in northern Virginia since the 1950s. Freedom was built in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and received a patriotic nickname and mascot thereafter.

Success in lacrosse, however, proved to be elusive. The year before DeSomma came in to coach, the team went 7-9 and faltered physically and mentally towards the end of the season.

And it wasn’t as if though DeSomma’s previous coaching tenure ended positively, either. In his last game with Alexandria Hayfield (Va.) to end the 2015 campaign, his team lost 25-1 to Vienna James Madison (Va.).

But in 2016, the Eagles won their first 17 games under DeSomma, before running into Purcellville Woodgrove (Va.). The 2017 team also had a successful regular season before losing to Falls Church George Mason (Va.) in the regional tournament.

The 2018 team, having had a taste of success, wanted more this time around. Not even a loss to Sterling Potomac Falls in the VHSL Region 5C title match could conquer the team’s desire.

Neither Potomac Falls nor Freedom received byes into the 5A state semifinal round; Freedom, moreover, had to play Stafford Mountain View (Va.), a school which has won the last two seasons in field hockey. But the Eagles prevailed in that contest, as well as a semifinal win over Charlottesville Albemarle (Va.) to make the state final against Atlee, a team which had been undefeated on the season.

But Freedom’s talent and tactics wore down Atlee, to the point where they were playing two down late in the contest because of yellow cards. That left senior Rachel Bean to score the game-winner with under three minutes to go.

“After 23 years of coaching, I’d say it’s about time,” DeSomma told the assembled media after the match. “It’s hard once you get to this level. You never know which way it’s going to go.

DeSomma’s win came in his third trip to the state finals he had coached Langley (Va.) to a pair of state championship matches when the sport was not fully under the purview of the Virginia High School League.

2018 — Richard DeSomma, South Riding Freedom (Va.)
2017 — Alyssa Frazier, Bridgewater-Raritan (N.J.)
2016 — P.J. Kesmodel, Lewes Cape Henlopen (Del.)

July 11, 2018 — The FIH meets the UWLX/WPLL halfway

Today, the FIH announced a number of changes not only within its corporate structure, but in rules packages in order to position the game of lacrosse as a worldwide sport capable of making it into the Olympic program someday.

The biggest changes were for women’s international lacrosse, which will now look an awful like the professional game which is on offer this summer from United Women’s Lacrosse and the Professional Women’s Lacrosse League.

In both leagues, the teams play with nine outfielders and a goalie rather than the 12-a-side rules which has been the standard for women since the rules were codified in the British Isles around 1912. Back then, owing to the popularity of cricket in the Commonwealth nations, a number of the positions in lacrosse (third man, point, cover point) were borrowed from the bat-and-ball sport.

In women’s lacrosse, that started ebbing away with innovations in the game such as Princeton and Penn State putting running 11 players on offense, the addition of restraining lines in the late 1990s, and the NCAA rules packages of the 2000s that mandated a rectangular pitch, hard boundaries, and the self-start.

In addition, there was specialized recruiting and game philosophies that made the game much more like the men’s game, including a raft of male head and assistant coaches in North America such as Gary Gait, Ricky Fried, John Sung, and Scott Teeter who have brought their training and coaching into the mix of the women’s game.

We’ll know more how this changes women’s lacrosse worldwide not only when it comes to international play, but I’ll also be interested to see how quickly other governing bodies of the sport adopt the new rules. Will the NCAA, which has already been changed because of the possession clock and the self-start, go to 10-a-side?

Will the same happen in the National Federation of State High School Associations? I think this is the open question when it comes to the future development of the sport in the United States. The reason: with a 10-a-side game instead of a 12-a-side game, you might get smaller schools in non-traditional areas (especially the American Midwest and West) to take up the sport. On the other hand, the new rules will mandate that two fewer players will get to play at any one time during a game.

I also think the pace of play is going to change, as well as the type of athlete that lacrosse is going to require. I envision a faster game, one which requires fewer players of the soccer/field hockey type that can run for hours, and more of the ice hockey/basketball type of player who are asked to give their all for several minutes, then take a break.

I envision teams platooning groups of midfielders for the draw, for man-up, and for man-down situations as well as first- and second-midfield groups, just like in the men’s game.

Now, I don’t know whether FIL is going to adopt the “grapefruit wedge” arc that the WPLL is using, or whether the standard arc and fan will remain.

I guess that’s another vote. After all, the next FIL Women’s World Cup isn’t for another three years, plenty of time for new rules to be tested and implemented.

Stay tuned.

July 9, 2018 — Region of the Year

The Region of the Year is awarded to a defined area of the American girls’ scholastic lacrosse map. It can be a league, a city, a geographic region, a county, a section defined by a state governing body, or an entire state.

This year, many of the storylines revolved around a place which has been on the lacrosse map as an up-and-coming area for the last decade. But this year was when Florida truly got onto the national map.

While you can credit the likes of Vero Beach for being unafraid of playing out-of-state teams for the last decade, or credit Florida, Florida Southern, and Rollins for going deep into their respective NCAA tournaments, it was 2018 when Florida came into its own as a maturing hotbed of the sport.

Indeed, for the entirety of the 20th Century in the Sunshine State, a lacrosse stick was little more than a curio kept hung on a wall or in a garage, though, oddly enough, a handful of movies and TV shows, with a Florida setting, featured lacrosse in their storylines.

But the growth in the last seven years in the sport on the girls’ side is incontrovertable. In 2011, there were 89 varsity teams. This year, there were 191.

This included the United States’ first “superprep” team, Bradenton IMG Academy (Fla.). The Ascenders’ inaugural season was moderately successful as the independent team built a 9-3 record. The team won a late-season thriller over Fairfax W.T. Woodson (Va.) by a score of 21-20. A day earlier, however, the team lost to Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.) 15-5.

IMG also met a private-school team from Delray called the American Heritage School. Heritage also played St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes this year back on March 24th, and the Stallions won 12-10.

American Heritage was led by sophomore Caitlyn Wurzburger, the diminutive sophomore whose middle-school verbal commitment to Syracuse led to wholesale changes in the NCAA’s recruitment system (except for football and basketball). In 2018, she repeated a feat that she had accomplished in her freshman and her eighth-grade varsity seasons.

That feat was to score 100 goals and get 100 assists in one season. At the rate she is going, she is threatening to rewrite all offensive record in the history of girls’ high school lacrosse. She already has one major record in hand: she broke the existing record for assists, and will have 332 with two full varsity seasons ahead.

American Heritage won the FHSAA state championship this year, but there is a looming challenge on the horizon. That school is Orlando Lake Highland (Fla.), because the team next year will be coached by Chris Robinson, who co-authored two of the longest win streaks in the history of the game and coached numerous players onto the next level.

As much as this recognition reflects the present, there is plenty of reason why the future is bright in the Sunshine State.

2018 — Florida
2017 — Dallas, Tex.
2016 — New York

July 7, 2018 — Games of the Year, 2018

In any year, it’s difficult to whittle down the tens of thousands of scholastic lacrosse games into a group of the best, most dramatic, or having the greatest impact on the course of history.

This year was much the same, though there were a couple of real standouts. Here’s our attempt at top games for this past spring:

10. Bainbridge Island (Wash.) 10, Mercer Island (Wash.) 9
May 18, 2018
State final
Two teams from opposite sides of Seattle played for the state final (the WIAA does not sanction the sport), and it was Bainbridge Island coming back from last year’s loss in the final to beat Mercer Island,

9. Baltimore Roland Park (Md.) 12, Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.) 4
March 24, 2018
Regular-season game
In an incredibly successful season for Notre Dame Prep, it’s hard to believe that they actually had four losses this season, including this outlier of a result. NDP either won or had one-goal defeats in its other 20 matches this season.

8. Moorestown (N.J.) 7, Summit (N.J.) 6
June 2, 2018
NJSIAA Group III final
Summit and Moorestown have played some knock-down games in their histories, including a classic game 19 years ago when the state final was an all-comers championship. But as the game has grown, so have the brackets. Moorestown, which had some good wins but a couple of outlier results, got the win it needed to propel itself into the Tournament of Champions, where they beat Haddonfield and Ridgewood with margins to spare.

7. Alexandria Bishop Ireton (Va.) 8, Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.) 7 (4 OT)
May 20, 2018
VISAA Division I final
For all of Ireton’s recent success, having won four of the last five VISAA Division I titles, it took sophomore Briana Lantuh, a former student at St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, to score the goal in the fourth period of extra time to win the title.

6. Cold Spring Harbor (N.Y.) 13, Mount Sinai (N.Y.) 12 (2 OT)
June 3, 2018
NYSPHSAA Class C quarterfinal
Mount Sinai was going for its fourth straight championship, but ran into Cold Spring Harbor and Grace Tauckus. The midfielder scored all four of her goals after the first-half interval to propel the Seahawks to the victory.

5. New Canaan (Conn.) 12, Darien (Conn.) 11
June 5, 2018
CIAC Class L semifinals
These two teams met on April 18 in the regular season, but New Canaan was eager to break its nine-game losing streak to the Wave, and did, thanks to freshman McKenna Harden’s goal less than three minutes from time.

4. Penfield (N.Y.) 6, Pittsford (N.Y.) 5
May 26, 2018
NYSPHSAA Section 5 Class A semifinal
Pittsford, last year’s Class A champions, had continued a good run of form in the early (and cold) part of the 2018 season, beating Scarsdale (N.Y.), Suffern (N.Y.), Penfield, and Brighton (N.Y.) right out of the gate. But Penfield came back and stifled the Pittsford offense, limiting touches by their star players and winning the contest.

3. Wellesley (Mass.) 15, Hingham Notre Dame (Mass.) 7
June 16, 2018
Final, MIAA Division I South Tournament
Notre Dame, coached by Northwestern alumna Meredith Frank, was thought to be the favorite to come out of Division I South, but Wellesley, a team which had been building since the arrival of head coach Michelle Cook, staked its claim to a Final Four berth, eventually winning the state title.

2. Delray American Heritage (Fla.) 12, Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.) 10
March 24, 2018
Regular-season game
This might very well be the one game where Southern lacrosse came of age. American Heritage, a small private school which has had lacrosse a scant four years, challenged one of the stalwarts of the sport and beat them. A reverse match is rumored for 2019.

1. Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.) 10, Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) 8
May 11, 2018
Final, IAAM Class “A” Tournament
This was the game that was, frankly, more than eight years in the making. That’s because it was the last time any girls’ lacrosse team had beaten McDonogh on the field of play. But with a coaching change as well, key injuries, and graduation losses, the Eagles were ripe for a defeat, which occurred on the grounds of U.S. Lacrosse headquarters.

July 6, 2018 — Your national scoring champion

Charlie Rudy has been such a powerfully good player, and for such a long period of time, it’s too easy to overlook her.

How else do you explain the fact that, for the last two years, her local paper, the Independent Journal, has chosen someone else on her team as the Player of the Year for Marin County?

But Rudy still was able to maintain an incredible output of goals, no matter who or where she played. She led the country for the second season in a row with 147 goals, making her your national scoring champion for 2018.

Rudy, after helping Novato (Calif.) to a CIF North Coastal Section championship, took her talents to a national level. She had a hat trick for the South team in the national Under Armour senior all-star girls’ lacrosse game to lead all 44 players. She starts taking classes at the University of Colorado this coming fall.

Rudy’s total joins a number of top performances from the recent past:

2018: Charlie Rudy, Novato (Calif.), 147
2017: Charlie Rudy, Novato (Calif.), 160
2016: Bridget Ruskey, Cape May Courthouse Middle Township (N.J.), 135
2015: Sophia Turchetta, Harvard Bromfield (Mass.), 158
2014: Sophia Turchetta, Harvard Bromfield (Mass.), 170
2013: Daniela McMahon, Saddle River Country Day School (N.J.), 143
2012: Emma Lazaroff, Lafayette Centaurus (Colo.), 143
2011: Alex Moore, Allentown (N.J.), 148
2010: Autumn MacMillin, Tecumseh (Mich.), 157
2009: Katie Ferris, Carthage (N.Y.), 138
2008: Courtney Miller, Chappaqua Horace Greeley (N.Y.) 125
2007: Mallori Selliger, Clarkstown (N.Y.) North, 88
2006: Shannon Smith, West Babylon (N.Y.) 129

July 5, 2018 — United States Coach of the Year: the nominees

The United States Coach of the Year Award is given to a head coach or co-head coaches who made a noticeable difference in the performance of a scholastic field hockey team in a particular season. The coaching performance is not limited to progress made in the year which the award is given.

Here are this year’s nominees:

Jessica Blake, Haddonfield (N.J.) Memorial: Even though the school’s field hockey program had a 90-year head start on girls’ lacrosse, the Bulldogs have reached the same championship level in just 10 years with her in charge since the very start of the program

Kara Connerty, Norwell (Mass.): Won its third state title in four years, getting by its nemesis Cohasett in the process

Michelle Cook, Wellesley (Mass.): In just four years, has turned this program from a mid-pack player into the state Division I champions

Richard DeSomma, South Riding Freedom (Va.): After 23 years as a varsity and club coach, won his first VHSL championship

Kaitlin Doucette, San Diego Torrey Pines (Calif.): Got her players to buy into her system and to handle the expectations in winning the CIF Open Division championship

Danielle Gallagher, Manhasset (N.Y.): Former U.S. women’s national team member guided team to state title only to be let go after the season ended

Kevin Ferry, Marlemont (Ohio): Won school’s first Division II title with an inspirational figure on his coaching staff

Mac Ford, Towson Notre Dame Prep: Guided his team to the IAAM Class “A” playoff title, in the process beating the previously unbeatable McDonogh Eagles and ending their win streak at 198 matches

John McClain, Delray American Heritage (Fla.): In a Wild West of new playing opportunities, he has been able to muster the necessary resources to win the school’s first state championship with a player for the ages

Kevin O’Connell, Honeoye Falls-Lima (N.Y.): Brought a sub-.500 team to the state Class “D” playoffs and made it to the championship final

The recipient will be announced July 13th.