Women's D-1 Notes: Opportunity's Knockin' As Bill Redshirts
When junior Maggie Bill kept to the sidelines for North Carolina's first two games of the 2016 season, fans took notice.
The All-American, who scored a team-high three goals and added two assists in the NCAA championship against Maryland last year, decided to redshirt after opting to do the same this past fall with her soccer team. The UNC two-sport standout and member of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 U.S. women's national lacrosse team is still academically eligible.
Tar Heels coach Jenny Levy clarified Thursday afternoon that Bill's decision was not due to medical reasons.
"She's been a multi-sport athlete in three major sports since middle school," said Levy. "For her trying to navigate this point in her life and being involved with two major teams at Carolina as a significant contributor, she just got to the point where she needed a little bit of a break and reset."
Bill, a communications major, will be focusing on her studies, while still practicing with both the soccer and lacrosse teams. She will maintain a leadership role for the No. 2 Tar Heels as they aim for the program's second national title as Maryland's No. 1 contender.
"There's a lot on her plate," said Levy. "We're really supportive of Maggie and doing what's best for her. If anything, we're confidant in our team and the depth that we have right now to have someone else step up in Maggie's place this spring. It will only make us better in the future."
While some may view the loss of Bill as a big hit to the team, Levy knows it is an opportunity for others to make an impact. Her team has never been one to be known to rebuild each season, but rather reload. It's about being the "next man up," she said.
"We've got weapons all over the place," said Levy. "We always have options and we always have an attitude that we're going to find a way. We've been through it. Especially the past two years with the injury bug, that seemed to hit us. We were constantly in a place where we were, 'How are we going to make this work?' We're not a stranger to any of that."
For the first time in three years, the entire offensive unit returned, including the now-healthy Sydney Holman, Molly Hendrick and Sammy Jo Tracy. According to Levy, the entire team, except for attacker Aly Messinger, played midfield in high school.
If you look at UNC's roster, excluding goalies and Bill, only six of 30 field players do not have midfield included within their position description. That's only 20 percent. Yet even so, the coaching staff likes to mix and match players across the entire field for different looks in any given game.
In Carolina's first three wins of the year, some new faces emerged in the starting lineup, including freshman Olivia Ferrucci, a U.S. under-19 silver medalist and sophomore Ela Hazar, who gained some experience last year when Hendrick and Tracy were coming back from injuries.
With those two, plus Marie McCool, who did not play like a freshman in the 2015 NCAA tournament notching two goals in the final, and the upperclassman leadership of offensive standouts including Hendrick, Holman, Messinger and Tracy, all is not lost.
"We have what we need," said Levy. "Believe in the players that you have and help them reach their biggest potential. We've done that consistently year in and year out regardless of the face or the name. There's always somebody who steps up for us."
Ali Karwoski is one of Delaware's strongest defenders and can help her team immensely as the Blue Hens strive for a CAA crown. (Kevin P. Tucker)
The 2013 season was the first time since 2010 that Delaware had a winning record (10-6). In 2014, the Blue Hens docked one more loss, then balanced it back out with an 11-7 record last year.
While that's a win rate of only 61 percent, they are slowly back on the rise, evident by upsetting Georgetown the past two years to open their season. In 2013 and 2014, the Hoyas had snagged 16-12 and 19-11 victories, respectively, but Delaware flipped the script, winning by a combined 16-goal margin in 2015 and 2016.
"We really just dominated," said Delaware coach Kateri Linville. "You almost go into that next game hoping your team's caught amnesia from the year before because honestly, that was a really defining game for both programs in so many ways. For our team, it created some challenges mid-season."
While the Blue Hens were scouted and "things got tougher," their season-opening wins earned them the No. 20 spot in the Nike/Lacrosse Magazine Top 20, much in part thanks to their strengths on defense. They had more saves and caused turnovers against Georgetown this season, while last year, their goals-against average with senior goalie Alex Zaugra was sixth in the nation, just one behind Maryland champion goalie Alex Fitzpatrick.
"We've traditionally been a defensively-oriented program," said Linville. "Historically, as a program, we haven't had an offensive prowess probably since Karen Emas scored 98 goals in a season in '83 when we won the national championship. We haven't had that same kind of prowess. That's something that slowly but surely we want to build. This year, for our attack unit, one of their goals is to all be a threat."
While Emas still holds the single-season record for goals scored (and only one player has come within one – Jill Altshuler of Lehigh who finished with 97 goals in 1996), eight different Blue Hens scored at least one goal against the Hoyas.
Delaware will have its next test against No. 16 Penn on Saturday, but won't play its first CAA match until March 26 against Towson.
"Our team was in the Top 20 last year for eight consecutive weeks so we know that we can be in the conversation," said Linville. "We definitely want to be the dark horse, but what we talk about here, the CAA is a dog fight for us and that's mostly because JMU is the dogs and are out in front. It's time for the Fightin' Blue Hens to break through."
Molly Barcikowski impressed in VCU's first-ever game as a Division I program, leading with five goals and four assists against Gardner-Webb. (VCU Athletics)
"A Relief" for VCU
This time last year, VCU women's lacrosse had seven players. A starting lineup needs 12.
A Rams' practice consisted of small-sided games: 2v1, 2v2, 3v2, and 3v3. They couldn't practice full-team scenarios like rides and clears, and the coaching staff had to step in to try to create a more realistic feel to the game. It was always an unknown whether members of the club team would join them.
"It was really challenging last year in the most positive way," said VCU coach Jen O'Brien. "We couldn't even play 7v7. ... We didn't have that luxury last year."
Then this past fall, O'Brien finally had a full roster, featuring 22 freshmen and redshirt freshmen, plus one lone senior Bonnie Corrigan, who transferred from Presbyterian College to help build a new Division I program from the ground up. Corrigan was a captain from 2013-14 and was a three-time honoree on the Big South Academic Honor Roll.
"Everyone wanted to, in the best way possible, show off and really just show what they can bring to the table," said O'Brien. "What I remember most was how much support there was between the teammates. Our girls returning were so appreciative to have other people around them."
On Feb. 14, VCU etched its first-ever win in the history books, 21-9 over Gardner-Webb.
"It's definitely a sigh of relief," said O'Brien. "There was so much buildup, from not only just preseason, but really two and a half years for that moment."
The Rams will play seven more games before opening play in the Atlantic-10, a conference dominated by the reigning five-time regular season champion Massachusetts, which has also won seven straight A-10 tournament titles.
With a coaching background at Stanford and Johns Hopkins, O'Brien wants to continue building success and be the team to finally topple UMass.
"Being at two amazing institutions, Top 20 programs, that's the level I expect us to play at all the time," she said. "I realize that's not always realistic, but I think that's what actually drove a lot of girls to this program. They wanted to compete at that level."
Should UMass worry?
"I think so," said O'Brien. "Our goal from day one was to win an A-10 conference tournament. Why not shoot for that?"
If you saw the Rams after their first win, they were all smiling. They remember where they once were with just seven players and now know where they want to go.
"You saw it in their eyes," said O'Brien. "They were more excited when we said, 'We still have a lot of work to do,' than when we said, 'Congratulations."
Midfielder Allison Lane led Marquette with three goals in its 11-8 loss to Hopkins. (John Strosacker)
Young Marquette, Michigan Impress
Every lacrosse season has its ups and downs, but also its fair share of surprises. When an unranked team plays a Top 20 program, many expect the latter to prevail without much of a contest. When a young program faces the same Top 20-caliber team, again, the result seems predictable.
But both Michigan, in its third year, and Marquette, in its fourth, gave No. 11 Florida and No. 13 Johns Hopkins a scare early in the season, respectively.
Both Top 20 teams did win, however, not by much. The Gators escaped with a last-second goal by Sammi Burgess for a 12-11 win, while the Blue Jays allowed the Golden Eagles to go on scoring runs to open both the first and second halves before securing an 11-8 victory in Baltimore.
"Our performance last week – leading by as many three goals, holding a two-goal lead in the second half – it gave us a little more confidence and I think got us a little bit closer to closing out games against Top 20 teams," said Marquette coach Meredith Black.
Michigan coach Jennifer Ulehla expressed similar sentiments after falling to Florida by just one goal.
"That only keeps our team hungry for more success," she said. "Our intensity, our execution, our leadership, our talent – all those things that lead to success are falling into place."
Both teams have the potential to be dark horses if they continue playing as strongly as they did over the weekend. But it's that quick rise for a young program that leaves anyone in the lacrosse community impressed.
"It's hard to make a quick turnaround because you have to learn a lot of things, most importantly, learning how to win," said Black. "With youth comes inexperience and I think the quicker our young players learn how to be successful, the quicker the team finds success."
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