February 21, 2016
USC wowed the West Coast fans with a dominant performance against Duke on Saturday night, defeating the Blue Devils 11-5. (Dirk Dewachter)
USC wowed the West Coast fans with a dominant performance against Duke on Saturday night, defeating the Blue Devils 11-5. (Dirk Dewachter)

Weekend Takeaways: Strong Early Returns

by Sean Burns | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Burns Archive

With weather that felt a bit more appropriate for lacrosse than hockey (compared to last weekend, at least) and a slew of big-time contests, it barely felt like February as action unfolded from coast-to-coast this weekend. It's never too early to start building your resume for May, and a few squads certainly did that over the past 72 hours.

Headlining the action was a young Florida team shocking No. 2 North Carolina on the road, while No. 8 Notre Dame put on a dominating performance against No. 9 Boston College, joining the Gators at 3-0 on the season. No. 10 Princeton didn't show any rust in its first action of the year (after just three weeks of work due to the Ivy League's practice restrictions) in a dominant win over No. 5 Virginia, and No. 19 USC looked better than advertised in front of a big Orange County crowed in a rout over the 12th-ranked Duke team that ended the Trojans' season last spring in the NCAA tournament's second round.

It's dangerous to read too much into an early-season victory, but a smart team can parlay the confidence boost into much more success down the road. The question will be whether or not these headline victories will be the foundation of a tournament seed argument, or an outlier come May Madness.

Here's what we're taking away from the weekend that was.

No. 11 Florida upset No. 2 North Carolina in a thriller Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill. (Andy Mead)

1. One player doesn't make or break a team.

Players graduate. It's the nature of intercollegiate athletics. Maryland will not have Taylor Cummings on the field forever. The Kayla Treanor era at Syracuse will too come to an end. For Florida, 2015 saw the end of Shannon Gilroy's do-everything career.

Rather than lament the loss of the two-time Tewaaraton finalist, the Gators have simply reloaded (with help from a marquee freshman class). Saturday saw arguably the most important result of the college season so far, as they went on the road to Chapel Hill and handed North Carolina its first loss since the NCAA final last Memorial Day weekend, 16-15.

The Gators had to do a bit of everything to win this one. They kept their heads above water as North Carolina charged to big first-half leads (5-1 and then 8-4), overcame the athleticism that the Tar Heels are justly famous for, sidestepped deficits in draw controls and ground balls, and then hung on with a late lead as the home team tried to rally back.

"When you play against a team as good as North Carolina, you can never count them out," said Florida coach Mandee O'Leary, who is one win shy of 100 as the only head coach the Gators program has known. "We expected they weren't going to give up [when Florida took a 16-13 lead late], so we had to keep fighting for every 50-50 ball and gut it out."

Youth was served well for Florida, with freshman Sydney Pirreca scoring five goals, including a first-half hat trick to help keep her team afloat against the early Tar Heel onslaught. Fellow freshman and U.S. U-19 star Lindsey Ronbeck added two goals, with Haley Hicklen and Caroline Benitez chipping in key minutes in goal and at midfield, respectively.

"We had some of the most touted recruits in the country come in, and it's been exciting to work with that quality of an athlete," O'Leary said. "These past couple weeks, they've really been living up to those expectations.

Florida will have little time to celebrate. The Gators play Dartmouth and No. 3 Syracuse in the next seven days. Anyone who may have thought the Gators would be down after losing their brand-name player in Gilroy is furiously recircling that date on the calendar after checking this weekend's scores.

"Tonight, we enjoy this victory. It's a huge win for us," O'Leary said on the bus ride home to Gainesville Saturday night. "But we also need to learn from this and every other game we play. We made mistakes, and we saw things we can build on. Our girls understand the enormity of this win, but they also understand the season is a long one.

"Monday, we get right back down to business and prepare for Dartmouth."

2. West Coast lacrosse has some pop in 2016.

The Pac-12 adding lacrosse in 2018 had fans abuzz in October, and rightly so. But it's clear that two of the future cornerstones of that league are playing pretty darn good lacrosse already.

Saturday night saw USC, coming off of a breakout 2015 season in in which it advanced to the NCAA tournament's second round, look like a team to be reckoned with in a 11-5 victory over Duke, the same team that knocked out the Trojans last May. How dominant was USC? With Michaela Michael dominating the draw and Kylie Drexel leading the offense as Duke face-guarded Michael, the Blue Devils didn't register a shot in the game's first 10 minutes.

Take it with a grain of salt that No. 19 beat No. 12. USC, after all, brought back every meaningful piece of last year's team, while the Blue Devils were hit hard by graduation. But it's clear that the Trojans have no intention of falling back to the pack after their breakout a year ago.

Stanford, which has been the standard-bearer for Division I lacrosse in California for some time now, also has looked good early. After a season-opening loss to what looks like a very good Notre Dame team (more on the Irish later), the Cardinal have been dominant in back-to-back wins over St. Mary's and Ohio State.

We'll have to wait until April to see the Palo Alto vs. L.A. tilt, but it's looking pretty clear that no team is going to have an easy West Coast swing if making stops in either city.

3. Notre Dame sure seems stacked.

Cortney Fortunato, who played alongside Gilroy at Northport (N.Y.) High, brings the same name brand to Notre Dame as Gilroy did to Florida. But the Fighting Irish have a lot more going for them than just Fortunato.

Notre Dame dismantled Boston College 14-4 on Sunday. Fortunato looked the part of the star with five goals and two assists, but woe to the team that expects to face guard her and walk away with an easy win.

Tewaaraton finalist Barbara Sullivan was a force with seven caused turnovers in a victory over Stanford last weekend, a game that saw Notre Dame score eight unanswered second-half goals to roll to a 13-7 victory.

Against Boston College, freshman goalkeeper Samantha Giacolone made a career-high 13 saves and allowed just two goals in each half. And three players not named Fortunato scored at least twice. Defensively, Brie Custis headlined with four caused turnovers as the Irish pressured the Eagles into 15 caused turnovers and four more unforced turnovers.

"It's a standard we want to continue to play to," Halfpenny said after Sunday's ACC victory. "The girls are setting the bar where they want to play. I'm excited about it. They're keeping the focus on ourselves and with each other. Our culture is going to win here, every single time. Our belief is through the roof. We're playing our style. We're focused on us. We're positive. I'm excited about that. When things didn't go our way, the recovery was outstanding and that's something that we've been celebrating a lot."

Abby Finkelston tied a team high three goals with Olivia Hompe in Princeton's season-opening win against Virginia (Princeton Athletics)

4. An early marquee win doesn't guarantee another.

Virginia jumped all the way to No. 5 in the Nike/LM Top 20 after a victory over Northwestern, and they were taking on a Princeton team that had just three weeks of practice under its belt due to Ivy League rules.

Easy victory for the Wahoos, right?

Instead, the Tigers jumping all over Virginia, using a stout defensive effort, jumpstarting transition and featuring a balanced offense to double up Virginia 14-7.

"It's great to win your opening game and start strong, particularly against a traditionally powerful team like Virginia," Princeton coach Chris Sailer said. "But I reminded [the team], Virginia was riding high after [beating Northwestern]. The key is being able to appreciate the win, but then get right back to work."

Led by Ellie DeGarmo's 13 saves and a veteran defense that limited the Cavaliers to low-percentage shots all day, Princeton looked as good or better as any of their fans could have hoped in their opener. Junior Olivia Hompe's five-point game carried the offense, while sophomore Abby Finkelston had a hat trick. Sophomore Ellie McNulty scored twice, while senior Stephanie Paloscio had a goal and an assist. Junior Amanda Leavell had a team-high four draw controls and two caused turnovers, while senior Liz Bannantine had two ground balls.

It was the kind of team-wide effort coaches love to see so early in their season.

"It's great for confidence, and for excitement," Sailer said. "But we know that every team we play is going to come out to compete just like we did today, and we have to work every day to be better."

Three Stars

Samantha Giacolone, G, Notre Dame

The freshman goalkeeper had a standout performance for the Fighting Irish in a Top 10 victory over Boston College Sunday, making 13 stops to help her team improve to 3-0 on the young season. Giacolone has allowed just six goals per game in starting the first three games of her collegiate career.

Amanda Leavell, D, Princeton

If the only line in the box score that doesn't have a number next to it is turnovers, you've had a pretty good day. Leavell was all over the field as Princeton dominated Virginia in its season opener, scoring on a free-position shot, assisting another goal, causing two turnovers, snatching three draw controls, and helping key a Tigers transition game that kept the Cavaliers on their heels all day.

Sydney Pirreca, A, Florida

Another freshman standout, Pirreca picked a good day to have a breakout contest, scoring five goals to key Florida's upset win over No. 2 North Carolina. After scoring once in Florida wins over Loyola and Michigan, she had a hat trick in the first half alone, helping keep her team afloat as the Tar Heels jumped to a big early lead. Pirreca scored two more in the second half as the Gators built a lead of their own and held on for the victory. 

Freshman Sydney Pirreca scored a team-high five goals to lift Florida over North Carolina. (Scott McCall)

Game of the Weekend

Florida 16, North Carolina 15

Beyond any big-picture implications for the rest of the season, this was just a stellar game of lacrosse for the fans in Chapel Hill (even if the home team lost). The Tar Heels came out punching, building the early lead, but the young Gators fought right back to make it a game before the half. It was white-knuckle action the rest of the way, with North Carolina narrowly missing a comeback of its own in the one-goal loss, rallying with two straight after going down 16-13 before Florida's Taylor Bresnahan won a key draw and let the Gators run out the remaining clock.  

Numbers of Significance

0

Goals allowed by UConn in a season-opening win over Nutmeg State foe Quinnipiac, the first shutout of 2016. Senior All-Big East goalkeeper Shannon Nee and sophomore Madison Hooper each made three saves to split the clean sheet. Over the weekend, the Huskies improved to 2-0 with a win over No. 18-ranked James Madison.

1-1

Army West Point's record after earning the program's first-ever victory on Saturday, an 8-7 win over Central Connecticut State. Freshman Nikki Polhamus scored five goals for the Black Knights, helping Army build a 7-2 halftime lead. The Blue Devils battled back to within one, but couldn't net the equalizer late.

12

Margin of victory for UMass in a 16-4 rout of New Hampshire, which was coming off of an impressive win over Hofstra and earned Top 20 consideration. UMass has outscored opponents 32-9 in opening 2-0 on the season.

35

Minutes Louisville held Denver scoreless in one stretch of a 14-3 victory over the Pioneers. The 3-0 Cardinal have a big test coming up this week when Boston College pays them a visit for their first ACC contest of the season.

Notre Dame freshman goalie Samantha Giacolone made 13 saves while allowing just four goals to spark the Irish to a dominating win over Boston College. (Matt Cashore)

Quote of the Week

"The reality is, in a conference that's the best in the country top-to-bottom, when you get one, you take it, you celebrate it, but then you have to have amnesia to be able to get ready for the next round."

— Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny

How the Nike/LM Top 20 Fared

1. Maryland (2-0): Beat Georgetown 18-8; next: Saturday at North Carolina.
2. North Carolina (3-1): Lost to Florida 16-15; next: Saturday vs. Maryland.
3. Syracuse (3-0): Beat Wagner 16-5, playing Marist 7:30 p.m.; next: Sunday vs. Northwestern.
4. Stony Brook (0-0): Did not play; next: Saturday at Bryant.
5. Virginia (1-1): Lost to Princeton 14-7; next: Wednesday vs. Richmond.
6. Penn State (2-0): Beat Duquesne 19-5; next: Saturday at Virginia.
7. Northwestern (1-1): Did not play; next: Saturday at Syracuse.
8. Notre Dame (3-0): Beat Boston College 14-4; next: Thursday vs. Colorado.
9. Boston College (2-1): Beat Holy Cross 19-6, lost to Notre Dame 14-4; next: Saturday at Louisville.
10. Princeton (1-0): Beat Virginia 14-4; next: Wednesday at Drexel.
11. Florida (3-0): Beat North Carolina 16-15; next: Saturday vs. Dartmouth.
12. Duke (2-2): Lost to Southern Cal 11-5; next: Thursday vs. Elon.
13. Johns Hopkins (3-0): Beat American 16-10, beat Rutgers 14-2; next: Wednesday vs. Loyola.
14. Louisville (3-0): Beat Denver 14-3; next: Tuesday at Vanderbilt.
15. Stanford (2-1): Beat St. Mary’s 20-1, beat Ohio State 18-7; next: Saturday vs. Harvard.
16. Penn (1-0): Beat Delaware 12-10; next: Sunday at Duke.
17. Ohio State (2-1): Beat California 16-15, lost to Stanford 18-7; next: Sunday vs. Duquesne.
18. James Madison (1-2): Beat Virginia Tech 18-5, lost to Connecticut 12-10; next: Sunday at High Point.
19. Southern California (2-0): Beat Duke 11-5; next: March 4 vs. Michigan.
20. Delaware (2-1): Beat George Washington 17-7, lost to Penn 12-10; next: Tuesday vs. La Salle.

Five to Watch This Week

Loyola at Johns Hopkins (5 p.m. Wednesday): Inexperienced Loyola stumbled badly in opening losses to Florida and Syracuse, which came by a combined 32-12 margin. The Greyhounds take on their third straight ranked team in neighbor Johns Hopkins, which has opened 2-0 with wins over Marquette and American.

Penn State at Virginia (12 p.m. Saturday): The Nittany Lions face their first big test of the season in a visit to Klockner Stadium after lopsided wins over Lehigh and Duquesne. The Cavaliers ran hot (an upset win over Northwestern) and then cold (a loss to Princeton) in their first two contests, but will have plenty of motivation to get back on track against the team that knocked them out of the NCAA tournament last spring.

Boston College at Louisville (12 p.m. Saturday): The Eagles showed their youth in a lopsided loss to Notre Dame in their ACC opener, but will have to have a short memory to prepare for an unbeaten Louisville squad that would love to add a league win to its early-season success.

Maryland at North Carolina (1 p.m. Saturday): Florida's road win over the Tar Heels kept this from being a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup, but the fans will just have to settle for an NCAA championship game rematch. The two-time defending champion Terrapins have looked strong in routs over William and Mary and Georgetown, but this should be a big test for Taylor Cummings and company.

Northwestern at Syracuse (12 p.m. Sunday): The start of a brutal four-game stretch for the unbeaten Orange, who play Florida two days later, then Virginia and Maryland. They can't look past the Wildcats, who will have had two full weeks of rest since dropping a two-goal loss to Virginia in Georgia on Feb. 13.


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