Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 20 USC (Women)
When USC announced in November 2010 that it would add a women's lacrosse team, the school's athletic director, Pat Haden, boldy proclaimed that "we are all in for women's lacrosse." Haden backed up his words by landing a high-profile coach in Lindsey Munday, who in 2015 led the Trojans to their first NCAA tournament appearance in just their third season.
With virtually every player returning from a team that upset James Madison in the first round, including USC's first All-American Michaela Michael, what's in store for year four?
USC is ranked No. 20 in the Nike/Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Top 20.
USC at a Glance
2015 Record: 14-6
3 Big Things
1. USC is loaded for another run.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
With a former Northwestern All-American at the helm, the Trojans have played the powerhouse in each of their three seasons, the results of which are a strong indicator of how quickly they have gone from a new program to officially in the mix.
It's a rare luxury for any team to bring back just about every meaningful piece of an NCAA tournament participant, but just four players graduated after last year's breakthrough 14-6 campaign, and only two were regular starters. Anchored by All-American Michaela Michael (63g, 13a) and first-team All-MPSF selections Caroline de Lyra (38g, 30a) and Amanda Johansen (40g, 17a), USC's offense returns nearly 99 percent of its offensive production (372 points) from last year.
On the other side, first-team All-MPSF defender Courtney Tarlton (18 CT, 34 GB) anchors a veteran group returning four starters if you count Kelsey Dreyer's move to defense from a defensive midfield role.
"We're really excited about the upcoming season, but first and foremost, we recognize it's a new year," Munday said. "Regardless of who you have coming back, you always start from scratch in a new year."
2. The Trojans won't sneak up on anyone and will be tested.
USC has stocked its schedule with big non-conference opponents again after facing Northwestern, Stony Brook, Boston College and Duke (NCAA tournament) in 2015. The Trojans added Duke for a February contest, and sprinkled Stony Brook, Boston College and Northwestern around their MPSF contests. They also added Notre Dame to their slate.
"That's always been our mentality, to play the best programs that we can," said Munday, who scheduled then-defending NCAA champion Northwestern for her team's first-ever game back in 2013. "No matter what the result, playing those kinds of teams will prepare you down the road."
3. The seniors are motivated to leave their mark.
A whopping 16 women will wrap up their collegiate careers with USC in 2016, having advanced the team further in each of its first four seasons. They went 8-10 as freshmen, 9-9 as sophomores and 14-6 as juniors. They have one last chance to leave their mark on the program, and they aren't taking that lightly.
"They're a special group," Munday said. "They've been here since day one and committed to what they want USC lacrosse to be. The younger players pick up on that."
Gussie Johns (So.) *
Not many players get to say they are the first All-American in their program's history, but the junior attacker from San Mateo (Calif.) County earned that distinction a year ago as a third-team selection by the IWLCA. In her sophomore season, Michael had 76 points and a team-record 123 draw controls, earning MPSF Player of the Year honors.
Another Bay Area standout making her way south to play for the Trojans, Gilbert earned the distinction of being the first Californian to qualify for a U.S. women's team when she played in the U19 world championship last summer. Don't be surprised if the freshman midfielder makes her way into the lineup early in her career.
Injured for the latter part of her junior season, Dreyer focuses more on the defensive half of the midfield game, which leaves her off the top half of the stat sheet. But don't be fooled. The New Jersey native has started in 42 of the 56 games in her team's history, doing the dirty work between the lines. Back and healthy as a senior, she'll play a central role again for a team that allowed fewer than nine goals per game in 2015.
Biggest Question Mark
Can USC win the MPSF?
There has been plenty of love for the Women of Troy following their breakthrough season, but they did fall short twice against MPSF champion Stanford. Winning the conference would be another big new milestone to add in 2016, but don't expect Stanford (or Denver, the 2014 MPSF champion) to concede a thing.
USC nearly toppled Northwestern at L.A. Coliseum last year. The teams will meet in Evanston on April 15. (John McGillen)
What rival coaches say about the Trojans
"Young talent and hungry. Coming off a good year, breaking into the top 20. First established senior class. Need to play Stanford to a tighter game and get the upset."
"Another solid recruiting class to bolster a team which gained its first NCAA win in 2015. Should be interesting to see who rules the West in 2016."
"The Trojans only graduated one starter from a team that made and won its first NCAA tournament game and look poised to continue their climb in the program's fourth season."
"Enters poll high after NCAA performance and return on team, including attacker Michaela Michael."
"Will be a phenomenal team this year after seeing them this fall. They didn't graduate any players."
"Obviously great coaching staff. They will be very, very, very good."
The lacrosse world is ever expanding, and there are fewer programs that show this better than USC, which boasts players from 11 states. From the traditional East Coast hotbeds in New York and New Jersey to developing spots in Georgia, Florida and their home state of California, the Trojans have cast a wide net in building a competitive team. Interestingly, one state with no representation on USC's roster is Maryland, unless you count director of operations Kristyn Atkinson.
14 Stony Brook
18 @ Cal
20 @ St. Mary's
April 22 vs. Stanford
If USC wants to stake a claim among the top teams in the land, the Triojans must first stake a claim on their own conference. Stanford handled USC twice last season. Both teams should be peaking in late April.
Make no bones about it, there have been high expectations for USC from the day the university announced it was “all in” on the new sport and then hired Team USA’s captain to run the ship. But things are different once theoretical expectations are fused with the thought of just how much the Trojans return from a team that stunned James Madison in the NCAA tournament. Managing how the team handles the added scrutiny will be big for Munday, her staff and senior leaders.
The sky has always been the limit for USC women’s lacrosse. But now that the Trojans have made their first foray into May Madness, handling added pressure and the reality that they won’t be sneaking up on anyone will make things tougher. For the seniors who have formed the foundation, they’d want nothing more than to leave with a first-ever MPSF title and maybe even a deeper run into the NCAAs.
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