Before the season, everyone in the women’s lacrosse world knew who North Carolina midfielder Marie McCool was. A Tewaaraton finalist in 2017, McCool was a star for the Tar Heels in all three zones. She was on everyone’s radar.
As for Kristen Gaudian? Not so much. The James Madison attacker emerged as a first-team all-CAA player in 2017, but playing on the preseason-No. 17 Dukes, she wasn’t exactly a household name.
But in the lead-in to Friday’s 5 p.m. NCAA semifinal matchup, both McCool and Gaudian — both North Carolina and James Madison — are just two wins away from the national title.
McCool, a 5-foot-6 senior out of Moorestown, New Jersey, has emerged as North Carolina’s leader, and an example for a young offense. Freshman Jamie Ortega and sophomore Katie Hoeg, two Long Island products, lead the squad in goals and assists respectively, but it’s been McCool who has been the Tar Heels’ clutch performer throughout the year.
“She is a kid who makes plays when a play needs to be made,” North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy said in a Monday teleconference. “Whether it’s winning a draw, scoring a goal, picking up a ground ball or making a defensive stop.”
In the Tar Heels’ February 24 win against then No. 1 Maryland, her flair for the dramatic was on full display. With 22.9 seconds to play in regulation she recorded a game-tying assist to classmate Ela Hazar. Then at the start of overtime, McCool won the draw. Once the Tar Heels gained possession in the offensive zone, she won the game with a goal of her own.
“It’s hard to miss her when you see our team play because she has such an impact in all areas of the game,” Levy said.
After the graduation of draw specialist Sammy Jo Tracy, some questioned how UNC would fare in the circle this season, but McCool has been spectacular taking faceoffs. North Carolina won 57.5 percent of its draws this year, playing the nation’s No. 1 rated strength of schedule, and McCool broke Tracy’s single-season draw control record with 155 (second in Division-I in 2018).
McCool has played an instructive role for Hoeg, Ortega and the other underclassmen, Levy said, inspiring confidence in them and telling them to play loose and fearlessly.
“She’s given them little pieces of wisdom without being too bossy,” Levy said. At the same time, she has a nice way about her, doing a really good job of highlighting when they do well, giving them confidence.”
James Madison has its own do-it-all star in Kristen Gaudian, who before the season would have been considered the unlikeliest of the five Tewaaraton finalists. The senior attacker out of Lake Braddock, Virginia didn’t even make her first start for the Dukes until her junior season, and has since turned into one of the nation’s finest.
In Gaudian’s first two seasons with the Dukes, her stick skills and spatial awareness weren’t yet where they needed to be, according to head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe. “She’s [now] able to finish plays that were affected before by defense or goalies.”
Down in Harrisonburg, they call her “KG,” but she has more in common with the former NBA great than just an initials moniker.
“She is, first and foremost, a specimen of an athlete,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “She has a 5’10 stature and the ability to play with her true length ... When you see her dodge and get to net, her ability to power her shots in, she’s just a gift to the sport.”
Gaudian uses that length (she’s actually listed as 5-foot-8, not 5-foot-10, on the roster) to her advantage around the draw circle, where she’s been a ball hawk on the wing gathering possession. She has 74 draw controls this season, a huge number for an off-wing player.
But Gaudian’s athleticism is prime to see in the offensive zone, where she has scored 56 of her 67 even-strength goals unassisted, according to AnalyticsLacrosse (there’s no assist breakdown for her seven man-up goals).
“What a lot of teams are finding is that they have to foul her to try to stop her, then she’s deadly on the 8-meter,” Klaes-Bawcombe said.
In free-position tries, Gaudian is 27 for 39 (69.3 percent) this year. By comparison, the rest of the James Madison roster is shooting 44 for 121 (36.4 percent).
Friday’s semifinal matchup is a rematch of a February 9 regular season game between North Carolina and James Madison, won by the Dukes, but that game was so long ago, neither coach thinks it has much, if any, bearing on the weekend outcome.
“I feel like it’s a new game completely,” Levy said. “It’s difficult to pull up a February 9th game when it was 35 degrees and raining and make any kind of comparison to each of the teams and how they’re playing right now.”
For North Carolina, a win on Friday would put the team into the NCAA championship game for the fourth time in the last six seasons. James Madison has never been.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s safe to figure that McCool and Gaudian will play critical roles in the game’s decision.