Over the last several years Women’s Division I has been arguably the best entertainment product in the entire sport, with goals and fireworks galore being a prominent fixture every week. The first month of the 2020 season has continued to deliver, but this time with upsets and for lack of a better term, parity, on display like we haven’t seen in a long time.
There’s three teams ranked in the Top 10 at the moment who have two losses, and only seven teams in the Top 20 have no blemishes on their ledger at this point of the season. While most of the programs in the Top 10 are still established heavyweights in the sport, Notre Dame, which hasn’t made it to Championship Weekend since 2006 (it’s only appearance), is currently 2nd in the country; Loyola, a consistent tournament team but stuck with a 17 year Final Four drought is 3rd; and outside the Top 10 you have teams like fledgling Richmond, who has two straight NCAA Tournament appearances after a 10 year absence at #12 and 6-0, and Dartmouth, the historical nearly-men of women’s lacrosse, back knocking on the door of the Top 10 at #13. And there’s the big story of the Maryland Terrapins in the most unfamiliar of unfamiliar places, all the way down at #15 (I know, god forbid they be just merely a Top 20 team for once.) So let’s dive into all the big story lines from the first month.
Impervious North Carolina
The Heels were expected to be the class of the nation coming into the season, being the consensus #1 ranked team in the preseason, and have been that and then some in the early going. Six games, six wins, with their closest game being a...half dozen goal win over #10 Virginia. They’ve scored 15 or more in all of their wins and given up more than seven in only game.
They started the season with a 15-7 whalloping of 2018 national champion James Madison. The Dukes are 4-0 since. But their big statement of intent was in week three when they took on their arch rival Maryland. Stifling the Terps with their defense in the first half en route to a 7-4 lead, the Heels absolutely demolished Maryland in the second half, outscoring them 12-2 and put up a complete, all encompassing 19-6 victory. They were the better team in every facet and put the nation on red alert that they were indeed as good as advertised. Then was another routine win over Top 10 Virginia, and a 19-7 win over Louisville yesterday evening.
UNC is led by the usual suspects. Jamie Ortega scored 70 goals as a freshman in 2018, had a mind boggling program record 81 goals and 112 points in 2019, and now has 42 points in six games to start 2019. She isn’t even the team’s leader in points, that honor belonging to Katie Hoeg, the program’s all time leader in assists and who is only 20 points away from being the all time leader in points at North Carolina (until Ortega passes her next year.) They’re the best one-two punch in the country. Scottie Rose Growney and Ally Mastroianni are tremendous all-around players in the midfield, and Taylor Moreno is the best goalie in the country.
There are no weaknesses on this team, and they are the clear cut favorite to win the national championship.
Can the Syracuse seniors keep the Final Four streak alive?
Every Syracuse senior class since 2008 has made at least one Final Four in their four years. Each one from 2010-2018 made at least two; and the 2015 and 2016 classes made the Final Four each year of their careers.
The last three years though have been a different story. The Orange were still a contender in 2017, going 15-7 and were the #6 seed in the tournament, but got shellacked 21-10 by Boston College in Round 2 (who were making the first of three straight trips to the national title game.) 2018 was their worst year in over a decade, a 9-10 campaign that culminated in a fortunate NCAA Tournament appearance and a 1st round loss. 2019 was a return to form, a 15-5 campaign, #5 seed, and Quarterfinal loss to Northwestern. But no trips to Championship Weekend. Getting there is very hard, there’s lots of good teams in this sport and even 2nd Round match-ups are hardly gimmie wins, and two seasons out of the last three with Top 10 teams as your “down years” is a heckuva place to be. Still, this is a program that reached five straight Final Fours from 2012-2016, including two trips to the national title game in 2012 and 2014, and had seven Final Four appearances across nine years from 2008-2016. They were three goals away from a title in ‘12, and won 21 games in ‘14 only to run into a Maryland team that went 23-1 and was en route to three titles in four years. Since Gary Gait took over in 2008, they’ve made the Final Four more often than they’ve missed it. That’s a testament to their standard.
The Orange are led by senior Emily Hawryschuk, who has 35 goals to lead the country so far this year, and she’s joined by a younger trio of sophomores contributing to a potent offense so far; Megan Carney and Meaghan Tyrrell at attack who have 29 and 23 points respectively, and Sierra Cockerille who has 11 goals from the midfield. Asa Goldstock, another senior looking to end this drought, will want to get her save percentage up from 49% as the season goes on. One challenge for them: with renovations to the Carrier Dome, their home slate for the season is essentially done. Three of their remaining home games are at neutral sites. The other two are in the state of New York at Christian Brothers Academy and Albany. But none on the SU campus.
Is Richmond for real?
We talked about the Spiders a bit earlier. They’re 6-0! Coach Allison Kwolek has done a great job the last two seasons getting UR back into the NCAA Tournament, where they hadn’t been since 2007. They haven’t quite broken through with a win yet though, losing comprehensively to Northwestern and Loyola.
Can this year be different? It’s an interesting question. Richmond lost a lot from last year’s team, graduating four of their top six scorers, including two starters at attack, leading scorer Marissa Brown, and their best midfielder Katie Sciandra. So far this year though, they’re 6-0 and continued to rack up goals, scoring 18 or more four times. Freshmen Arden Tierney and Lindsey Frank have filled the holes left from last year to aplomb, combining for 50 points.
It’s hard to know what to fully make of their start so far though. Five of their six wins were over teams with two or fewer wins. But then there’s that win over #10 Virginia, a 13-12 victory in Charlottesville. Virginia’s only other loss was to UNC. Are the Spiders that team, that can take down top opponents from the ACC? Or are they a good team beating up on worse opponents?
How long will Maryland stay down?
Maryland lost three games the last three years. They have lost more than two games in a season once in the last 11 years. From 2013-2019, they went 153-7. All of this to say, they may be the greatest dynasty in college athletics at the moment. And they have three losses so far this season. Which is really, really freaking weird for Maryland.
It’s a fair question to ask how weird should this be though. They lost their three leading scorers from last year’s national title team; Jen Giles, Erica Evans, and Caroline Steele. They have three new starters on defense. Julia Braig, two-time First Team All American and last years defender of the year, graduated. Shelby Mercer, third on the team in groundballs and caused turnovers, graduated. And then Lizzie Colson, who was first on the team in groundballs, second in caused turnovers, and second in draw controls, tore her ACL before the season and is redshirting. Oh and they lost the Tewaaraton Award winner in goal, Megan Taylor. How good should you be when dealing with all those losses? But this is Maryland. The team that pumps out All-Americans and Tewaaraton winners on an assembly line, won half the national titles in the 2010s and has made 11 straight trips to Memorial Day Weekend. They have three losses already?
Ultimately though, they’ll be just fine. They still have Kali Hartshorn and Brindi Griffin, and the defense seems to be settling in, giving up just 17 goals their last two games. The 16-7 win over Navy was encouraging. And as always, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Libby May and Shaylan Ahearn are contributing on offense as freshmen, Emma Schettig is 1st on the team in GBs and 2nd in CTs as a freshman. And Maddie McSally is doing a strong job replacing Taylor as a sophomore. There may not quite be enough on offense this year to compete with some of the top teams, but with all the young players in place doing strong things, if the Terps do miss Championship Weekend this year for the first time since 2008, it’ll likely only be a one year absence.
But this is Maryland. And this is Cathy Reese. If there is a surefire guaranteed bet in this sport, it’s them. Don’t count them out just yet.
This weeks big games
- #1 North Carolina @ #7 Northwestern; Monday, 7 PM
- #3 Loyola @ #9 Penn; Saturday, 1 PM, ESPN+
- #4 Syracuse vs #18 Virginia Tech at Charlotte, North Carolina; Sunday, 1:30 PM
- #6 Stony Brook vs #11 Princeton; Sunday, 12 PM, AmericaEast.TV