April 20, 2012

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Lochary's Season Rewind: NCAA Division I Women

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com

Sophomore attacker Alyssa Murray leads the second-ranked Orange in points (64) and goals (44) and is certainly a player of the year candidate.
© Matt Riley

It’s mid-April in the lacrosse world, and what do things look like? Northwestern is an undefeated No. 1 and, in the top 20, you’ll find four ACC schools and four Ivy League institutions. Pretty typical, but there are also a few surprises.

Let’s take a look at the world of Division I women’s lacrosse to see who’s exceeded expectations and who might be watching the tournament from home.

Most Illuminating Contest

Northwestern 8, North Carolina 7
At the beginning of the season, North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy said her team would be tougher and more physical in their pursuit of a national title.

“Our game has gotten really physical,” Levy said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, you’re judged by wins and losses. And if we can’t seem to get over the final hump, then if you do what you’ve always done then you’re going to get what you’ve always got, so that was one thing we thought we could do a better job at.”

While Levy stressed that she wasn’t singling out Northwestern or any particular program, the Wildcats have eliminated the Tar Heels from the NCAA tournament three times in a row, most recently in an 11-10 semifinal game that was incredibly physical. Eight yellow cards were issued. And Northwestern sometimes get a lot of credit or blame for the way lacrosse has changed over the last 10 years.

There’s not a huge statistical difference in the number of fouls the Tar Heels have average per game – 25 this season to 21 in 2011 – but in the April 13 match versus the Wildcats, the Heels had 38 fouls to Northwestern’s 18. The Wildcats still rallied for the win, thanks to 6-of-6 draw controls in the second half. It appears that the name of the game is still figuring out how to beat Northwestern, and North Carolina, while achingly close, hasn’t quite solved the puzzle.

Surprises

Boston College: The Eagles were hoping for a breakout season. Instead, they are 8-7, have beaten all their unranked opponents but lost to all of their ranked foes. They face Virginia in this weekend’s ACC tournament. The Cavs (10-5) beat the Eagles, 12-10, in Charlottesville a few weeks ago.

Notre Dame: First-year head coach Christine Halfpenny didn’t need a warm-up frame. The Irish raced to a 9-0 start and are currently ranked seventh nationally. Senior attacker Maggie Tamasitis leads the team with 63 points, and recently broke a Big East single-game record with eight assists versus Connecticut.

Stanford:
The young Cardinal team started the season in LM’s top 10. They are currently 4-9 and more concerning, 1-2 in conference. Stanford has won the MPSF title for seven straight years. Can the Card rally to make it eight? Or will there be a new sheriff out West?

Syracuse:
No one in LM’s preseason poll had Syracuse in the top 5; only one coach put them in the top 10. They started the season 1-2. Now they are 11-2 and ranked No. 2 in the country, and only three goals separate them from a perfect record. Gary Gait is in the hunt to be the first male head coach to capture a Division I women’s title.

Player of the Year Candidates

Alyssa Murray, Syracuse. The sophomore attacker leads the second-ranked Orange in points (64) and goals (44).

Katie Schwarzmann, Maryland. Schwarzmann’s speed and finesse are remarkable. Don’t let her get a step on you in transition or she’ll burn you for a goal, guaranteed. She has 50 goals already this season.

Shannon Smith, Northwestern. She’s the reigning Tewaaraton Award winner, and she looks like it. She’s scored 48 goals already, most recently three in a 16-12 win over Johns Hopkins on Sunday.

Coach of the Year Candidates

Kelly Amonte Hiller, Northwestern. Sure, it’s easy to win when you’ve got Smith AND Taylor Thornton AND Brianne LoManto AND Erin Fitzgerald AND Alex Frank. But no matter the talent at hand, it’s tough to stay perfect when every single team is hell-bent on taking you down.

Christine Halfpenny, Notre Dame. Despite the loss of its top goal scorer, the Irish have gone from 10-9 in 2011 to 10-2 in 2012. The offense averages 14.54 goals per game. Not bad for a coach who was hired in late July.

Amy Patton, Dartmouth. The Ivy League has been totally nuts this year, and the Big Green have risen to the top with wins over Cornell and Penn, plus an out-of-conference victory over Duke.

NCAA Tournament: Who’s In, Out and On the Bubble

The WD1 tournament will have five conferences that get automatic bids (America East, ACC, ALC, Big East, and Ivy), eight at-large bids (usually taken up by the also-rans in top conferences) and three play-in games between, respectively, the Colonial Athletic Association and the Northeast Conference, the Atlantic 10 Conference and the Metro Atlantic Athletic conference, and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and the Patriot League. Let’s look at those play-in games to see who’s strong and who’s slumping.

CAA: Towson and James Madison are both 5-0 in conference. The Tigers also have a win over Loyola, which is nice but probably not enough to merit an at-large bid all by itself. Maybe if the Greyhounds beat Syracuse in the regular season and win out the Big East Tournament, Towson could sneak in without the conference bid, especially if they beat the Dukes in the regular season on Sunday.

NEC: Quinnipiac leads the conference with a 6-1 record and is the only NEC team with an overall winning record (7-6).

Atlantic 10: UMass (14-1, 5-0) is the class of the league, although Richmond (8-6, 4-1) has had a frustrating season with a handful of close losses to the Minutemen, Duke and Virginia. If the Spiders rally in the A10 tournament, UMass is by no means a lock for an at-large bid.

MAAC: Fairfield (11-3, 5-0) has won all its conference games by an average 6.4 goals.

MPSF: The girls out West are the conference with the most intrigue. Perennial champ Stanford is having a down year. It could be a chance for either Denver (12-1, 6-0) or Oregon (11-4, 6-0). Cal (8-6, 4-2) is a potential spoiler, too.

Patriot League: Navy (14-2, 5-0) looks like a lock for the Mids’ third straight NCAA tournament bid. It would also be head coach Cindy Timchal’s 24th NCAA tournament appearance. Timchal is the only coach to take three different teams (Northwestern, Maryland and Navy) to the NCAA tournament.

What to Watch

Denver at Oregon on Saturday. Bragging rights and MPSF tourney seeding at stake.

The Big East. Syracuse is the presumptive league champion, but at this point, the Orange could tank the rest of its season and get an NCAA bid. Loyola, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Rutgers can’t afford to be casual about any of their remaining games. Once this league hits tournament time, prepare yourself for some great lacrosse.

High Point. As a National Lacrosse Conference team, High Point has no chance at an AQ. But the Panthers (10-3, 4-0) have regular-season wins over Navy and Oregon. If the Mids and the Ducks both win their respective league titles and get bids to the NCAA tournament, would it be enough to catapult this second-year program into the postseason?


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