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NU Lacrosse Will Be Good Next Year, But Its Opponents Are Getting Better

Northwestern lacrosse players celebrate their win over Syracuse to give them their seventh national championship in eight years. (Photo courtesy John Dunn/AP Photo)

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

Northwestern, fresh off its seventh national championship in eight years, would appear to be a heavy favorite to bring it all home in 2013 as well. But the Wildcats’ journey last season was not an easy one, and it could get even tougher as several prominent rivals have stacked up on juicy recruits. While teams like North Carolina and Maryland added four Under Armour All-Americans apiece to their rosters, Northwestern added only one. And as good as Christina Esposito is, tallying 72 goals and 55 assists for a feisty West Babylon squad, it’s not necessarily encouraging that some of the best players in the country, such as Alexandra Bruno, Annie Heagerty, Madison Acton and Taylor Rantfle went elsewhere.

Duke, which Northwestern defeated twice in 2012, has also added some impressive firepower to its lineup. The Blue Devils gave the Wildcats an early scare in their NCAA Tournament quarterfinal matchup, even taking a two-goal lead midway through the first half at Lakeside Field. Of course, Northwestern was able to emerge triumphant on the strength of four goals from Erin Fitzgerald and a hat trick from Shannon Smith. While Duke will miss star goaltender Mollie Mackler in 2013, as well as Kim Wenger and Emma Hamm, a heavily balanced Blue Devils lineup will still boast Kerrin Maurer (25 goals, 24 assists), Maddy Morrissey (25 goals, 10 assists) and Makenzie Hommel (25 goals, 8 assists). Otherwise, Molly Quirke, vital on both ends of the field, and Taylor Virden, the team leader with 23 groundballs, both return. One area in which Duke might struggle is on the draw, where Hamm and Wenger accounted for 139 of Duke’s 221 ground ball wins in 2012.  But, the Blue Devils will add several key Under Armour All-Americans to their already stacked roster, most notably Madison Acton, who led Lincoln-Sudbury to a stunning upset of Massachusetts powerhouse Westwood in the spring. Acton’s ability to participate in every facet of the game with 100 goals, 60 assists and 75 groundballs helped turn Lincoln-Sudbury into a regional power. Now, she hopes to do the same at Duke, in order to help the Blue Devils compete in a very competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Duke has more help coming in at the midfield position, with Emma Lazaroff, who led the nation with 143 goals, although the ACC should challenge her far more than her West Coast opponents did. They also racked up on some Garden State talent, with groundball master Claire Scarrone and two-time North Jersey player of the year Kelci Smesko joining the fold. Smesko’s 81 goals were particularly impressive, given that she played on a Ridgewood team that lost just three games all season long despite playing a difficult schedule.

Maryland, always a threat in the women’s lacrosse world, made a big splash with the signing of local star Taylor Cummings, who tallied 61 goals and 34 assists for McDonogh in 2012. With Cummings leading the way,  the Eagles finished with a perfect record, and Cummings was rewarded with Lacrosse Magazine’s Player of the Year Award. They picked up another winner in Bryn Boucher, who picked up All-American honors after leading Thayer Academy to a perfect 15-0 record with her 32 goals and 55 assists. Halle Majorana could also be a key part of the Terrapins’ attack for years to come, after tallying three assists in Manhasset’s stunning 13-9 upset of Garden City. They also added multi-sport star Alice Mercer, who won Player of the Year honors in women’s basketball. Her best sport is lacrosse, however, and after recording 70 groundballs last season for Century, Mercer should help shore up an already impressive Maryland defense. The Terrapins surrendered just eight goals per game last season, but their defense will have to be even stronger in 2013 to compensate for the loss of goalkeeper Brittany Dipper. On offense, Katie Schwarzmann (72 goals, 22 assists) and Alex Aust (44 goals, 52 assists) enter their senior seasons with something to prove.

No team gave Northwestern more fits than Florida did in 2012. In fact, the Gators accounted for both Wildcats’ losses last season. Florida will continue to be a threat in the American Lacrosse Conference, particularly with the addition of Devon Schneider, who scored a ridiculous 112 goals for Manheim Township last season. She also was a force on the ground, picking up 81 groundballs to help lead her team to a 25-1 finish. Sam Darcengelo, who was unable to play in the Under Armour All-America game in June, was a potent threat in 2012, with 64 goals and 17 assists. Most impressive, she earned the Offensive Player of the Year Award on an excellent Maryvale team that featured plenty of other weapons. Meanwhile, Darcy Messina, St. Anthony’s 2011 Attacker of the Year, should add additional firepower to the Gators’ offense. Not that the Gators need the help. They featured plenty of offense in 2012, and will return Gabi Wiegand, Brittany Dashiell, Shannon Gilroy and Kitty Cullen for the 2013 season. That fearsome foursome combined to score 10 goals in Florida’s semifinal loss to Syracuse and 180 goals throughout the entire 2012 campaign. With all of its leading scorers returning, Florida’s question marks lie not on the offensive end, but on the defensive end, where the Gators surrendered 10 goals to the Orange in the second half of their Stony Brook meeting.

Syracuse came out of nowhere to make the national title game this past season. After finishing with a measly 10-8 record in 2011, the Orange lost just four games in 2012, including its 9-7 loss in the NCAA Championships title game to the Wildcats. After coming within two goals of beating Northwestern on two separate occasions last season, including an 11-9 overtime thriller in the Carrier Dome on February 29, does Syracuse finally have what it takes to beat Northwestern? Consider that the Orange’s top three scorers in 2012, Alyssa Murray (74 goals, 31 assists), Michelle Tumolo (52 goals, 43 assists) and Katie Webster (41 goals, 15 assists), will all be back in 2013. And they tearfully vowed in their post-game press conference at Stony Brook that they would be back. It would be hard to pick out a more determined team than Syracuse right now. The question is will the Orange, who surrendered double-digit scoring on 10 separate occasions last season, be able to step up its defensive effort in 2013? The addition of four All-American midfielders, Kelly Cross, Erica Bodt, Kayla Treanor and Caroline Webster, should help Syracuse on the defensive end. Bodt had 39 groundballs for Maryland powerhouse John Carroll last year while Cross had 53 for Upper Dublin, along with 75 goals and 59 assists. Webster posted 47 groundballs for Christian Brothers Academy to lead the Brothers to a 20-3 record in 2012.

North Carolina has long represented one of the more daunting challenges on Northwestern’s schedule. Indeed, their last several contests have all been decided by a single goal, and it was the Tar Heels that snapped the Wildcats’ massive winning streak at Lakeside Field in 2011. Their close rivalry carried into 2012, when the Tar Heels came within a goal of upsetting the Wildcats once again. Northwestern certainly will not be sad to see Becky Lynch go after the North Carolina attacker buried three balls in the back of the net in their last encounter. The Tar Heels will also miss speedster Laura Zimmerman, who led the team with 65 points. Helping replace those former North Carolina greats is Aly Messinger, who scored two goals in the 2012 Under Armour All-America Classic after a season in which she recorded an astounding 100 goals and 77 assists for Mendham. She will join Abbey Friend, who posted 52 goals in her sophomore campaign, in leading North Carolina’s offense. The Tar Heels also added depth in the cage with the addition of Megan Ward, who earned the win in the 2012 Under Armour All-America Classic with her six saves. North Carolina was already fairly strong between the pipes, however, with Lauren Maksym. The Farmingdale product, a starter at North Carolina beginning with her sophomore year, surrendered just eight goals per game in 2012, with a .453 save percentage.