Penn State Silences Critics with Strong Start

PHOTO BY RICH BARNES

"It seems to be we’re still somewhat underrated as a team," said Penn State coach Missy Doherty. "We definitely are using that as some firepower."


Rival coaches anonymously predicted during the preseason that the Penn State women’s lacrosse team would have three main challenges – battling the target on its back from a successful 2016 season in which the Nittany Lions made their first final four appearance since 1999, and replacing their leading scorer Madison Cyr and draw specialist Jenna Mosketti.

Through two games — a dominant 20-9 win over a borderline Top 20 team in Albany and a 13-11 win over Towson, currently ranked No. 15 — those challenges seem surmountable.

“So far, so good,” Penn State coach Missy Doherty said.

Senior attacker Steph Lazo is a big reason the Nittany Lions have not missed a beat. She was the first Epoch/US Lacrosse Player of the Week following Penn State’s victory over the Great Danes, and earned back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors with consecutive five-goal performances.

“She’s never been a better leader than she’s been this year,” Doherty saud. “The team really thrives off her energy, her big plays, her celebrations and she’s just a huge momentum builder for us.”

However, Penn State is also thriving off of performances from other key players, including sophomore attacker and midfielder Madison Carter and junior midfielder Maggie Gallagher, who have led the team’s effort on the draw with 18 and 8 controlled, respectively. Junior midfielder Katie O’Donnell also scored five goals against Albany, while Carter had six and added another hat trick against the Tigers.

Based on the results, the Nittany Lions are proving they’re here to stay, though surprisingly still feel underestimated. Whether the target is there for 2017, they are used to “being the team that people want to come in and knock off,” Doherty said.

“It seems to be we’re still somewhat underrated as a team,” she added. “We definitely are using that as some firepower.”







GOALIES GOVERN UPSET CITY

Three unranked teams – Colorado, Denver and Elon – earned upset wins last week. And in each of those games, goalie play was the key factor.

“The goaltending position is such a huge one, and we’re fortunate enough that Paige [Soenksen] is so consistent and steady back there,” said Colorado coach Ann Elliott, who graduated from Northwestern in 2007. “Lacrosse across the board at this level is so competitive. We see so many upsets. We see so many changes. We saw it last year. It’s been no different this first couple weeks. Anything is possible from one weekend to the next with all the great teams that we have.”

Soenksen made 19 saves against then-No. 9 Northwestern in the Buffaloes’ season opener at home. She earned Epoch/US Lacrosse Player of the Week honors and vaulted Colorado into the Nike/US Lacrosse Top 20 at No. 11, the first time in program history that the Buffaloes have been nationally ranked. They are in just their fourth season as a varsity program.

Meanwhile, Denver goalie Maddy Stevensen recorded an impressive 16 saves against then-No. 11 Stanford, 10 of which came in the second half, and Elon goalie Rachel Ramirez tallied six saves, but her performance with the help of her defense led to three possession clock violations, the last of which ultimately led to the game-winning goal against then-No. 12 Virginia. Also notable among goalie performances: Ohio State freshman Jill Rizzo made 16 saves as the Buckeyes held off Jacksonville 13-12.

While more time may be needed to determine whether it’s because of the new possession clock that goalies are jumping into the spotlight with more saves because of more shots, or more 90-second violations because of strong defenses, it could be safe to say that the notion that “defense wins championships” means more this year than ever.

“People do feel forced to take more shots and the shots that they take are more low-angle shots, low-percentage shots, which is what we hope [for] as a defensive unit and as a goalie,” Soenksen said. “With respect to Northwestern, they have a lot of great shooters and like to take a lot of shots that I knew in my mind, I had to be ready every single time they had the ball. There was no letting up.”

In the much anticipated battle between reigning NCAA champion North Carolina and No. 5 Florida, a 13-10 win for the Tar Heels, Gators goalie Haley Hicklen and Tar Heels goalie Caylee Waters had 12 saves apiece, but the No. 1 team was more aggressive in causing turnovers with 19 compared to 14 for Florida.

SYRACUSE ANSWERS QUESTIONS

One of the biggest questions about Syracuse coming into 2017 was replacing three-time Tewaaraton finalist Kayla Treanor, as well as her standout attack mate Halle Majorana. They were the top two scorers in 2016, combining for 169 points, while Treanor led the Orange with 50 goals. Riley Donahue ranked second on the team with 47.

“Lost so much talent, but [coach] Gary [Gait] always has more waiting for their chance,” one rival coach said during the preseason.

And that Gait did. The Orange opened the season strong with a convincing 18-8 conference win over ACC foe Boston College. Donahue stepped into the spotlight, leading a pack of nine different scorers with a team-high seven points (four goals, three assists). Rookie Emily Hawryschuk also tallied four goals and redshirt freshman Mary Rahal added a hat trick.

“Seeming to not miss a beat there was pretty good and I was pretty happy with the performance of all of our attack,” Gait said afterward.

“Syracuse brings a level of momentum and intensity that you have to be braced for and I don’t think we were ready for it,” Eagles coach Acacia Walker said.

LACROSSE TOPS GRADUATION RATES

The NCAA research team tweeted graduation rates in women’s sports across all divisions – and women’s lacrosse sits in the top two in Division I, II and III, tying field hockey for first place in Division III with 97 percent. In Division I, women’s lacrosse has a graduation rate of 95 percent, while in Division II, it’s 91 percent.

GAMES TO WATCH

Here are some key games to keep an eye on this weekend (all times Eastern):

No. 11 Colorado at UMass, Friday, 12 p.m.

Can the Buffs continue their hot streak? “We’re excited about being ranked for the first time,” Elliott said. “[But] really at the end of the day, it’s about being there at the end of the year.”

No. 3 USC at No. 12 Northwestern, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Northwestern needs to rebound, but USC, led by coach Lindsey Munday, another product of Northwestern, is driven to reach new heights this season.

No. 16 Denver at Louisville, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Louisville has defeated Denver the past three years, most recently in February 2016 with a 14-3 decision, but with the Pioneers’ upset of Stanford, it looks like the tides may turn in this series this year.

No. 8 Duke vs. No. 18 Stanford, Saturday, 5 p.m. (Frisco, Texas)

Stanford also needs to recover from an upset loss, but Duke, which experienced early season upsets last year, aims to stay undefeated at the Patriot Cup in Frisco, Texas.

James Madison vs. UConn, Sunday, 1 p.m. (Sparks, Md.)

The first college women’s regular season game to take place on Tierney Field at the US Lacrosse headquarters is this Sunday between James Madison, an NCAA tournament participant last year, and UConn.

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