The 2016 NCAA women's lacrosse season is under way, and we start with a handful of storylines to follow in the world of sticks and saves.
Should we fear the turtle again?
Granted, this Maryland team is younger than the previous two that won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2014 and 2015, but the Terps still have one more year to savor Taylor Cummings, a two-time Tewaaraton Award winner who could pick up an unprecedented third to end her collegiate career.
Cummings and a cast that includes fellow preseason All-Americans Alice Mercer and Megan Whittle are three of five starters back from last year's championship that defeated North Carolina in the title game.
Whittle's 67 goals led the Terps last season, and Mercer brings valuable experience to a defense in need of it, having graduated Megan Douty, also a Tewaaraton finalist. The biggest question is at goalie, where both junior Emily Kift and freshman Megan Taylor are expected to see time. Kift played limited minutes the last two seasons. The pair split time on Sunday in Maryland's season opener, a 19-7 win over William and Mary.
"We're going to give them opportunities to show us what they can do," said Terps coach Cathy Reese in touting both keepers at Maryland's media day.
They'll be tested early, as Reese has set up a brutal schedule, starting with a rematch of the title game against the Tar Heels on Feb. 27 and ACC favorite Syracuse on tap in New York on March 12.
Fun Terps fact: A pair of sister acts are on the team with Cummings' sister, Kelsey, and Mercer's younger sister, Shelby (Kelsey already has a goal under her belt, scoring once against the Tribe). Both were Under Armour All-Americans coming out of high school and part of the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation.
The new rules
One of the fastest sport in women's athletics is picking up the pace.
Purists can rest easy for one more year, though, as Division I will introduce a 90-second possession clock in 2017 (Division II and Division III will implement the change in 2018). Similar to the shot clock in basketball, the offensive team will have 90 seconds to shoot on goal or risk giving possession to its opponent.
But 2017 has a couple of new wrinkles, including a new self restart rule after major or minor foul calls outside of the critical scoring area as opposed to waiting for an official's whistle to begin play. Under the new rule, defenders cannot move until the ball carrier does; the rule does not apply in some specific situations, including when the ball goes out of bounds, after the awarding of an alternative possession (another new rule) or after an offside call.
"Part of this year will be teams learning how to use that rule to their advantage," said nationally rated umpire and lacrosse historian Chip Rogers. "Now the player who has been fouled will have the additional advantage of a surprise start that can throw off the defense."
That can translate into an offensive player continuing her momentum, while a speedy defender can catch up more quickly. While it's only a matter of seconds, the rule should increase the pace of an already fast game.
Other notable changes: Overtime will be sudden victory with the teams changing ends every three minutes. The team that scores the first goal wins. Previously OT consisted of one six-minute period played in two three-minute halves played until completion before giving way to sudden-victory overtime.
Finally, expect officials to be studying players' sticks more closely before the game and after every goal, a rule borrowed from the international game.
Coaches will still maintain their three stick-check requests before any draw, during timeouts, at the half and before the start of OT.
A player whose stick is found in violation will be given a yellow card and serve a two-minute, unreleasable penalty.
ACC holds the power
We have to wait until April 16 to see North Carolina battle Syracuse, but expect that one to be a doozy.
The Tar Heels were picked to finish second behind the Orange in the conference, but player-for-player, it's hard to choose find a weak link in two high-octane offenses that figure to be in the mix at the end of May.
Led by Aly Messinger, the Tar Heels return eight of their top 11 scorers from last year's 18-4 team that held a 6-3 halftime lead over Maryland before falling 9-8 in the championship. But the midfield will feel the absence of Maggie Bill, who decided to redshirt this season. The two-sport junior also took a redshirt season in the fall, sitting out soccer, taking a break from the toll of balancing a heavy academic load while competing for two championship-caliber teams. Bill is expected to return to both sports for their 2016-17 seasons.
Without her, the Tar Heels will look to preseason All-ACC selection Marie McCool and a healthy Molly Hendrick in the midfield. Hendrick returns after an ACL tear ended her season last April. At the time, the sophomore was the Tar Heels leader in points; already Hendrick has scored four goals in each of North Carolina's first three games.
In the cage, North Carolina relies on Caylee Waters, perhaps the best goalie in the nation.
Expect youth to get the nod early for Tar Heels coach Jenny Levy, who signed the best class in the nation, according to Inside Lacrosse Magazine.
As for the Orange, they boast arguably the best 1-2 punch in the game behind two-time defending ACC offensive player of the year Kayla Treanor and ACC first-teamer Halle Majorana. The two tied for the team lead in scoring last year with 91 point apiece. Treanor is also twice a Tewaaraton finalist; both are All-Americans.
The pair began 2016 amassing nine goals and two assists between them in a 17-6 victory over Loyola on Sunday afternoon with Treanor controlling 19 of Syracuse's 25 draws. That'll do in Treanor's first game as draw specialist. The Orange graduated Kailah Kempney, the program's all-time draw control leader who is now an assistant coach at Colorado.
The Orange actually played a nightcap on Sunday, using largely subs to defeat Binghamton 9-6.
The newbie with the biggest role is goalie Allie Murray, who really only played significant minutes as a junior at Notre Dame before taking last year off and graduating early with her bachelor's degree in information technology. Murray will play her final eligibility at Syracuse while working toward her master's at Syracuse's Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. When she's not in the cage, Murray will be researching the influence of youth sports on children as it relates to helicopter parenting and organized play.
Like UNC, Syracuse is loaded, returning 10 starters from the 2015 final four team. The schedule includes seven teams from the preseason top 10.
An early split for Northwestern
Two games into the season, Northwestern is 1-1, knocking off Duke in the season opener for both teams and falling to Virginia for the first time since 2004.
One of the most exciting players in the game, Selena Lasota kicked off the 2016 season with three goals and an assist in the Wildcats' 11-8 victory over the Blue Devils. The British Columbia native, whose 69 goals as a freshman led Northwestern last season, is one of nine starters returning from last year's NCAA quarterfinal team.
Freshman keeper Mallory Weisse made eight saves in her debut and caused one turnover, earning her Inside Lacrosse rookie of the week honors. How confident must coach Kelly Amonte-Hiller be in Weisse? Consider she is only the second freshman in program history to start a season opener.
But against the Cavaliers on Sunday, goalie Rachel Vander Kolk, the ACC freshman of the year in 2015, notched the win behind 12 saves to lift Virginia to a 10-8 win. Lasota was limited to two goals on nine shots. The Cavs had lost nine straight to the Wildcats.
Random ground balls
• Look for Boston College to get a surge of offense when sophomore Kenzie Kent moves from ice hockey to lacrosse sometime in March. As a freshman, the midfielder from Norwell, Massachusetts, scored 22 goals in eight games after she helped the Eagles reach the Frozen Four for the first time in school history. On the ice this season she's scored 12 times; top-ranked Boston College is 32-0.
• Don't overlook Stony Brook, either. The Seawolves, 18-2 a year ago, have led the NCAA in defense for the last three years behind senior defender Maegan Meritz, a preseason All-American. Offensively, the Seawolves are no slouches behind the tandem of Kylie Ohlmiller (42 goals, 44 assists last year as a freshman) and Courtney Murphy (71 goals). Stony Brook does not open its season until Feb. 28.
• Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker notched her 250th career win on Feb. 8 when the Blue Jays survived Marquette in double OT.
• Currently 111 teams play women's college lacrosse with the addition in 2016 of Army, Virginia Commonwealth, Central Michigan, Radford and UMass Lowell. Among the new teams, VCU earned the lone victory in its debut, 21-9 on Sunday over Gardner-Webb.