Washington and Lee Head Women's Lacrosse Coach Brooke Diamond O'Brien looks to simulate NCAA Tournament action early in the 2012 season as the Generals face four preseason Top 20 teams during regular-season play in an effort to prepare for a third straight ODAC Championship and NCAA Tournament bid.
"Every year we design our non-conference schedule to play the 'best of the best'," commented O'Brien. "We want to challenge ourselves by playing high caliber teams like we will see when we move onto NCAA's. Such tough non-conference games will also prepare us for our conference schedule, where we know ODAC teams will be even more competitive this year. Our primary objective each and every year is to win the ODAC Championship."
The Generals, ranked No. 14 in both the IWLCA and Lacrosse Magazine preseason polls, begin the season with highly-regarded teams Christopher Newport, Stevenson and Haverford. Then they move onto preseason No. 5 Franklin & Marshall (Mar. 3), who O'Brien wants to use as a barometer for the rest of 2012.
"Our first few games, and F&M in particular, will really let us know where we stand at the national level," she said. "It is always a good battle and a good litmus test for the early part of the season."
Other teams on the schedule include preseason No. 1, and defending National Champion, Gettysburg, No. 17 Mary Washington, and No.6 Salisbury in a rematch of last May's NCAA second round opponent on March 10.
In the game last May, Salisbury led by as many as five goals, only to have the Generals score four unanswered tallies to close to within one goal. With 58 seconds left, attacker Maddie McKaig took a shot for the Generals, but was saved by SU goalkeeper Julie Ann Caulfield to keep the Blue and White behind one. W&L could not complete the comeback, as it ended its season with a 13-12 loss.
"Salisbury is a game we're all looking forward to after narrowly missing the NCAA quarterfinals last spring," said O'Brien. "I think our team will go into it with a different mindset than they have in the past; that we truly can play with them. We'll be looking for a win there, not just to play a close game."
In order for the Generals to pass those tests, Diamond must find replacements for the loss of four All-ODAC selections, including two All-Americans, due to graduation.
O'Brien will look to four senior captains, defender Lauren Acker, midfielder Christina Benedetti, and attackers McKaig and Alli Shearin, to help maintain the strong team atmosphere and work ethic that the class of 2011 brought to the field.
Acker helped the ODAC's second-best defense register an 8.46 goals-against average as she appeared in 18 games with nine starts. She concluded the season with 17 caused turnovers and 15 draw controls.
"Lauren was really as green as you can be in lacrosse when she first arrived," said O'Brien. "She came to W&L with very limited lacrosse experience, and has worked incredibly hard to turn into the player she is now. She will hopefully be a big part of our defense again this year."
Benedetti played in 14 games (13 starts) recording 39 draw controls, 24 ground balls and 17 caused turnovers last spring en route to garnering First Team All-ODAC and Second Team All-Chesapeake Region accolades as a defender.
"Christina is a kid who has been hampered by injuries over the last three years so we're happy that she's injury free so far," O'Brien noted. "We're hoping that she can stay healthy and she can have a great year in the midfield for us."
The final two seniors, McKaig and Shearin, have been influential over the past three seasons, returning as two of the top scoring options from a year ago. Despite recovering from an off-season surgery, McKaig was still able to tally 44 points on 29 goals and 15 assists over the 20 games, and is also the leading returning scorer for the 2012 Generals. Shearin saw action in 14 contests with one start last season, recording 31 points on 23 goals and eight assists, and contributing four caused turnovers, three ground balls and two draw controls.
"Alli has worked really hard for the program over her four years," O'Brien said. "She was able to make a significant impact last season, particularly towards the end of the year. She is someone who we hope will continue where she left off last year. [Maddie] is another who has been seeing a lot of playing time over the last three years," O'Brien remarked. "My hope is that she is healthy now, and we can be the same scoring threat and playmaker within our attack that she was last season.
The junior class consists of three women that have made a solid impact on the program over their first two seasons.
Defender Caroline Kingsbery participated in 19 games with 17 starts a year ago, recording 13 ground balls, 13 caused turnovers and four draw controls. Attacker Ashley Barnes saw action in 18 games (10 starts), logging 12 goals, one assist, 33 draw controls and eight ground balls, while attacker Elizabeth Bucklee tallied two goals and five assists in five games, while hampered by injury.
The upperclassmen will lead a group of sophomores and freshmen that have already proven themselves at the college level. Last season's ODAC Rookie of the Year, sophomore midfielder Alex Van Horn, and sophomore defender Leanne Stone, a Second Team All-ODAC selection, headline the returnees.
Van Horn ranked first in the ODAC and fifth in NCAA Division III with 109 draw controls (5.45 per game), and also tallied 31 points (23 G, 8 A), 14 ground balls and five caused turnovers as she started all 20 games en route to earning the league's top rookie award.
Stone also returns after garnering all-conference accolades during her rookie season. She collected 30 ground balls and caused 26 turnovers in 19 games (18 starts).
Klein returns as the second leading scorer, tallying 29 goals, 10 assists, 15 draw controls and seven ground balls in 20 games (15 starts). Brewster notched 21 points (17 G, 5 A) in the 19 games she saw action, and added 18 draw controls, 17 ground balls and 12 caused turnovers. Waxter contributed to the defense with 24 ground balls, nine caused turnovers and five draw controls while competing in all 20 games last season. Hagan, Witter and Lavin saw limited time last season, but have impressed the coaching staff with their improvement in the offseason. They are expected to see significant minutes this season.
Although they are only in their second year of collegiate action, O'Brien believes the sophomores have the ability to step up their on-field performance. As first-years, they combined for 94 goals out of the team's 307 goals last spring.
"Whether or not our sophomores can step up and play like upperclassmen, will be the key question to this season," noted O'Brien. "They have a lot of experience and talent, and we're looking for them to assume key roles on the field."
"Right now it is a head-to-head battle between our returning senior who was studying abroad last season, and our first-year who had a successful high school career," O'Brien commented. "Both have had strong preseasons and continue to battle each practice for the starting role."
During her sophomore season, Linder recorded a 4.45 goals-against average in four games with one start. Mulligan helped Glen Ridge High School earn three straight Super Essex Conference championships and was named second team all-conference for two seasons.
"In my opinion, our goalkeeping situation, will be neck-and-neck all year long," said O'Brien.
O'Brien has been able to take advantage of the unseasonably warm winter this year to utilize more teaching moments for her athletes, which has been particularly useful with a bevy of quality first-year players. As a result, she sees her team heading in the right direction as the season approaches.
"I think depth will be one of our strengths," said O'Brien. "Our midfield will be the deepest since I've been here."
Four first-years help to contribute to that depth, led by Samantha Yates and Julia Van Sant, who are probable for seeing significant playing time, along with the proven talent of Benedetti, Brewster, Lavin and Van Horn.
O'Brien believes the team is also ready to take on the challenge of living up to being voted the preseason favorite in the ODAC.
"I think the excitement and pride that our players have for the program is another strength of ours," she noted. "They know they have big shoes to fill in terms of players that have come before them and we always have a lot of expectations as a team. High expectations are something that we want to live up to each season. This year we aim to do so with an ODAC Championship and a deep NCAA run."
The Generals will take the first step to creating their own legacy when they kick off the season at Christopher Newport on Sunday at 3:00 pm.