By Vicki L. Friedman | May 11, 2017
Special to espnW
The favorite doesn’t always win.
In fact, this year in NCAA women’s sports, the favorite rarely wins.
We’re not just talking about Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies, either, whose 111-game winning streak was snapped in the Final Four. The big trophy also eluded Nebraska volleyball and Stanford soccer, both No. 1 seeds. Field hockey’s best didn’t come from the ACC or Big East; first-time champ Delaware hails from the Colonial Athletic Association.
In bowling, Division II McKendree swept perennial power Nebraska in the national championship. Even in swimming, while the top-ranked Cardinal won it all, Mallory Comerford of Louisville tied Stanford’s Katie Ledecky in the 200-yard freestyle.
That’s five-time Olympic gold medalist Ledecky.
None of this is lost on Cathy Reese, whose Maryland Terps (19-0) are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament that begins Friday. Maryland’s 12 NCAA championships in women’s lacrosse are one more than UConn’s in women’s basketball.
The Terps are the lone unbeaten team in the nation, and just as UConn lost a superstar to graduation in Breanna Stewart, Maryland graduated the most decorated name in the sport in Taylor Cummings, the only three-time Tewaaraton Award winner.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about this year’s team and who was going to step up,” Reese said. “As we’ve progressed, it’s been so cool to see how everyone has come together. Every game we’re seeing somebody new doing something special.
“Going in, I don’t think any of us knew what was going to happen.”
And that pretty much sums up the year in women’s college sports. To recap:
- Delaware field hockey provided an ending fit for Disney. An opening-round victory over Louisville moved the Blue Hens past the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1982. The Blue Hens rallied past top-seeded Duke in overtime to reach the final four. They beat 2012 national champion Princeton in the semifinals before toppling six-time winner North Carolina.
- In soccer, the first stunner was Santa Clara eliminating No. 1 seed Stanford in the second round, 1-0 in double overtime. USC won the championship 3-1 over West Virginia, which had been No. 1 in the final regular-season rankings.
- In cross country, No. 12 Oregon topped Michigan by a mere point, secured when the Ducks’ fifth-place runner crossed the line one-tenth of a second ahead of the Wolverines’ fifth-place finisher.
- In volleyball, somebody in the Big Ten looked to walk away with the title. Defending champion Nebraska held the No. 1 ranking most of the season with Minnesota and Wisconsin also taking turns. But no Big Ten team even advanced to the final. Instead youthful Stanford, seeded sixth, became the first team to win the national title with seven losses.
- In ice hockey’s Frozen Four, Clarkson halted Wisconsin’s 23-game win streak to become just the second team outside the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to win the sport’s biggest prize. The Golden Knights beat two-time defending champion Minnesota in the semifinals.
- Of course, women’s basketball produced perhaps the biggest upset of them all when Mississippi State stunned a UConn team expected to win its fifth straight title. Morgan William’s buzzer-beater in overtime produced a magical moment that registered beyond women’s basketball Richter scale. South Carolina went on to win the title.
But it was yet another underdog that caught Florida lacrosse coach Amanda O’Leary’s attention. The Vanderbilt alum flipped on the TV last month figuring to see her school in the bowling national championship. Instead, she stumbled upon five-time national champ Nebraska falling to McKendree, a school she had never heard of.
“I just had to watch,” she said. “I fell in love with McKendree’s uniforms first; they were a plethora of color. These kids were just cool as cucumbers against Nebraska, and watching that, wow.”
Now comes lacrosse, which boasts a heavy favorite in Maryland and 25 other teams looking for an upset along the road to New England’s Gillette Stadium, home of the final four for both men’s and women’s tournaments.
Florida (17-2), ranked third, is among the potential foils. O’Leary, who started the lacrosse program in Gainesville eight seasons ago, touts this squad as her most balanced. Six different Gators have 25 or more goals, led by Mollie Stevens’ 57, Lindsey Ronbeck’s 52 and Shayna Pirreca’s 49. Florida amassed 39 goals in its two Big East Tournament games. Florida’s losses were to Maryland and North Carolina.
The No. 8 Stony Brook Seawolves (18-1) think they can be the one to make waves. Their lone loss was to Florida, and they count wins over USC, Colorado and Northwestern. Kylie Ohlmiller, a junior with a national-best 145 points (70 goals and 75 assists), is looking to become the school’s first Tewaaraton winner. Little girls on Long Island wait as long as 90 minutes to snag her signature after games at LaValle Stadium. “We have all the pieces this season and the mindset to win it all,” coach Joe Spallina said.
No. 2 and defending champion North Carolina is again a threat behind ACC midfielder of the year Marie McCool and ACC attacker of the year Molly Hendrick. The Tar Heels, who upset the heavily favored Terps a year ago, fell to Maryland 13-10 when the teams met this season on Feb. 25.
And don’t count out Penn State (15-3), the No. 4 seed. The Nittany Lions lost 16-14 to Maryland on April 20 after a tie game at the half.
Toss into the mix the addition of the 90-second possession clock, introduced into the Division I game for the first time in 2017, and an “anything can happen” postseason could await.
That said, Maryland is expected to win. Four Terps — seniors Zoe Stukenberg and Nadine Hadnagy along with junior Megan Whittle and sophomore goalie Megan Taylor — are Tewaaraton nominees. No other school has as many names on the 25-player list. Maryland’s decisive victories over Boston College, Syracuse, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Florida and Northwestern pump up their favorite status.
There are lots of reasons not to look ahead. Or back. But Reese said she won’t hesitate to use the lessons from the other sports if she sees fit.
“Many of them are games we all watched,” she said. “They reinforce that we need to bring it every game.”