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Virginia women’s lacrosse preview: A deep dive into the 2021 Cavalier squad

After a shortened 2020 season due to COVID-19, women’s lacrosse looks to bounce back and reclaim control of the ACC

<p>Virginia heads into this season&nbsp;led by a returning veteran core and multiple top recruits who all hope to return the team to its previous glory.</p>

Virginia heads into this season led by a returning veteran core and multiple top recruits who all hope to return the team to its previous glory.

When you think about the most successful women’s lacrosse programs of all time, it is hard not to immediately think of Virginia. Nine NCAA Championship appearances, three tournament championships and five ACC Championships highlights the huge successes of the program. What Coach Julie Myers has done with the program after taking the reins from Jane Miller in 1996 has been nothing short of remarkable. In each of the 24 seasons with a postseason, Myers has guided her team to the NCAA Tournament where they earned 31 tournament wins — good for third all-time in tournament victories and games coached.

After enjoying a golden era from 2003-2007, where the Cavaliers made four national championship appearances, Virginia has yet to return to this level of accomplishment. While the Cavaliers have had successful regular seasons over the years, early round exits in the NCAA tournament have haunted them. The emergence of ACC foes such as North Carolina and Boston College and continued success of Maryland and Northwestern provides insight into the increasing number of championship caliber programs in women’s lacrosse.

Reviewing last season

With a shorter season than usual, the Cavaliers only managed to play eight games and finish with a 5-3 record. Although that does not appear immediately impressive, Virginia showed plenty of promise to begin the season. The Cavaliers started 4-0 with wins over No. 15 Navy, No. 20 Stanford and No. 9 Princeton but stumbled on a mid-season hump and finished their last four games with a 1-3 record.

The Cavaliers had a diverse scoring attack, with five players scoring 12 or more goals in just eight games played. Senior midfielder Sammy Mueller led the way with 21 goals and seven assists, although Virginia will be forced to replace her talent after Mueller announced a graduate transfer to Northwestern. 

Defensively, the Cavaliers showed promise, although they struggled against top-tier opponents like North Carolina. Myers’ defense allowed an average of 12 goals per game, which is good enough to allow the offense to put up big numbers. Senior goalkeeper Charlie Campbell played very well and will return to protect Virginia’s backline.

Looking at the roster

Losing Mueller to the transfer portal certainly stung for Virginia fans, but the Cavaliers will surely not miss a beat in the scoring department in 2021. The return of several key veterans and the addition of a stellar recruiting class will provide Myers with a bevy of weapons and a balanced attack. 

On the front line, sophomore midfielder Ashlyn McGovern will join junior attacker Lillie Kloak to spearhead the offense. Since the start of the 2019 season, McGovern and Kloak have scored 42 and 45 goals, respectively — the two highest totals among active players on the team. Although the duo has shown the ability to score, their defensive efforts on the ride does not go unnoticed — McGovern especially, as she won 15 ground balls and caused nine turnovers in the 2019 season.

Behind the attack unit, the Cavaliers midfield will look to provide balance, both offensively and defensively. Sophomore midfielder Courtlynne Caskin will look to build on her success last season when she scored 16 goals on just 29 shots, paired with five assists and 16 ground balls. Joining Caskin will be sophomore midfielder Annie Dyson, who has been terrific throughout time on the field — although she has dealt with a number of injuries in her career. While not the pure scorer that Caskin is, Dyson does a little bit of everything for the team — playing solid defense, picking up ground balls and also putting the ball in the back of the net when the opportunity presents itself. 

While Virginia’s offense will be sure to put up big numbers, the most valuable piece of the team might be senior defender Meredith Chapman, who the Cavaliers landed via transfer from High Point. In her four years at High Point, Chapman was a huge piece of the Panthers’ defense. Chapman started every game from 2017-2020 and played at a high level every time. In 2019, Chapman led High Point with 53 caused turnovers and 51 ground balls and was second on the team with 77 draw controls. Virginia has never been a defensive power under Myers, but with Chapman on board for the upcoming season, it finally has a chance to be lethal on both ends of the field.

While the returning veteran core will play a huge role in Virginia’s success this season, a stellar recruiting class will be sure to supplement an already-loaded team. The Cavaliers will bring in five top-35 recruits according to Insider Lacrosse. Freshman attacker Morgan Schwab, who is the No. 12 recruit in the nation and No. 1 in Virginia’s class, will join freshman midfielder Mackenzie Hoeg, No. 31 in the nation, on an already lethal defensive unit. Schwab and Hoeg, both of whom were 2019 U.S. All-Americans, may not contribute right away, but will provide the perfect compliment to Mcgovern and Kloak off the bench. Hoeg will also look to continue the line of successful lacrosse players in the family — her being the third to play lacrosse in the ACC. Myers’ midfield will also receive a major boost, with five-star recruit freshman midfielder Margaret Bostain, freshman midfielder Aubrey Williams and freshman midfielder Devon Whitaker looking to bolster the unit.  

Key matchups

March 13th - Boston College

In the sixth game of the 2021 campaign, Virginia will receive its first test — and a major one at that. After spending years stuck in mediocrity, Boston College has become a perennial powerhouse in women’s lacrosse under Coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein. The Golden Eagles’ rise to the top has been swift, and they do not appear to be falling any time soon. After suffering three straight losses in the NCAA championship game from 2017-2019, Boston College is certainly hungry coming into this season. In those three seasons, Walker-Weinstein went 61-11 and put the entire NCAA on notice. During those three years, Virginia went 0-3 against Boston College — losing by an average 5.7 goals per game. Although they lost over half of their offensive production from the 2019 runner up team, the Golden Eagles have several veterans who will be catalysts this season. Senior attackers Cara Urbank and Charlotte North will look to return Boston College back to women's lacrosse’s highest stage. 

March 19th & 21st - Duke

Duke is not a powerhouse program like its ACC counterpart Boston College. In fact, Duke does not even have a national championship appearance to its name in the sport. However, the Virginia versus Duke showdown in women’s lacrosse is one where anything can happen. Over the past 10 meetings between these programs, the series has been split, with both teams going 5-5 against one other. Duke is a good team that cannot be underestimated, and every year it seems that the energy is amped up for this matchup. The Cavaliers will host the double-header at home over a three-day span. The Blue Devils lost most of their offense from the 2019 campaign with the aforementioned North transferring to Boston College after tallying 82 goals. Senior midfielders Katie Cronin and Catriona Barry will be the offensive catalysts for a new-look Blue Devils team that will need young players to step up. 

March 26th - James Madison

James Madison is not a team that many think of when they think of women’s lacrosse’s elite, but the Dukes have enjoyed a great amount of success over recent years. Under Coach Shelley Klaes Bawcombe, James Madison reached its first national championship game in 2018 and defeated Boston College. Since then, they have gone 21-5 and have proven themselves to be a threat every year. However, despite how dominant the Dukes have been recently, they have not been able to clear the hump against Virginia, going 2-5 in their last seven meetings. The key pieces of the 2018 championship have left Harrisonburg, and the top three scorers from the 2019 team graduated, so there will be plenty of new faces that will have an opportunity to emerge. One player the Dukes should be excited about is redshirt freshman attacker Isabella Peterson, who had 15 goals in six games last season — her first. If she continues to develop and improves upon her great freshman season, she has the potential to lead the Dukes past Virginia and to the NCAA championship once again. 

April 16th and 18th - North Carolina

The second double-header of the season for Virginia will come on the road against ACC foe North Carolina. North Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the preseason coming into this year and is looking to revive a dynasty that appeared in three national championships from 2013-2016 and won two. The Tar Heels return their top three scorers from a year ago, headlined by senior attacker Katie Hoeg — the older sister of top-ranked recruit Mackenzie Hoeg and sophomore attacker Riley Hoeg of the Cavaliers. Hoeg will be flanked by senior attacker Jamie Ortega who had a stellar 2019 campaign where she scored 81 goals. The last time the Cavaliers beat the Tar Heels was 2010, when Virginia won in a double-overtime thriller. Since then, North Carolina has won 12 straight against the Cavaliers including the postseason. Poised to return to the NCAA championship, the Tar Heels certainly have what it takes this season and their matchup against the Cavaliers will be huge.

Virginia begins its climb back to the top Monday, Feb. 15 at Klockner Stadium against East Carolina. The game will begin at 4 p.m. and will be televised on ACC Network Extra.