Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse absorbed a couple critical blows early in the season. The Blue Jays lost both of their captains before the brutal Big Ten Conference schedule even began.
First, senior defender Emily Verica suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Pennsylvania on Feb. 24. Then, senior attacker Emily Kenul sustained the same type of injury versus UMBC on March 14.
Kenul was a returning all Big-Ten Conference selection after posting 42 points, 39 draw controls and 22 ground balls in 2017. Verica was the glue that held the line defense together through strong leadership and communication.
Head coach Janine Tucker called the season-ending injuries to the two standouts devastating and it clearly made an impact on the field initially. Three days after Kenul went down, Hopkins got hammered by second-ranked Maryland, 15-5, in the Big Ten opener for both schools.
Fortunately, Tucker and staff have recruited well in recent years and the program has developed the type depth necessary to overcome the loss of two key players.
Senior CeCe Finney replaced Kunel as a starter at attack and scored 15 goals to lift the offense. The Roland Park Country School product was an experienced player, having started 31 games coming into this season.
Meanwhile, junior Morgayne Rix moved into the lineup on line defense and had a breakout season with 24 ground balls and 13 caused turnovers.
When all was said and done, Johns Hopkins had put together its sixth straight winning season and earned its fourth NCAA Tournament berth during that span.
“I’m very proud of what this team has accomplished considering we were without two of our best players for most of the season,” said Tucker, in her 25th season at the helm. “There was no feeling sorry for ourselves, no making excuses and no drop off in performance.”
Johns Hopkins (10-8) will make its seventh NCAA appearance since moving to the Division I ranks in 1999 when it meets seventh-ranked Navy on Friday night at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore. The Blue Jays have a 2-6 record in the NCAA tourney, earning opening round wins in 2007 and 2016.
Hopkins, which suffered five one-goal losses, earned an at-large berth based largely off strength of schedule and RPI. The Blue Jays played eight schools that are in the NCAA Tournament field.
“This has been one of the most special seasons I’ve had in my career,” said Tucker, noting that Hopkins celebrated her 25th year anniversary as head coach. “When the girls found out on Sunday night that we were in the tournament, there was such a genuine joy. They are just so happy that we get to stay together another week.”
Hopkins has received a big boost from three freshmen — midfielder Shelby Harrison along with defenders Jeanne Kachris and Trinity McPherson.
Harrison, a St. Mary’s High graduate, stepped right into the starting lineup based off her ability to handle draw controls. The two-time Under Armour All-American has been nothing short of outstanding in that role, capturing 87 draws and being named All-Big Ten Conference.
“Shelby definitely does not play like a freshman. She has a very confident way about her,” Tucker said. “Shelby is a very passionate player. She absolutely loves lacrosse and being part of a team. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by what Shelby has done because she was one of our top recruits coming in.”
Kachris, out of Bishop Moore High in Maitland, Florida, also earned All-Big Ten honors after taking on the responsibility of covering opponent’s top offensive player and totaling 30 ground balls as well as 22 caused turnovers.
McPherson has been assigned the opposition’s No. 2 scoring threat and also provided strong one-versus-one coverage while amassing 31 ground balls and 19 caused turnovers.
“Between the two of those babies I have been blown away. They have just been rock-solid all season,” Tucker sad if Kachris and McPherson.
Junior attacker Miranda Ibello leads Hopkins in scoring with 62 points on 23 goals and 39 assists. The Maryvale Prep product started the season opener just 10 months removed from undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“Miranda is our offensive quarterback and someone we rely heavily on to get the offense going,” Tucker said. “I have really been proud of how balanced a scorer Miranda has been.”
Sophomore attacker Maggie Schneidereith leads the Blue Jays with 37 goals while also delivering 17 assists. The Towson High product is a natural left-hander and has vastly improved her dodging ability.
Midfielders Mackenzie Heldberg and Shannon Fitzgerald have posted 49 and 40 points, respectively.
“Shannon is the fastest player on the team and a human clearing machine. She is a very quick dodger and does a good job of initiating the offense,” Tucker said. “Mackenzie is another great story. She did not play very much last season, but saw an opportunity and really stepped up. She has been a pure finisher.”
Johns Hopkins and Navy met in fall scrimmages for three straight seasons so Tucker and counterpart Cindy Timchal are fairly familiar with the other’s personnel and playing style.
“Navy is big, strong, fast and aggressive. They have some players that will run you over if you’re not paying attention,” Tucker said. “I know the Midshipmen are always going to come at you.”
Tucker has reviewed plenty of videotape since the matchup was announced on Sunday night and knows all about twins Jenna and Julia Collins along with left-handed attacker Kelly Larkin. Those three players have accounted for 286 points this season.
“My thoughts on Navy’s personnel are that everyone is athletic and the team as a whole is very disciplined,” Tucker said. “That being said, I feel we have a group of good athletes as well and can match up well with Navy.”
Tucker said the battle for draw controls will be crucial with Jenna Collins facing Harrison inside the circle. Collins has captured 91 draws while her sister has garnered 73. Midfielders Kayla Harris and Andie O’Sullivan have been credited with 60 and 53 draw controls.
“Our biggest task is to get the ball off the draw. I think if we have the ball we’ll have opportunities to score,” said Tucker, adding that she has tremendous confidence in Harrison to succeed in that department. “If Jenna is able to completely control the draws we will be behind the eight ball. So our biggest focus is on the draw controls and 50-50 balls.”
Hopkins just completed its second season in the powerful Big Ten Conference, which has placed four schools into the NCAA Tournament. Maryland earned an automatic berth as the Big Ten Tournament champion while Northwestern and Penn State also received at-large bids.
“There is no doubt we are battle-tested because of being in one of the best, if not the best conference in the country,” Tucker said. “We feel strongly we can do some damage in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t want the players to just be happy to be there.”