Taylor Cummings fought off monster butterflies in her stomach last year as a freshman starter for the Maryland women's lacrosse team.
Even though the McDonogh graduate ranked No. 1 in her recruiting class and played for the No. 1 high school team in the country, she could not shake the nerves before every Terps game. She always felt there was so much more to learn playing on a Maryland team ranked No. 1 until it fell in the NCAA championship in triple overtime to North Carolina.
"It was just so different from high school," said Cummings, a two-time All-Metro Player of the Year at McDonogh. "When you're surrounded by some of the top players in the nation on your team and you're going against them every day in practice, it's definitely a wake-up call. I would say all of freshman year was really a learning experience. The seniors did a really good job of making us feel comfortable and not afraid to make mistakes, but we're still freshmen, we're still afraid to make mistakes."
At this time a year ago, Syracuse attacker Kayla Treanor and Duke goalie Kelsey Duryea, who both played for the 2011 World Cup champion U.S. Under-19 team, and North Carolina goalie Megan Ward experienced the same jitters. Highly-touted recruits like Cummings, they all faced what they thought would be a huge learning curve.
They all learned quickly. Cummings and Treanor, who started every game as freshmen, were first-team All-Americans. Duryea was on the second team, despite coming off a torn ACL her senior year in high school. Ward, a St. Mary's graduate, emerged as one of the heroes in the Tar Heels' first national championship victory.
Now it's time for an encore. After seasons like those, expectations are high for the four sophomores to keep growing and to take on more of a leadership role. With their talents, their desire to keep learning and fewer butterflies this spring, their sophomore seasons should be more sensation than slump.
Gone is the fear of the unknown they faced as freshmen transitioning from high school lacrosse to the greater demands of the Division I college game. All four say game day nerves probably won't completely abate, but having that one year of experience sure helps tone them down.
Last spring, Cummings was fourth among Terps scorers with 43 goals and 14 assists, led the team with 94 draw controls and ranked second with 21 caused turnovers. Treanor led the Orange with 71 goals and had 24 assists, and she has eight goals and seven assists in two Syracuse wins already this season.
"It's helped to have a year under your belt and you know what expectations are. You know what games are going to be like. You know what practices are like," said Treanor, Syracuse's first freshman All-American. "You always want to play your best, and I think the pressure comes from putting it on yourself to try to play better."
"I'm more comfortable knowing what I'm getting myself into," she said. "There's definitely a comfort in knowing the system and knowing what's happening, but you're learning every day. There's always new things thrown at you."
That will be an adjustment for the sophomore field players, Syracuse coach Gary Gait said.
"I think the real challenge is to work harder than you did your freshman year and make sure you improve, because you're no longer an unknown commodity and you're not going to surprise anybody with your level of talent," he said. "They're going to prepare for you, so the key is to put in the work and become a better player than you were as a freshman."
There's no lack of work ethic among these four, and that's a big reason why they're likely to continue to excel as sophomores. They don't believe their own publicity — none of them talk about what they've achieved. They want to play within the team, and they still will rely on the guidance of older teammates.
They may be the only ones who don't realize how good they are.
"Taylor's just so talented and it's hard to understand why she wouldn't think she was," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. "She's so much fun to watch, and she's capable of doing it on both ends of the field, and she controls the draw — which is not easy — but she makes it look easy. You always hear about the sophomore slump, but I think these girls are just refreshed knowing they're capable of playing at this level now. They have more confidence, and they're pushing themselves to the next level."
They're ready for new challenges.
"There's definitely a lot to live up to, but I'm excited," Ward said. "I always want to get better and play to my potential, so there's always room for improvement. I think they expect more out of me verbally. I was a little bit quiet last year, so I'm definitely working on that and [on] leading the clear up the field."
For Ward and Duryea not much could be more pressure-packed than starting in goal as freshmen. Facing harder, better-placed shots takes getting used to.
Neither goalie started early in her freshman season. Ward split time with senior Lauren Maksym, playing the second half of games until she started the final seven games and finishing with an 8.54 goals-against average and three saves in overtime of the 13-12 national championship victory.
Duryea, whose team fell to Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals, wasn't cleared to play until three days before the Blue Devils' regular-season game at Maryland. After that, she started the last 15 games and posted an 8.96 goals-against average.
She's looking forward to a little more mobility this season.
"The fall was very big for me, To have all fall to train and to go into the season knowing I'm healthy and able to perform to the best of my ability" Duryea said. "Being able to play in so many games last season gave me the game experience, which is useful for me knowing how my defense plays so we can all build off last year."
North Carolina coach Jenny Levy and Duke coach Kerstin Kimel were both impressed by their goalie's ability to handle the pressure as a freshman, something that comes with having a "short memory" and being able to bounce back quickly after each goal allowed.
"Kelsey was just emotionally consistent throughout the season," Kimel said. "With goalies, you want them to be consistent. ... The goalkeeper sets the tone for how the defense is going to play. If your goalie is all over the place, then the defense tends to want to make saves, where you want the defense to dictate where the shot goes and let the goalie make the save."
Levy said Ward was similarly unflappable.
"She never got too high or too low," Levy said. "Even in the championship game, she saw the ball well. I talked to my coach who was working with her and said, 'What do you think? She's not getting that many saves [in regulation].'
"She was like, 'She's definitely seeing the ball. She's just a little late on a couple things,' so we stuck with her. Meg has confidence in herself, and she doesn't get too much in her head."
With Syracuse moving into the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, all four of these top sophomores will play each other in what could be the toughest battle ever for a conference title in Division I women's lacrosse.
Expect the super sophomores to have a lot to say about who wins.
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