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Maryland women's lacrosse retooling, not rebuilding with another title in sights

Mention the word rebuilding in relation to the Maryland women's lacrosse team and those familiar with the program simply chuckle.

Having just five starters back might mean a down year for most programs, but coach Cathy Reese recruits so well that the two-time defending national champion Terps still look like title contenders.

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As they do most years, the Terps face a transition after graduating a handful of the best players in the country. Still, they've reached the final four seven straight times. They've won three of their record 13 national championships in the past six years.

Of course it helps this year to bring back the best player in the game — two-time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings, a do-it-all midfielder who can change a game in an instant. Also returning high-scoring attacker Megan Whittle, versatile midfielder Zoe Stukenberg and stingy defenders Alice Mercer and Nadine Hadnagy makes a solid foundation to build on.

But that still leaves a lot of holes to fill. With the recruiting job Reese has done, especially keeping the top high school talent in Maryland over the past few years, she appears to have all the pieces she needs.

Halley Quillinan, women's editor for Inside Lacrosse and a former Syracuse All-American attacker, is one of those who just has to laugh at the notion that Maryland is rebuilding.

"You look at a team that loses [two-time Tewaaraton winner] Katie Schwarzmann and loses [Tewaaraton finalist] Alex Aust and rebounds and wins the [2014] national championship and I feel like annually, Cathy Reese and her staff do such a good job of bringing in not only the top talent in the state of Maryland but the top talent nationwide," Quillinan said, "so when they lose so much talent, they just have All-Americans waiting in the wings for an opportunity."

Penn State coach Missy Doherty, a St. Mary's graduate who played on three Terps national championship teams, said she would never count Maryland out.

"You're in one of the hotbeds for lacrosse and that certainly aids in the recruiting," said Doherty, a former Towson coach who has 12 players from the Baltimore area on her team this spring. "But I think the coaches do a good job of developing that talent and making it the best they can. Certainly it's an advantage with the history, tradition and location of the school to keep great lacrosse players there. It obviously adds to the success when you have those three things going for you."

Last year, the Terps won the national championship with a loaded veteran lineup. They had just one glitch along the way — falling to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals.

"We clearly weren't in this situation last year," Reese said, "but the good thing is we have five strong returning people and a strong freshman class. And we also have a group of people who've been working really hard for the past year or two ready for the opportunity to step on the field, so this fall was really neat for us. It was new, it was different and we have a lot of good energy."

While Cummings and the other returning starters lead the way, the newcomers to the lineup might have even more to do with just how far the Terps go this year, especially the ones on defense.

Maryland graduated two All-American line defenders — Megan Douty, a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year, and Shana Brady — as well as goalie Alex Fitzpatrick.

All-American Mercer (Century) and Hadnagy, both voted captains by their teammates along with Cummings (McDonogh) and Stukenberg (Marriotts Ridge), will step into larger roles in a unit that ranked fifth in Division I last season in scoring defense, allowing just 7.27 goals per game.

A defense needs chemistry and starting anew also requires time to learn how to play together, so Reese isn't quite sure what to expect, though she likes the look of the younger players vying for starting spots. Alex McKay (Marriotts Ridge) and Morgan Torggler (Severna Park) saw playing time last spring while redshirt freshman Steff Holmes (McDonogh) and true freshman Julia Braig (St. Paul's) were impressive in fall ball.

"The more they play together the better they're going to be," Reese said. "They just need experience. It's a work in progress until we get to more specific matchups and learn what everyone's strengths are."

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The starting position in goal is still up for grabs, but that's not a bad thing. Emily Kift, a backup last year, and freshman Megan Taylor (Glenelg) are battling it out and Reese said she's not sure whether one will start or they will split time. It could be a game-to-game decision.

The Terps return most of their scoring, but they have one major role to fill: primary playmaker and feeder. They need a new Brooke Griffin (South River) and Reese is looking to Caroline Wannen.

The junior has the stick and the vision to step in with Cummings, All-American Whittle (McDonogh) and Stukenberg, who combined for 168 goals and 64 assists last season, as well as some new faces that could include freshmen Caroline Steele (Severn) and Jen Giles (Mount Hebron).

No one, however, can downplay the importance of returning Cummings, who could arguably be the best player in the history of the college game. The senior can dominate every facet and is one of the best in the nation at winning draws.

"She's the margin of win and loss when she steps on the field," Quillinan said, "and last year, with the cast of All-Americans surrounding her, it was a collective effort to win a national championship, and this year I think there's a little more focus on her."

As good as she is, Cummings can't win without help and the Terps seem to have that help in place. Now, it's just a matter of time to see if they can build a third straight NCAA champion.

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