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Projected NCAA seeds

1. North Carolina (Atlantic Coast Conference)

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Last season: 20-2, NCAA champion

Coach: Jenny Levy (22nd season, 295-106)

Top returning scorer: Molly Hendrick, senior attacker/midfielder (59 goals, 12 assists)

Other key returnees: Marie McCool, junior M (46, 17); Maggie Bill, junior M; Caylee Waters, senior goalkeeper

Top newcomers: Katie Hoeg, freshman A; Charlotte Allard, freshman M-A

Outlook: The Tar Heels have won two national championships in the past four years and they come back fully loaded and favored to win another one. Only four starters graduated, and seven Tar Heels were named to Inside Lacrosse preseason All-America teams. Two of their losses were on defense, but they return one of the top goalies in Waters, and Maggie Auslander has been tabbed as a preseason first-team All-American. Waters, the National Goalie of the Year as a sophomore, split time last season with senior Megan Ward and now has three freshmen pushing her. Any issues they have on defense likely will be overcome by an unmatched midfield. No team has more strength and more depth than the Tar Heels. Hendrick and McCool were first-team All-Americans last season and Sammy Jo Tracy was second team. Bill, a second-team All-American two years ago, returns after a year off. Much of North Carolina's attack comes from the midfield. Hendrick, McCool and Tracy had 62 or more points last season and Bill contributed 49 two years ago. The Tar Heels host James Madison in their opener Feb. 4. This month, they also meet Florida and Maryland, which they defeated 13-7 in last year's national final.

2. Maryland (Big Ten)

Last season: 22-1, NCAA runners-up

Coach: Cathy Reese (11th season, 205-19; 14th season overall, 236-48)

Top returning scorer: Megan Whittle, junior A (76, 5)

Other key returnees: Nadine Hadnagy, senior defender; Zoe Stukenberg, senior M (49, 16); Megan Taylor, sophomore G

Top newcomers: Lizzie Colson, freshman M; Brindi Griffin, freshman A; Kali Hartshorn, freshman M

Outlook: The Terps graduated arguably the best-ever college women's player, three-time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings (McDonogh), as well as National Defender of the Year Alice Mercer (Century). Reese said she can't replace either one with a single player, but the Terps have many players who were in their shadow last season despite making significant contributions. Stukenberg (Marriotts Ridge), a second-team All-American, and Hadnagy, a third-team All-American, were captains last year and will assume more leadership for a talented team that includes 18 sophomores and freshmen. On attack, the Terps retain most of their firepower, led by first-team All-American Whittle (McDonogh). They also bring back Big Ten Goaltender of the Year Taylor (Glenelg), who allowed just 6.78 goals per game. Plenty of other scoring power returns along with three additional veteran defenders. Several freshmen should also contribute early, including Hartshorn, who will take the draw. The Big Ten champions start their season at William & Mary Feb. 11, host defending champ North Carolina Feb. 25 and open Big Ten play at home against conference newcomer Johns Hopkins March 19.

3. Florida (Big East)

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Last season: 18-2, NCAA second round

Coach: Amanda O'Leary (eighth season, 114-29; 23rd season overall, 276-94)

Top returning scorer: Sammi Burgess, senior A (41, 13)

Other key returnees: Taylor Bresnahan, senior D; Caroline Fitzgerald, senior D; Lindsey Ronbeck, sophomore A (36, 16)

Top newcomers: Cara Trombetta, freshman D; Brianna Harris, freshman M

Outlook: The Gators defeated North Carolina during the regular season and were seeded second in the NCAA tournament behind Maryland but fell to Penn State, 14-13, in the second round. After graduating just three starters, they appear well positioned to reach their first Final Four since 2012. In mid-January, they played an exhibition game against the U.S. World Cup Training Team and lost by just one goal. Although they graduated their top scorer, Tewaaraton finalist Nicole Graziano, the Gators return a top finisher in Burgess (McDonogh) as well as youngsters Ronbeck and Shayna and Sydney Pirreca, a trio that combined for 92 goals and 37 assists. Defensively, the Gators shouldn't lose any ground, returning two Inside Lacrosse first-team preseason All-Americans — Fitzgerald, last year's Big East Defender of the Year, and Bresnahan (South River), who set a Florida single-season record with 26 caused turnovers. The Gators graduated their starting goalie but Haley Hicklen (Towson) saw plenty of action last season as a freshman, starting the second half in almost every game and recording a .559 save percentage. The Gators open their season at home against North Carolina on Feb. 14.

4. Stony Brook (America East)

Last season: 17-4, NCAA second round

Coach: Joe Spallina (sixth season, 83-18; ninth season overall, 156-20)

Top returning scorer: Courtney Murphy, senior A (100, 16)

Other key returnees: Kylie Ohlmiller, junior A (44, 47); Dorrien Van Dyke, senior A-M (53, 18); Anna Tesoriero, sophomore G

Top newcomer: Carolyn Carerra, junior M (Hofstra)

Outlook: The Seawolves have been to the NCAA tournament four straight times and this could easily be the year they break through to the Final Four. They return eight starters, led by first-team All-American Murphy, who set an NCAA Division I single-season record with 100 goals last season. She and Ohlmiller should be the top attack tandem in the nation with Murphy's finishing ability and Ohlmiller's versatility as a playmaker and finisher. Six Seawolves landed on the Inside Lacrosse preseason All-America team. While big stats always grab the most attention —the Seawolves averaged 13.43 goals per game last season, seventh best in Division I — Stony Brook is best known for its defense. Spallina's backer zone has given opponents fits for years and last spring, the Seawolves had the second stingiest defense in Division I, giving up just 6.1 goals per game. The Seawolves have a couple of holes to fill on that defense, but they return Tesoriero and senior defender Jessica Volpe, both named Inside Lacrosse preseason honorable-mention All-Americans. They open at Towson on Feb. 4.

Others in Maryland

Johns Hopkins (Big Ten)

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Last season: 11-8, NCAA second round

Coach: Janine Tucker (24th season, 260-137)

Top returning scorer: Emily Kenul, junior M-A (31, 12)

Other key returnees: Haley Schweizer, senior M (34, 4); Caroline Federico, senior, G;

Nevi Fernandez, senior D

Top newcomers: Lexi Souder, freshman M; Maggie Schneidereith, freshman A;

Eva Klaus, freshman M

Outlook: Johns Hopkins returns to conference play after two years as an independent. Former members of the now-disbanded American Lacrosse Conference, the Blue Jays will meet a handful of former ALC teams in the Big Ten — Northwestern, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. Their Big Ten debut comes against another familiar foe, Maryland, on March 19. Tucker, of course, knows the level of competition in one of the nation's top conferences, but she hopes to make some inroads with a strong young team. After graduating their leading scorer, two key defenders and a chunk of their midfield, the Blue Jays roster includes 10 freshmen. While Kenul and Schweizer bolster the attack, Fernandez (St. Paul's), Maddie Bodden (Winters Mill) and Claudia Flister (Catonsville) will lead the defense in front of Federico (Maryvale), who posted an 8.55 goals-against average last season. Several young players will be on the field right away. Lexi Souder (Marriotts Ridge) has emerged in fall ball as a force on the draw. Schneidereith (Towson) and Klaus (Severna Park) could compete for starting spots, too. The Blue Jays play their first game at American Feb. 15.

Loyola Maryland (Patriot League)

Last season: 14-6, NCAA first round

Coach: Jen Adams (ninth season, 110-48)

Top returning scorer: Hannah Powers, sophomore A (33, 23)

Other key returnees: Sabrina Tabasso, junior M (25, 19); Frankie Kamely, junior A (37, 8);

Bailey Mathis, senior D

Top newcomer: Holly Lloyd, freshman A

Outlook: The Greyhounds have not lost a Patriot League game since they joined the conference in 2014 and have been to the NCAA tournament six straight years. To keep those streaks alive, they must fill two big holes on defense after graduating second-team All-America defender Maddy Lesher and All-Patriot League goalie Molly Wolf (Bryn Mawr), both four-year starters. Mathis, a three-year starter, likely will step in to anchor the defense while three other veterans, Taylor O'Connell, Amy Abdalla and Kristen Yanchoris (Century), also return to the field unit. For the past few years, the defense has been the key to the Greyhounds' success — allowing just 8.55 goals a year ago. Now, a more seasoned attack should add to the 10.25 goals the team averaged last season. Still, look for a balanced offense. Adams said one of their strengths should be their ability to spread the ball around, so opposing offenses can't target one or two players. The Greyhounds, who continue to play a tough schedule that includes Florida, Penn State, Syracuse and Virginia, open at home against Johns Hopkins on Feb. 22.

Mount St. Mary's (Northeast Conference)

Last season: 5-12

Coach: Lauren Schwarzmann (third season, 11-23)

Top returning scorer: Kelly Maloney, senior M (30, 9)

Other key returnees: Sammie Knapp, senior M (27, 6); Jillian Petito, sophomore G; Emily Dees, junior D

Top newcomer: Kaitlyn Ridenour, freshman D

Outlook: The Mountaineers lost five games by one goal last season and Schwarzmann said her team now has to learn how to finish games and win the close ones, so they can get back to the NEC Tournament after a year away. Injuries took a toll last year and with just 23 players on the roster, keeping everyone healthy is also critical to a winning season. The Mountaineers lost key attacking midfielder Marley Heller (Perry Hall) just before last season started and then lost Nicole Lantuh, the 2015 Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year, after 13 games. Both return healthy and ready to join Maloney (River Hill), Knapp (Loch Raven) and Taylor Carhart (Manchester Valley) in the offense. The strength of the Mountaineers' team lies on the defensive end with veterans Dees (John Carroll) and Laurel George (Manchester Valley). Sophomore Petito will take over in the goal after playing behind Steph Rurkowski last year. Ridenour should have an immediate impact. The Mountaineers open their season at home against Longwood Feb. 26.

Navy (Patriot League)

Last season: 13-6

Coach: Cindy Timchal (10th season, 137-38, 35th season overall 473-124)

Top returning scorer: Jenna Collins, junior M (44, 24)

Other key returnees: Morgan Young, senior A (34, 8); Julia Collins, junior A (29, 11);

Ingrid Boyum, junior G

Top newcomer: Kelly Larkin, freshman A

Outlook: The Midshipmen return four of their top five scorers and four key defenders as they take aim at their first Patriot League championship in four years. They won five straight conference titles before Loyola joined the Patriot League in 2014 and won the past three. On attack, the Mids bring back more than two-thirds of their points from last season led by Jenna Collins, who was named an honorable mention preseason All-American by Inside Lacrosse. In addition to leading the Midshipmen in goals and assists, Collins also led them with 21 caused turnovers and 69 draw controls. While Julia Collins, Jenna's twin, and Young will also play large roles in a balanced attack, Larkin, a left-handed attacker from Bishop Ireton, should provide an immediate scoring boost. Defensively, Young along with Blake Smith and Meghan Hubley return to a unit that allowed just 8.53 goals per game. Boyum posted a .448 save percentage and had 10 or more saves three times. To Timchal, the key to improving and getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 will be improving their speed, upping the intensity of their defense and continuing to play cohesively. The Mids open at home against Longwood on Feb. 5.

Towson (Colonial Athletic Association)

Last season: 16-4, NCAA second round

Coach: Sonia LaMonica (seventh season, 73-40; eight seasons overall, 81-49)

Top returning scorer: Kaitlyn Montalbano, junior M (36, 23)

Other key returnees: Tianna Wallpher, junior D; Samantha Brookhart, senior M-A (9, 21);

Natalie Sulmonte sophomore M-A (31, 5)

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Top newcomers: Olivia Conti, freshman D; Shelby Stack, freshman M; Sami Chenoweth, freshman D

Outlook: The Tigers are favored to repeat as CAA champs after last year's title gave them four conference crowns in five years. Only three starters graduated and there's ample talent to fill those holes. In addition to Montalbano, the CAA Preseason Player of the Year, and Sulmonte, last season's Rookie of the Year and team leader in draw controls, the Tigers bring back Carly Tellekamp, who missed the final eight games with a knee injury but still contributed 22 goals and three assists. As freshmen, Sulmonte and Tellekamp scored most of Towson's game-winning goals. The glue to the attack, Brookhart (Mount Hebron), will continue to quarterback the offense. On defense, the Tigers lost two starters but return Wallpher (Mount Hebron), Kelly McQuilkin (Atholton) and goalie Angie Benson to a unit that allowed just 6.77 goals per game last year — the fourth stingiest scoring defense in Division I. Add to that depth unmatched since LaMonica took over the team and the Tigers have high hopes to rise on the national radar after finishing last year at No. 18 in the Inside Lacrosse Media Poll. The Tigers continue to have a tough out-of-conference schedule, opening with Stony Brook at home on Feb. 4.

UMBC (America East Conference)

Last season: 9-8

Coach: Amy Slade (fifth season, 32-34)

Top returning scorer: Carolyn Jamison, junior M (51, 10)

Other key returnees: Sam Nolan, senior A (37, 22); Jennie Milligan, junior M-A (11, 5); Lauren McDonald, sophomore M-A (13, 6)

Key newcomers: Zoe Pekins, freshman M; Skylar Grady, freshman M; Taylor Sisk, freshman G

Outlook: Slade has stressed to her players that they're in a marathon when it comes to growing into a team that can compete for the America East Conference championship. Last year, they earned their first winning record in five years and advanced to the four-team conference tournament for the second straight year. But in a conference with a top five program in Stony Brook and often nationally ranked Albany, progress can't be measured just by wins. The Retrievers improved their offensive output last season despite losing one of their top scorers, Milligan (South River), to a torn ACL midway through the season. McDonald (Catonsville) picked up the slack and having them both on the field this year should keep the numbers growing. The Retrievers should also be stronger on defense after making the switch last year from man-to-man to a backer zone. Sarah Turco (Mercy), Kayla Renehan (Glenelg) and Hofstra transfer Jenna Baverman (Roland Park) will lead the defense. Ashley Peacock returns in goal, where she could be challenged by three teammates including Sisk (Mercy). The Retrievers open at home against Towson on Feb. 15.

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