No one associated with Navy athletics will soon forget the women's lacrosse team's magical run to the NCAA Division I Final Four last spring.
The Midshipmen posted upset after upset en route to reaching the big stage at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It started with knocking off top-seeded Loyola in the Patriot League Tournament final and featured a stunning defeat of defending national champion North Carolina on its home field in the quarterfinals.
So the big question everyone is asking going into this season is: What does Navy do for an encore?
Standout senior attacker and team co-captain Julia Collins has a pretty succinct answer to that question.
"We go out and do it again," Collins said prior to practice on Tuesday afternoon. "Seriously, we all want really to do it again. Getting back to the Final Four and this time winning the national championship is the ultimate goal."
Nobody, not even always optimistic head coach Cindy Timchal, has talked about Navy as a Final Four contender in years past. Normally at this time, Timchal has established winning the Patriot League championship and earning an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament as preseason goals.
Senior defender Blake Smith said the idea of reaching the national semifinals has previously been an unspoken goal. "It's always been legitimate in our minds, but now it's legitimate in other people's minds," she said.
Indeed, what the Midshipmen did during their May Madness march has completely changed the perception of the program. Navy began the improbable NCAA run by notching its first victory over a ranked opponent (11-10 vs. No. 7 Pennsylvania in the first round).
Navy came within a whisker of reaching the national championship game, falling 16-15 to Boston College in a back-and-forth thriller. That postseason performance has brought new-found respect for the Midshipmen, who are ranked No. 10 nationally in the preseason polls produced by both Inside Lacrosse and the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association.
Now Navy has a target on its back and knows every opponent will be looking to make a strong statement.
"I almost think we have to be hungrier this year because we realize that teams are going to be hunting after us," said Smith, the other co-captain. "It does put a lot of pressure on the program, but we have a lot of seniors with considerable playing experience. So we're ready to handle that pressure and excited to have the opportunity to prove that last year was no fluke."
One of Timchal's primary jobs has been to get everyone to forget about last year. Expectations are high because Navy graduated just two starters, but the legendary head coach knows each team must find its own identity.
"Honestly, the 2017 team was fantastic, but it's in the past and no longer exists. This 2018 team has a new opportunity to once again show how wonderful Navy women's lacrosse can be," said Timchal, who is entering her 11th season in Annapolis.
"Building a team takes time and happens over the course of a season. With every game you learn something new and develop as a unit," Timchal added. "What really matters is playing with toughness and intensity and really competing with that hair-on-fire mentality."
Navy looks awfully strong on paper with 10 returning starters, including four Inside Lacrosse preseason All-Americans in midfielder Jenna Collins (first team), Larkin (second team), Julia Collins and Smith (both honorable mention). Defender Meghan Hubley and attacker Morgan Young (79 points) are the lone starters that were lost.
"We have to start over this season and build from scratch," Julia Collins said. "We have some new girls coming up and we need to get them accustomed to Navy women's lacrosse. What we did last year doesn't matter anymore. This is a new year and a fresh start."
#NavyWLax picked No. 1 in @PatriotLeague Preseason Poll. Jenna Collins was named Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, while Je. Collins, Kelly Larkin and Blake Smith were Preseason All-PL. https://t.co/l8S4dn0i5e pic.twitter.com/tEUtnrksHI— Navy Athletics (@NavyAthletics) February 6, 2018
Navy is absolutely loaded on offense with the Collins twins and Larkin leading the way. Jenna Collins piled up 114 points on 72 goals and 42 assists last season while being named Patriot League Midfielder of the Year and second team All-American by the IWLCA. Larkin displayed remarkable balance in amassing 108 points on 54 goals and 54 assists, earning the Patriot League Rookie of the Year honor.
Julia Collins also had a huge season with 75 points (48, 27), stepping up in the postseason and being named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament team. Meg O'Donnell, who came on strong down the stretch and finished with 50 goals, also returns on attack.
Junior Molly O'Sullivan will get first crack at the starting spot vacated by Young, a hard-charging left-hander and real sparkplug. O'Sullivan, a product of Westfield High in Centreville, Virginia, saw limited action in 10 games last season and contributed six points.
Jenna Collins anchors the top midfield unit along with junior Andie O'Sullivan and sophomore Kayla Harris. O'Sullivan is coming off a productive campaign in which she scored 34 goals and dished off 13 assists. Harris, a Broadneck High graduate, emerged late in the season and finished with 18 goals and eight assists.
"Certainly we have many proven commodities on the offensive end," Timchal acknowledged. "The Collins twins bring a lot of focus, discipline and competitive spirit to our program. Kelly Larkin is a great young player that came in and made an immediate impact. Meg O'Donnell and Andie O'Sullivan really stepped up as scorers last season."
Smith, an aggressive one-versus-one defender who totaled 42 ground balls and 38 caused turnovers in 2017, succeeds Hubley as the leader on that end of the field. Senior Caitlin McGlaughlin is the other returning starter on line defense.
Junior Marie Valenti will shift to line defense after serving as the top defensive midfielder a year ago, starting all 23 games and recording 48 ground balls and 37 caused turnovers. Sarah Childress, a senior, figures to replace Valenti as the top defensive midfielder this season.
Navy boasts an experienced goaltender in senior Ingrid Boyum, who has 42 career starts under her belt and has registered 273 saves. The Herndon, Virginia, native was a key figure in Navy's postseason run and finished with a .398 save percentage and 9.84 goals-against average.
The Midshipmen have a history of seeing sophomores emerge as key players with Timchal mentioning attackers Carley Seekamp and Caitlin Blanche as candidates. A few freshmen could earn significant playing time with defender Logan Book and midfielder Nicole Victory performing well in preseason.
"All any championship team ever talks about is unselfish play, trusting each other and really loving their teammates. That's truly the emphasis for this program," Timchal said. "We have tremendous senior leadership provided by players who have competed and achieved success over their careers. We won our way into the NCAA. We weren't chosen. We have a lot of experienced players who have gotten a taste of what it truly takes to compete."
Navy is the preseason favorite to repeat as Patriot League Tournament champs, receiving 18 of 20 first place votes. Loyola, the three-time defending Patriot League champion which had a 41-game conference winning streak snapped by Navy last May, garnered the other two first-place votes.
"It just shows the respect our program has developed with the other coaches," Timchal said of being picked first in the preseason poll. "Certainly, we know the other teams in the conference will remind us they are tough, too. Loyola is not very happy with losing to us in the tournament. There are a lot of schools in the league, like Lehigh, that have taken us the distance."
Ohio State, a Big Ten Conference member with solid history and tradition in women's lacrosse, will get first crack at knocking Navy off its new-found pedestal. The Buckeyes, who were picked sixth in the Big Ten preseason poll, will be looking to pull an upset on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"We have to start with Ohio State, which is a really good team and is going to provide a tough challenge right out of the gate," Julia Collins said. "We also know that every Patriot League team is going to be coming at us. That is something that motivates us. We know we have a target on our back so we need to really bring it every game."
Timchal has scheduled several other strong non-conference opponents with fifth-ranked Florida (March 13) and Nov. 14 Virginia (April 11) topping the list.
"We're really excited about the schedule. We've always wanted to play tougher competition because it's going to make the team better in the long run. That experience will help when we get back to the postseason," Smith said.
This article is written by Bill Wagner from The Capital, Annapolis, Md. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.