HANOVER, N.H. - The 2011 season was a return to form for the Dartmouth women's lacrosse team. After a four-year hiatus, the Big Green once again returned to the NCAA Tournament.
A trip to the NCAAs was the result of an 11th Ivy League Championship in program history after running its record to 6-1 in league play last spring.
However, with the departure of seven seniors, including the Ivy League Player of the Year Kat Collins and All-Ivy players Shannie McKenzie and Greta Meyer, the 2012 Big Green will have to move on and refocus on the tasks ahead to be successful.
Head coach Amy Patton is back for her 20th season on the Dartmouth sidelines. One of the top coaches and leaders in the nation, Patton and her staff have brought in a talented group of freshmen to complement the solid core of players returning from a season ago.
Sophomore goalkeeper Kristen Giovanniello (Old Brookville, N.Y.) and senior attack and co-captain Sarah Plumb (Wellesley, Mass.) are back after being named to the 2011 All-Ivy First Team. Both carry expectations to continue their stellar play from last season, as they were tabbed with spots on the Tewaaraton Award Watch List during the preseason.
Plumb will serve as co-captain alongside fellow senior Georgia Bird (Summit, N.J.) in 2012, faced with the task of motivating a team that finished last season ranked No. 11 in the country.
"Our two captains are a good mix of personalities," Patton said. "They have a great supporting cast in the senior class that are good leaders beyond those two individuals. We have a great balance of both leaders and followers that teams need to be successful."
The 39th season in program history gets started Saturday at UNH at 1 p.m.
Looking down the Dartmouth roster, 10 players are listed on attack. Gone are Collins and Meyer who finished as the top two point producers on last year's team, something Patton understands is part of the game.
"Most games you would usually see five or six kids in the scoring column and that's the way our attack is run," Patton remarked. "We run a lot of plays, but those plays really revolve around all seven kids. As a coach, you think, 'How do I replace these players?' But I've learned in 20 years that people always step up. I'm always amazed when I watch the younger kids grow into those roles when it's their time."
Plumb leads the way up front and is the team's top-returning scorer from a year ago as she had 35 points and 22 goals as a junior. Fellow senior and veteran presence on the Dartmouth attack Sarah Parks (Ellicott City, Md.) is back after notching 30 points last spring with 16 goals and 14 helpers.
But, like every year, the Big Green will be much more than the play of one or two players at any position.
"Looking at our attackers this year, Sarah (Parks) is someone that has started for four years and is a player that can get to the goal," Patton said. "Liz Calby (Darien, Conn.) last year showed us that she is ready to step into a large role. She is a great passer, but she can score too. Casey Griffin (Hingham, Mass.) is now a junior and I think she is ready to compete for her playing time.
"Then we have some younger players like Lindsey Allard (Cohasset, Mass.) who showed promise in the fall," Patton continued. "There is a whole supporting cast on the attack. I think Hanna Bowers (Old Greenwich, Conn.) could be one of the best players in the league because she is so ambidextrous. Because she can go left or right, she can really be a defender's nightmare."
Expect players who did not appear on the scoresheet with great frequency in 2011 to have larger roles this season and contribute more offensively as well.
"I really do believe there is going to be a good deal of players ready to step up on attack. Amy Drummond (Wilton, Conn.) and Anjalie Christie (New Canaan, Conn.) are definitely players who will constantly be pushing the players ahead of them."
With the wealth of veteran players returning at midfield, the position will be the deepest this season for the Big Green, a fact that Patton already knew early in preseason.
"You would be right in saying that midfield is our biggest strength. It's because that is the position where we have the most experience right now. Sarah (Plumb) is one of the best players in the country and Kirsten Goldberg (Cockeysville, Md.) is another player that can go both ways and is really explosive on the attack."
Patton went on to say, "Courtney Bennett (Darien, Conn.) is another great player in the midfield. With the three of them there as midis, we have three of the best players on our team playing alongside one another."
Freshman Frances Bird (Summit, N.J.) and Christine Lushefski (Rumson, N.J.) are the two lone newcomers to the core of midfielders. However, don't be surprised to see the younger of the Bird sisters picking up some major playing time this season after a very promising preseason.
Seniors Hilary Smith (Bronxville, N.Y.) and Erin Massimi (Westwood, Mass.) are two more veterans that Patton has the luxury of inserting into her everyday lineup to add even more consistency to an already strong position.
"Hilary (Smith) and Erin (Massimi) are also key contributors in the midfield, which lends us to believe that we also have the most depth at that position. A major factor for that depth is that those players are largely juniors and seniors."
Like the attack, the Dartmouth defense will also have a period of transition as players step up into new roles. Gone is last season's team leader in caused turnovers in MacKenzie, but in her place will be several players looking to fill that space and solidify the back end for the Big Green.
"Losing Shannie (MacKenzie) hurt because I believe that she was one of the best defenders in the country," Patton said. "She did so much for us, both on the field in her play and in her leadership.
"You can look at losing that type of player and say that it's a big loss for us to overcome, and it is, but we are going to have people step up and fill that void," Patton continued.
As a captain and defender Georgia Bird should be the vocal leader to help rally the defense against some tough competition this season.
Bird will have to be strong in her natural position this season as several midfielders will play key roles in limiting the offensive attack of each opponent.
Junior Kelsey Johnson (Hingham, Mass.) also adds a great deal of talent to the Big Green defense after making the move from midfield during the offseason. In 2011, Johnson was named to the All-Ivy Second Team as just a sophomore. Second on the team with 33 ground balls, Johnson added 15 draw controls and 10 caused turnovers. She has a propensity to step up her play as well, earning a spot on the All-Ivy Tournament team as a freshman in 2010.
"I think Kelsey (Johnson) is a great mark-up defender," Patton remarked. "Courtney (Bennett) is a midfielder, but a midfield-defender and is as tough as anyone for the opposition to play against."
Dana Brisbane (Locust Valley, N.Y.) is the only other senior besides Bird listed at defense after making the transition from a true midfielder for this season. However, that senior tandem won't have to carry the weight of all the defensive zone responsibilities as they are supported by a strong contingent of sophomores and juniors.
Ellie Clayton (Hingham, Mass.) and Kyra Hansson (Wilton, Conn.) are both in their third year with the Big Green. Expect both to compete for increased minutes as juniors after Hansson missed last season due to injury, while Clayton has seen action in just three games in each of her first two seasons.
The defense will also benefit from three sophomores with two seasons of fall ball and a freshman campaign that went all the way to May and the NCAA Tournament. Holly Foster (Norfolk, Mass.), Bailey Johnson (Baltimore, Md.) and Kara Lehman (Lexington, Mass.) make up a trio of sophomore defenders ready to make an impact in 2012.
A major strength for Dartmouth is the goalkeeper situation. Giovanniello played every minute as a freshman and was rewarded with several accolades and recognitions for her performances.
Unanimously named the Ivy-League's Rookie of the Year in 2011, Giovanniello was also a First-Team All-Ivy selection and the league's Defensive Player of the Week on three occasions. But don't let the awards and honors make you think that Patton doesn't want to get the team's other two goalkeepers playing time on the field this spring.
"With KG last year, we had her play every minute because we felt we needed her to get the most experience she could get in her freshman year," Patton said of her now sophomore goalkeeper.
"This year, I expect both Julia Szafman (West Hartford, Conn.) and Jessica Frieder (Princeton, N.J.) to push KG for playing time," Dartmouth's head coach said. "They both are challenging one another to elevate their play. In the long run that motivation will help our team be very sound no matter what goalkeeper is in there."
With a battle-tested No. 1 goalkeeper and two others ready to come into the game at any point, Patton has the opportunity to give Giovanniello some breaks to re-group and discuss, while confident in the play of either Szafman and Frieder to take over in the circle during those periods.
Like it has been throughout Patton's tenure, this season's schedule will present some tough challenges for the Big Green.
Opening with cross-state rival UNH in Durham on Saturday, Feb. 25, Dartmouth will also have challenging non-conference road games at Florida (March 20) and Syracuse (April 9).
Home contests at Scully-Fahey Field with Boston University, Vermont, Niagara and national power Duke also highlight the 2012 slate of non-conference games.
A late non-conference home match-up with No. 1 Maryland a season ago ended with a 9-8 overtime win on May 1. That upset victory came on the final home date of the regular season and sent the senior class out with one of the biggest wins in program history.
This season, Niagara's appearance in Hanover on April 16 will wrap up the regular-season home slate and feature Senior Day ceremonies to honor seven members of the Class of 2012.
Sculley-Fahey will also play host to three Ivy League games against Yale (March 3), Columbia (March 24) and Penn (April 14). The team will take on Ivy foes Brown (March 31), Cornell (April 7), Princeton (April 21) and Harvard (April 27) on the road during the spring.
Duke's trip to Hanover on March 17 will conclude a four-game homestand and marks the second straight season an ACC team has made the trek to the Upper Valley.
The game with the Gators in Gainesville just three days after squaring off at home with the Blue Devils will be a good test for the Big Green as the majority of the Ivy League slate remains when they return from the Sunshine State.
Both Duke and Florida will be deeper into their respective seasons when Dartmouth plays them, but that is something Patton sees as a positive for her team in the long run.
"It puts us in a hole, but the way I also look at it in a positive light. We want to go play those schools and give it our best shot and no matter what, come out of it better, win or lose, and be better prepared for the Ivies."
Patton continued to look in more detail at her team's schedule, saying, "Right now, when you look at our non-conference schedule, we have teams like Syracuse and BU on there. It's a really tough schedule. Then you look at who we play in our own conference and you can see that we are getting better as a whole every year. All those teams in our league have the potential to be a top-20 team this season."