SUNDAY, JUNE 29, 2014
Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #6
Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #6

The women’s lacrosse team defended its home turf to claim a third consecutive conference tournament title and second straight berth into the NCAA Tournament.

So far as we’ve counted down Jacksonville’s Top 10 moments of the past season, we’ve seen an upset of a team that played its way to national name recognition, a crew that ended a long drought at a famed regatta and two come-from-behind wins. Today we get to highlight something different; a team that entered the season as favorites and delivered on its substantial promise.

Since becoming a varsity program in 2009-10, the women’s lacrosse team has emerged as one of the most consistently excellent teams on campus (naturally a shout-out to the track & field team is necessary here as well). Following an 8-11 inaugural season which very nearly could have ended with a conference championship, the Dolphins have won at least 13 games in each of the past four seasons. During that time, JU has compiled a 22-1 record in conference games with time split between the now-defunct National Lacrosse Conference and the school’s current membership in the Atlantic Sun.

In 2012, Jacksonville suffered its lone loss in that span on the road at High Point. The Dolphins would get their revenge just over a month later, whipping the Panthers, 19-6, in the NLC Championship game. That conference title, however, didn’t come with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. JU would make up for lost time in 2013, winning the conference regular season title with an undefeated 4-0 mark, then shredding Kennesaw State and Detroit apart in the Atlantic Sun Tournament to make the first postseason trip in program history in only its fourth season.

All of that was prelude to this 2014 campaign, when the other five schools in the A-Sun would be gunning for Jacksonville’s perch at the top of the conference. In an effort to prepare her squad for what would lie ahead, Head Coach Mindy McCord went big in non-conference play, scheduling four teams that would earn bids to the NCAA Tournament, including Syracuse and Florida. Though JU went into the month of March with a 1-3 record, the team was already battle-tested. The Dolphins roared through the rest of the regular season, winning 11 of 13. In a winner-take-all game for the regular season Atlantic Sun title with Elon, Jacksonville’s defense put on a clinic, not allowing a goal for more than 25 minutes to begin the contest and walking away with a 17-4 victory on Senior Day at D.B. Milne Field.

Though the NCAA Tournament expanded in 2013 from 16 to 26 teams to account for the growth of the sport and the many programs that were sprouting up throughout the country, the power structure of the game still lies with conferences such as the ACC and Big Ten. There would be no at-large bid into the Big Dance for the Dolphins; they would have to earn it on the field at the Atlantic Sun Tournament.

Jacksonville began the tournament by playing in the first semifinal against Stetson. Despite some nasty conditions in the early afternoon, the Dolphins were unfazed by the rain and muddy field and outclassed the Hatters, going up by a score of 14-0 at halftime. Even on the rare occasions when Stetson was able to initiate its offense and unleash a shot, JU goalkeeper Asia Moore was there to stonewall the Hatters.

The Jacksonville lead grew to as much as 18 in the second half after a Kaitlin Stewart goal made it a 19-1 game. The substantial margin allowed McCord to substitute liberally throughout the game and keep her players fresh for the championship game. The second semifinal was expected to be a more tightly-contested affair, with Elon coming in as the No. 2 seed to face the No. 3 seed Detroit Mercy. Though the Phoenix won the regular season battle between the two teams, Detroit showed its experience against the first-year program, racing out to a six-goal advantage at halftime and holding on for the 15-11 upset. With the win, the Titans booked a rematch with the Dolphins in the A-Sun title game for a second straight year.

The confidence level for JU was high, and rightly so. The Dolphins secured their first NCAA bid in 2013 with a 22-8 win against Detroit, and a trip to the Motor City earlier in the 2014 season resulted in an 18-5 Jacksonville victory.

“We had a lot of confidence from winning on the road,” said Assistant Coach Paul McCord. “We have always matched up well with them. Sometimes when you have had convincing wins against an opponent you risk a letdown. We wanted to make sure that the national television audience saw us at our best. The team expected to repeat. The belief has always been that we will win the championship.”

With the championship televised on CSS and online through ESPN3, there were a lot of eyes on Southern Oak Stadium for the game, and the Dolphins did not disappoint. After winning the opening draw, it took all of 33 seconds for the Dolphins to get on the board through Atlantic Sun Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Orashen, who shot low and bounced it in past Detroit’s star goalkeeper Lexie McCormick.

The Titans would have a chance to answer a minute later, but Moore continued to deny nearly everything sent her way. She first stopped a Detroit free position shot, and then was able to latch onto the ground ball after the Titans had sent another shot in on goal. Quickly turning defense into offense, Taylor McCord ripped in her first goal of the day before being sent sprawling to the ground for a 2-0 JU edge. On the restart, Jess Worcester cleanly won the draw and Morgan Derner – the A-Sun Player of the Year – would tally her first goal of the day moments later for a 3-0 lead before the game was even four minutes old.

Asked for her thoughts on seeing Detroit for a second time, it’s easy to see Mindy McCord’s response imprinted on the mentality that Jacksonville came to the field with. “It doesn't matter what the name on the jersey is or what the past outcomes were,” she said. “The only thing that matters now is this game, and we have to be able to go out and play at our level for 60 minutes and focus on our team goals and individual execution to help reach those goals.”

Detroit tried to make it difficult. A pair of turnovers ended with possession in the Titans’ favor and Erin Campbell was able to score to cut it to a 3-1 contest at the 24:07 mark of the first half. As it turned out, that was about the last gasp that they could muster. On a team with as much attacking prowess as Jacksonville has, it’s easy to be overlooked even when you score double-digit goals on the season. Such was the case for freshman middie Hannah Wilcox, but her 11th goal of the season was a mirror image of Derner’s goal from minutes earlier and it came at the perfect time, re-establishing a three-goal cushion.

“She (Hannah) does anything you ask her to do, and she does it well,” said Paul McCord. “We could not do what we do without players like her.”

Wilcox’s goal opened the floodgates, starting a 9-0 run that ended with her 12th goal of the season to put Jacksonville up, 12-1, with 3:05 remaining until halftime. Detroit ended the streak with a goal in the final 30 seconds before the break, but the rout was on. Even senior defender Kaylee Quint got in on the act, scoring the first goal of her collegiate career in a rare foray up the field.

On those occasions when Detroit was in possession, the Jacksonville defense went into attack mode. The Titans had seven first half turnovers and won just three draw controls. Even their scoring opportunities went by the wayside, with Moore making saves on each of UDM’s three free-position shots.

“Asia's confidence and skill sets continued to improve throughout the year,” said Mindy McCord. “She's a very hard worker who believes in her teammates, coaches, and our team’s vision. We were able to strategically put her and her defensive unit in a very solid system for the postseason and she thrived in it.”

Though the final 30 minutes were mostly a countdown towards a coronation, Jacksonville still had some moments of brilliance up its sleeve. Less than a minute into the second half, junior Holly Ventimiglia had possession to the side of the Detroit cage as the Dolphins attempted to find the soft spot in a compacted Titan defense. Finding Taylor McCord as she drove towards the goal, Ventimiglia whipped a pass in but the angle for a shot appeared to close down as a small shove seemingly was going to carry McCord’s momentum too far past. In the blink of an eye, McCord received the ball and immediately flipped a shot back over her outside shoulder, scoring so quickly that it barely registered to those watching. Even the television announcers were caught off-guard, needing to see a replay to realize what she had just pulled off. It was a shot that was both years in the making and a result of a recent practice.

“The day before the tournament we decided to lighten up practice,” Paul McCord recalled. “We were playing a fast transition game at the end of practice and we added a few stipulations to how the girls could score points. Points were awarded for goals, perfect shots, caused turnovers and five points were awarded for goals scored using a trick shot, like a behind the back or a through the legs. We also took away five points if a shot taken was too easy of a save for the goalie. It makes things more suspenseful and fun. Funny thing is, nobody scored on their trick shots, but they shot them and laughed and competed. I think there is something freeing about that type of drill.”

“In fairness to Taylor, she has been practicing no-angle behind-the-back shots in the backyard since seventh grade. Good shooters shoot creatively at young ages and for them it's like riding a bike, you always remember that muscle sensation of scoring that way.”

McCord’s goal was the first of four straight for Jacksonville, upping its lead to 16-2 at the midway point of the second half. The loose atmosphere in the final minutes even allowed the JU bench to orchestrate a Gatorade shower for its coaching staff. The 18-4 final score told the story, and gave the Dolphins their second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament in addition to their third consecutive conference tournament title and fourth regular season championship. It was a fitting send-off into the postseason for Jacksonville's nine seniors, who won 56 games in their careers.

With the Atlantic Sun Tournament returning to Southern Oak Stadium in 2015, Jacksonville is uniquely positioned to continue its dominance over the rest of the conference and find itself in the NCAA Tournament yet again. In a very short period of time, the Dolphins have proven that players may change, but tradition never graduates.
Check in every Monday and Thursday for the next three weeks as we continue to countdown Jacksonville’s Top 10 moments of 2013-14!

#10: Men’s Basketball Dominates Dunk City
#9: Men’s Freshman/Novice 8+ Claim Dad Vail Crown
#8: Women’s Basketball Shocks Mercer on Senior Day at Swisher
#7: Women’s Golf Catches Fire to Win the Cincinnati Spring Invitational
#6: Women’s Lacrosse Makes it Three Conference Tournament Titles in a Row
#5: Coming July 3rd
#4: Coming July 7th
#3: Coming July 10th
#2: Coming July 14th
#1: Coming July 17th