DURHAM, N.H. -- The 2002 season was notable for the University of New Hampshire women's lacrosse program. UNH was ranked in the national poll at No. 20 for two consecutive weeks, which marked the team's first national ranking since 1992. The Wildcats advanced to the America East Championships for the fifth consecutive season - the only team in America East to do so - by capturing the regular-season title with a perfect 4-0 record, advanced to the conference championship game and finished with an overall record of 12-5.
Jessie Groszkowski, the America East Player of the Year, and Jess Burnap, the conference Rookie of the Year, return to provide a solid nucleus for the offense. Danielle Martin, who ranked second in the nation in goals-against-average and 13th in save percentage, anchors the defense. In addition to this triumvirate, All-Conference Second Team selection Jen Smith returns to guide a strong defensive unit that ranked second in the nation a year ago.
Head coach Sandy Bridgeman, who is entering her seventh season UNH's helm, has brought in 11 freshmen to complement her 12 veterans with a mission of winning the 2003 conference title and, with it, an automatic berth to the NCAA Championships.
"We are young but very athletic and talented, and how quickly it comes together is going to impact our success," said Bridgeman, the America East Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2001. "At two very key positions we have strong leadership. We can rely on Danielle in goal - she's our rock on defense. Jessie, our returning All-American, brings stability to the attack and midfield. "Smitty (Jen Smith) is coming into her own as a solid, aggressive defender," Bridgeman added. "We will look to those three seniors quite a bit for leadership and experience."
This season, the 'Cats will rely upon senior Jessie Groszkowski as the key component to the offense. In 2002, she garnered All-America First Team and America East Player of the Year honors by breaking UNH's single-season records for both goals (60) and points (68). Her accurate shot makes her a dangerous offensive player, but her quickness and assertive play make her a dangerous player all over the field. In addition to her gaudy offensive statistics, Groszkowski ranked 14th in the nation in draw controls and seventh in America East in ground balls.
Burnap, who had the best shooting percentage on the team a year ago, ranked third in goals and fourth in points. Sarah Cahill and Kelly Blaney are the only two other returning Wildcats who recorded double digits in points in 2002.
Three rookies - Katie Leland, Meaghan Marshall and Kristin Blanchette -- are expected to produce immediate dividends on offense. Blanchette was selected to the All-America Second Team in 2002 as well as to the All-State First Team in 2001 and 2002. Marshall was named an All-America Honorable Mention in 2001 and 2002.
"I don't think they'll have any problems because they just flow off each other," Bridgeman stated.
Bronwyn Leto will join the attack out of the midfield. Nicole Evans will add depth to the attack and fellow freshman Erin Garnsey will be recovering from a fall injury at the outset of the 2003 season.
"With our personnel, we have the potential to do a lot of freelance," Bridgeman said. "And we want to utilize our speed, but the most important thing is to value possession of the ball."
Jen Smith and Renee Nemmers will be two integral parts of the defensive unit, which also returns Sarah Hutchinson and Lauren Zerbinopoulos. Both Hutchinson and Zerbinopoulos, who has excellent speed and will play an important role in the low defense as well as the wing position, provide depth. Another vital player due to her versatility is midfielder Laura Dosdall, whose primary focus will be on defense but will also be the team's seventh player on attack.
Newcomer Mel Bourque, an All-America Honorable Mention in 2001, is very athletic and expected to contribute from the start. Fellow freshmen Haley Sanborn and Ashley Kammerer have the potential to make a difference in 2003. Celine Murphy has been slowed by ACL surgery and Caitlin Noon adds depth as a low defender.
"When we don't have the ball as a team, we're very much improved. Our team defense has been tremendous in recent years, but now we are looking to put increased pressure on the ball all the way down the field."
After spending her first two seasons in a platoon role, Danielle Martin stepped into the starting goalkeeper role in 2002. And she proved worthy of the challenge.
"I feel really solid with Danielle in goal," Bridgeman said. "She has All-American talent and plays with great consistency. In the big games she makes the big saves when we need them."
Martin started all 18 games and played all but 37 of a possible 1080 minutes in recording a 7.02 GAA - the lowest by a UNH goalie since 1992 -- and a .566 save percentage.
Rookie Julie Bevad will be groomed behind Martin as the team's future goalkeeper.
UNH's 2003 schedule can be broken down into three sections: conference, region and non-regional. While the primary focus is on America East conference games to attain the goal of advancing to the league championship game, success in regional games will prove that UNH is one of the top programs in the Northeast. The 'Cats will have the opportunity to claim regional bragging rights with games against Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard out of the Ivy League, as well as battles vs. UMass and Duquesne from the Atlantic 10 and Big East representatives UConn and Boston College.
Opponents from outside the region include Vanderbilt, Califonrnia and Stanford, all of whom are emerging as national powers.
"Our schedule is ambitious," Bridgeman stated. "I'm very excited about our non-conference schedule with the addition of the University of North Carolina, a Final Four team a year ago, UConn, a team that is very similar to us, and Virginia Tech. We go out west to Stanford to start the season and also play Vanderbilt, another NCAA tournament team.
"It's all about getting us ready for the America East conference. When April comes, that's the focus. With the conference earning automatic qualification to the NCAAs, our first goal is to qualify for the America East championships for a sixth consecutive season. From there, we'd like to take the next step and win the title to attain our ultimate goal of advancing to the NCAA tourney."
"Last year's step of advancing to the final was a big one. Each step forward is harder and harder, but we want to keep moving forward."
UNH opens the season February 22 at Stanford University and also plays the University of California on its west coast trip. The Wildcats are scheduled to play their first game on the new AstroTurf of Memorial Field on March 5 against Yale University.