DURHAM, N.H. -- In a word - young. That's certainly one way to describe the 2006 University of New Hampshire women's lacrosse team, which features 11 freshmen and six sophomores on a 23-player squad that will look to extend its America East conference record for consecutive tournament appearances to nine and advance to the championship game for the fifth straight year.
"Year in and year out our ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament," said 10th-year head coach Sandy Bridgeman, who guided the Wildcats to the 2004 NCAA tourney. "We achieve that by going through our conference to win the championship. Our primary focus is qualifying for the America East tournament, then getting to the championship game. It's simplistic but it's what we look for."
The impetus of leading this youthful team falls upon captains Kristin Blanchette and Katie Leland - two of the three seniors - as well as junior captain Christine Carbone. Both Blanchette and Leland are three-year starters and Carbone joined Leland on the 2005 America East All-Conference First Team.
"Our three captains are key returning starters from last year's squad and we will rely on their leadership quite a bit," Bridgeman stated. "It starts with the leadership and experience that they bring to the field.
"We lost such a big class to graduation but that opens up opportunities for others to step up," she added. "And that's what happened in fall ball."
Leland is a highly-decorated attack whose honors include 2005 America East Women's Lacrosse Student-Athlete of the Year and accomplishments include shattering UNH's single-season points record with 90 in the 2004 season and breaking the single-game goals record with nine vs. UMBC last season. Leland enters her final season as a Wildcat already ranked among the program's all-time leaders in goals (sixth-126), assists (third-62) and points (fourth-188).
"Katie is a proven scorer and we look at her as a leader on the attacking end," Bridgeman said. "She's an extension of the coaches out on the field. She's multidimensional in the way she can attack you because she has a hard shot that complements the way she reads defenses and sets up teammates. She's a threat to score or assist. But when we need a goal, we know we can count on her."
Blanchette, a member of the 2005-06 U.S. Developmental Team, is the second-leading returning Wildcat in goals (33), assists (13), points (46), ground balls (25) and caused turnovers (12) as well as the top returner in draw controls (26). And she led the 2005 'Cats in free position goals (12) to rank second in the conference in that statistic.
"Kristin is key as our center, particularly with draw controls," Bridgeman explained. "Scoring-wise, she gives a different look from Katie as they attack from different areas."
Juniors Alexa Webster and Leanne Ferretti also bring experience to the attack. Webster played in 18 of 19 games with five starts a year ago and recorded six points with five goals and an assist. Ferretti was sidelined after starting the first two games of 2005 following a 2004 rookie season in which she compiled seven points in 13 games.
"Alexa Webster is a player who stepped up in fall ball," Bridgeman stated. "We expect her to play a key role in our offense."
Sophomore attack Moira Talbot also had a strong fall season, as did newcomers Ashley Durepo and Sarah Von Bargen. Talbot, a 2005 America East All-Rookie Team selection, ranks third among returning 'Cats in goals (15), points (18) and ground balls (23). She led UNH rookies in those three statistics as well as assists (three).
Von Bargen was an All-America selection last year at Ward Melville and Durepo earned All-State First Team status at Concord (N.H.) High School.
"We like to push the pace, especially with our speed in the midfield," Bridgeman said of her offense. "While we will try to push it, we always value possession and look to take advantage of our opportunities."
Carbone stepped into a starting role midway through her rookie season and has developed into an elite defender. She leads all returning Wildcats in both ground balls (46) and caused turnovers (15).
"Christine is the leader of our defense," Bridgeman said. "She plays with such intensity and also has great anticipation and footwork. She's everything you look for in a player. She's just so consistent in her play and intensity every practice, every game."
The sophomore class of Ashley Blake, Ashley Crook and Bailley Mazur stepped up in fall ball.
"They will factor significantly this year in the defensive end of the field as well as in the transition game."
Incoming freshmen Michaela Hardy, Beth Sabiston and Beth Stankus were also impressive in the fall and will contend for playing time this season.
Ashley Milley, who earned America East All-Rookie Team honors in 2005, gives the 'Cats experience in goal. She played in 10 games (three starts) and had a 2-2 record with a 9.10 GAA and .444 save percentage.
UNH also welcomes senior Maghan Grahn, a two-year letterwinner on the University's women's ice hockey program (where she was also a goalie) and freshman Lauren McMullen.
"Maghan stepped up in fall ball and proved to be the starter. She has that competitive attitude and a toughness - both mental and physical - that you need as a goalkeeper."
New Hampshire opens the season with non-conference teams such as Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt and Towson - all of whom are in the 2006 preseason Top 20 at #3, #20, #15 and #12, respectively - to prepare for its America East portion of the schedule.
UNH kicks off the regular season Feb. 28 vs. Holy Cross for the first of nine home games in the 2006 season. Four of the seven March games are against the aforementioned nationally-ranked teams with intrastate rival Dartmouth travelling to Durham for a March 4 matchup. The 'Cats also play host to Marist (the 11th) and regional rival Brown (the 29th) in March, which also includes a trip to regional rival UMass on the 25th.
Five of eight April games, starting with an April Fool's Day game vs. Albany in the America East opener, will be at Memorial Field. After a road trip to Vermont, UNH has a four-game homestand against UMBC, Harvard, Binghamton and UConn. The 'Cats then close out the regular season with road games versus Stony Brook and Boston University.
UNH looks to still be playing when the calendar turns to May for the America East Championship, which will be played at the highest seed from May 5-7.