Lacrosse players look upwards towards a ball as they faceoff. Their teammates surround them, in a ready-stance.
In a successful matchup against Cincinnati, No. 19 Michigan relied on experienced leadership to achieve victory. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

The No. 19 Michigan women’s lacrosse team has a roster laden with upperclassmen, and that experience was on full display during its 16-3 rout of Cincinnati.

Michigan started out hot, scoring four goals in the first 6:06 of play, with half of them coming from upperclassmen. Graduate midfielder Kaley Thompson opened the scoring 1:35 into the game, assisted by junior attacker Caroline Davis. Just four minutes later, junior midfielder Annabelle Burke added Michigan’s third goal of the quarter.

While the Wolverines are led offensively by sophomore midfielder Jill Smith, who tallied five goals on Sunday to bring her season total to 34, the strong veteran presence on the team is paying dividends.

“Oh, they’ve been awesome,” Smith said of the upperclassmen. “They’re our team leaders.”

That experienced leadership starts at the point of attack for Michigan. After a penalty on the opening faceoff gave Cincinnati possession, junior midfielder Josie Gooch won the next five draws, giving the Wolverines the ability to maintain possession and build their large lead early.

Gooch’s impact on this early scoring blitz was best seen in comparison to Cincinnati: the Bearcats hardly possessed the ball in the opening minutes due to her faceoff prowess, and thus could not gain any offensive momentum as they fell into an early hole. Michigan assistant coach Casey Pearsall has been working on faceoff situations with Gooch and her team, and that extra work paid off.

“Just fine tuning that technique, and just really putting in the time, I think,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “The last few games we haven’t necessarily won the (faceoff) stat, and that’s made it difficult. When you talk about a game of possession, you want the ball more, so those girls have sort of taken that to heart, and they put the work in week in, week out, and I was happy for them that it clicked.”

Defensively, Michigan was not challenged much, but when it was, the Wolverines were ready. Junior goalie Maya Santa-Maria made six saves in the first two quarters before being replaced by sophomore Erin O’Grady at the onset of the second half.

The Wolverines did not allow a goal until the 12:03 mark of the fourth quarter, when the game was well in hand, and though they allowed Cincinnati to score twice more on their backup goaltenders in the next four and a half minutes, the defense tightened up once again to close out the game.

An experienced goalkeeper with seven career starts, Santa-Maria is in the midst of an all-conference type of season, boasting a conference-leading .514 save percentage as of Sunday, and her steadying presence between the pipes is a major reason Michigan is having such a successful season.

The Wolverines also have three graduate students on their roster, athletes who have taken advantage of their extra COVID-19 year of eligibility to come back for another season of college lacrosse. Thompson, midfielder Erin Garvey, and midfielder Morgan Whitaker each have more than 45 games worth of collegiate experience under their belts. They fortify the midfield for the Wolverines, and their presence is crucial for the development of Michigan’s talented underclassmen.

Garvey, who is in her second season as a team captain alongside Whitaker, netted two goals on Sunday, and Thompson also contributed a goal. The trio has played a lot of lacrosse together, and their knowledge and leadership are helping the young Wolverines.

“If they’re down one game, they make sure they lift everyone up,” said Smith. “Just overall, they’ve been great.”

Michigan is nearing the midpoint of its season, and it will have to continue to lean on its veterans to guide it through the latter half of the campaign. The Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament last year after going 3-9 in 2021, and they are eager to capitalize on that positive momentum going forward.

“I think the team is excited and hungry to honestly do better than we did last year,” Nielsen said, noting that Michigan did not make the Big Ten tournament in 2022. “We want to be winning those Big Ten games. We’re playing well at the right time, and it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s what you get up for, and the girls are just eager to keep going.”

As conference play looms and the competition gets considerably stiffer, Michigan will rely on the players who have been there before to lead it toward the postseason.