DURHAM, N.H. -- The University of New Hampshire women's lacrosse team lost its leading scorer and top goalkeeper from the 2003 season to graduation, but the belief that the Wildcats can win the 2004 America East title was not lost with them.
Under the guidance of eighth-year head coach Sandy Bridgeman, UNH returns 13 letterwinners, including nine starters, from the 2003 squad that finished second in the conference standings as well as runner-up in the tournament. Included among those returning are three conference First Team selections, two Second Team honorees and all three All-Rookie Team picks.
"It seems like I say this every year, but the ultimate goal is the NCAA Championships," Bridgeman said. "But that's a long-term goal for the season and we have to focus on all the little things along the way to get us there. We really put a lot of focus on our conference games because that is one way to get to the NCAAs."
Three players from Granite State will help UNH attain that goal, as Nashua products Christine Carbone and Stacey Plati join Jill Albee (Pembroke) on the squad. Albee, a former standout at Bishop Brady, is a junior attack expected to make significant contributions on offense this season. As freshmen, Plati will contend for the starting role as a goalkeeper and Carbone will provide depth to a solid defensive unit.
The graduation of Jessie Groszkowski, who finished as the program's all-time leader in goals and second in points, gives great opportunity for a number of other Wildcats in 2004.
At the top of that list is Jess Burnap (New Canaan, Conn.), the 2002 America East Rookie of the Year who ranked second in goals (27), assists (12) and points (39) as a sophomore a year ago. Although she is officially a midfielder, Burnap will likely be the team's top threat when on the attack.
"Jess is a versatile player, but we need to utilize her skills best on the attack," Bridgeman said. "She's a strong 1-on-1 player who can put the ball in the net."
Senior tri-captain Kelly Blaney (Stony Brook, N.Y.) will be the origin of the Wildcats' attack. And last year she also displayed a finishing touch as her goal total matched her team-high assist mark of 15.
"Kelly brings experience and maturity as she directs the attack," Bridgeman said. "She runs our offense with the ability to make the right decisions with the ball."
The return of the aforementioned Albee and sophomore Katie Leland (Timonium, Md.) give the 'Cats two more viable options on the attack.
"This is a season that I think Jill will come into her own," Bridgeman said. "She is familiar with the system and has gained confidence to become a solid attack option.
"We have really high expectations for Katie in our offense," she added. "She has the ability to finish with a good, hard shot and she has excellent composure."
Freshman Leanne Ferretti (Sound Beach, N.Y.), who displayed a nose-to-the-goal mentality and ability to finish in fall ball, is expected to make an impact and classmate Alexa Webster (Aurora, Colo.) gives depth to the attack unit.
Burnap and senior tri-captain Sarah Cahill (Lexington, Mass.) give the Wildcats a formidable midfield foundation. Cahill ranked third last year in goals (18) as well as fifth in both points (21) and ground balls.
"Sarah in the midfield is very versatile for us - she can play attack mid or defensive mid and she is really solid at both ends of the field for us," Bridgeman said.
Two other midfield players also expected to contribute to the attack are junior Laura Dosdall (Wellesley, Mass.) and sophomore Kristin Blanchette (Sudbury, Mass.). Both players finished with 17 points a year ago.
"Laura, I think, will have a breakout year. She had a great fall. With her skills and confidence, she will be a key for us in the midfield," Bridgeman said. "Kristin is an impact player in midfield, primarily on the attack end of the field. Her skills are getting stronger, she has grown from a year of experience and has matured as a player."
The only newcomer to this outstanding quartet is freshman Cristina Covucci (Concord, Mass.). With excellent speed and game-sense, she is expected to make an immediate impact on the rotation.
Renee Nemmers (Englewood, Colo.), the third tri-captain, anchors the defensive unit. A year ago, she ranked second on the team in caused turnovers and tied for the team lead in ground balls.
"Renee is the anchor in our low defense," Bridgeman stated. "She is the voice of the defense and is the one the rest of the defenders look to."
Lauren Zerbinopoulos (Kennebunk, Maine) missed fall ball but gained a lot of playing experience in the 2003 season.
"Lauren has a great deal of speed and is a feisty little defender," Bridgeman said.
Mel Bourque (Topsfield, Mass.), who was named to the all-conference Second Team as well as All-Rookie Team in 2003, is another key to the defense's success.
"Mel is very aggressive. She has quick footwork, which makes her a great individual defender."
Sarah Hutchinson (Portland, Maine) and Caitlin Noon (Annapolis, Md.) also return to the defensive unit and are joined by newcomers Carbone and Kendra Wroblewski (North Reading, Mass.).
UNH's pair of goalkeepers has less than 100 minutes of collegiate experience between them - and sophomore Julie Bevad (Sea Cliff, N.Y.) claims all of it. She played in four games last year, all in a backup role. She will be challenged for the 2004 starting role by rookie Plati.
"Our goalkeepers are solid but we need to get them in there and get some collegiate experience," Bridgeman stated.
Once again, UNH plays a challenging non-conference schedule that features some of the best teams in the nation. The Wildcats open the 2004 season against Dartmouth College, a team that advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals a year ago. The Big Green and Yale are nationally ranked in the preseason poll, as is Vanderbilt, while Rutgers, UMass, Boston College and UConn also received votes.
"This is a competitive schedule that will help us for America East, but we are also looking to win these games," Bridgeman said. "I'm excited to get the season going."
UNH opens the 2004 season this Saturday, Feb. 28, when the Wildcats play host to intrastate rival Dartmouth College. Game time at Memorial Field is 1 p.m.