Women’s lacrosse steadily improving

The SportsCenter Top 10 plays list is one of the ultimate pinnacles in all of sports. In fact, if I had to list the 10 things I would want to accomplish in sports if I were an elite athlete, making ESPN’s Top 10 list would definitely be one of them — somewhere between striking out Barry Bonds and getting my name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

So when I read in the press release from earlier this year that the new offensive coordinator for the USC women’s lacrosse team had once graced that trademark ESPN segment as a player, I knew she was legit.

She’s Alyssa Leonard, a former star from the Northwestern women’s lacrosse dynasty, who snuck in at No. 10 on the list with a brilliant behind-the-back shot.

But the most impressive parts? She scored it against USC. And only four months before being hired to coach the school she just schooled. The highlight occurred on April 26 last year, when the Wildcats took down the Women of Troy 12-7, during Leonard’s senior season. By late August, she was hired to be a part of USC’s staff.

It’s not unusual for USC women’s lacrosse coaches to come from Northwestern, the powerhouse that has won seven national championships since 2005. USC’s head coach Lindsey Munday hails from Northwestern, as did Hilary Bowen, the former offensive coordinator for whom Leonard took over. If the goal is to be the best, you might as well learn from the best.

While USC lacrosse is still a couple years from breaking into the upper echelon of national programs, the team has made tremendous progress in only its third competitive season. This year is no exception, as the Women of Troy look like legitimate contenders for a conference championship and an NCAA tournament bid.

The 2015 season has featured a seven-game winning streak for the Women of Troy, a program record. The streak included three wins over Mountain Pacific Sports Federation rivals, propelling the team into second place in the conference standings — San Diego State, which hosts the Women of Troy on the last day of the season, sits in first at 4-0.

The seven-game winning streak was sandwiched by three tough losses. The Women of Troy open the season against none other than Northwestern inside the Coliseum. USC nearly shocked the lacrosse world and had the Wildcats trailing by seven goals at the start of the game. Northwestern rallied to tie the game in regulation, however, and ultimately pull out a 12-11 win in overtime. The heartbreaking comeback was followed by a tough 7-4 loss at Stony Brook, USC’s worst offensive output of the season. The seven-game winning streak started after the Stony Brook loss and ended this Monday at Boston College after USC fell to the Eagles 16-12.

There’s obviously still room for improvement for the team. No. 6 Northwestern, No. 9 Stony Brook and No. 3 BC are the only three ranked teams USC has played this year. Despite the seven-game winning streak, the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association national poll does not have the Women of Troy in the Top 20 because of their struggles against ranked opponents. But the overall performance of the team over the season shows noticeable improvement both from last season and as a program in general.

Though the old saying goes that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, I think there is something to be said about the fact that USC has played some of the best teams in the country competitively.

The Northwestern game in particular shows the potential of the club, even though part of that can likely be attributed to a slow start by the Wildcats in their season opener on the road. Compared to the last time Northwestern faced USC in the Coliseum, when the Wildcats won 18-5 two years ago during USC’s first game in program history, it’s obvious that the program has come a long way in just those three short seasons.

The overall numbers on the season also tell an important story about the progress of the team. Not only are the Women of Troy close in games that they’ve lost, but they’re also dominating in games that they’ve won.

The Women of Troy are averaging 13.3 goals per game, more than two points better than the 11.5 averaged the year before. USC is also holding opponents to only 7.7 goals a game, about another two-goal improvement from the 9.6 goals a game surrendered last year.

The toughest part of the MPSF schedule still remains for the Women of Troy. The three teams to beat USC in conference play last year — Colorado, Denver and Oregon — all have yet to play USC this year. Additionally, USC’s matchup with Stanford, the one ranked MPSF team, is set for later next month.

But the Women of Troy look to be in good position to finish in at least sixth place in the conference standings and make the MPSF tournament. The Women of Troy were bounced in the first round of the tournament last year but look capable of running with every team in the conference this year. Winning the tournament would earn USC its first ever NCAA tournament bid, which would be another huge step forward for the national reputation of the program. The Women of Troy are absolutely heading in the right direction, and it’s only a matter of time before they get there. This year’s team still needs to prove it can finish against the best competition for it to be a possibility this season, but the potential to do so definitely seems to be there.

Like any program, the eventual goal of the team is to legitimately compete for national titles every year. USC has the resources to do so, as well as arguably the best coaching staff in the county.

Munday and Leonard both won two national championships as players at Northwestern, with Munday adding another three as an assistant coach for the Wildcats, so they know what it takes to get there. As cool as seeing herself on SportsCenter must have been, I can bet those two national championship rings rank just a little higher on Leonard’s Top 10 career sports accomplishments.