This summer, Athletes Unlimited offered a new look at how professional sports leagues can be conducted. Focusing on players instead of teams, every play in an Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse game was filled with opportunities for athletes to rack up points and sit atop the season leaderboard.
It made play exciting — and a big game from a player didn’t always mean just a win on their record, but also a huge bump in the standings.
With a sport like lacrosse — which is growing more popular every year — the culmination of the season felt like a big step forward. Former Maryland women’s lacrosse star Taylor Cummings entered her name into the Book of Unlimited as the inaugural champion.
So it got me thinking: What would this model look like in college lacrosse?
I watched every second of Maryland women’s lacrosse this year. I felt like the answer would be obvious, to me, to who would be the champion using the point rules featured in Athletes Unlimited.
But I needed to be sure.
So, fresh out of my journalism statistics course — where spreadsheets are king — I set out to confirm my suspicions.
First, let’s define the rules:
I am using the same scoring system as Athletes Unlimited:
Goal: +12 points
Assist: +4 points
Shot Saved: -2 points
Ground Ball: +2 points
Draw Control: +2 points
Turnover: -8 points
Caused Turnover: +12 points
Save (keepers): +6 points
Goals Against (keepers): -1 point
There are a few rules I won’t be using.
Result-based points: This one felt fairly obvious to eliminate given every player on the team won and lost the exact same number of games and periods (unless you were excluding games where certain players didn’t play).
Two-point goals: The league offers two points for any goals scored beyond the eight-meter fan on the field. We’ll leave that one be rather than try to review the 209 goals scored this season.
Game MVPs: In Athletes Unlimited, points are awarded based on a vote between players and fans who are in the Unlimited Club. As exciting a prospect it would’ve been for me, personally, to convince a group of people to look back at the season and pick MVPs for each game, I felt we could do without that.
So, without further ado, let’s look back at the Terps in 2021 and see who takes the trophy.
New and old faces start strong
Games 1-4: @ No. 21 Penn State, vs No. 17 Michigan, vs No. 17 Michigan, @ Johns Hopkins
Although the Terps had a tough start, dropping their season-opener to Penn State, captains Grace Griffin and Lizzie Colson were off to a flying start with a team-leading 44 and 42 points, respectively.
Griffin had a solid day with one goal, two caused turnovers and six draw controls. But most importantly, she limited her mistakes with just one turnover. Meanwhile, Colson returned to the field for the first time in 637 days following an ACL injury and turned in a then-career-high four caused turnovers.
Sophomore Libby May began a very nice streak for herself, too, starting the first of three consecutive games with at least 36 points.
The real difference maker in these first few games was the emergence of Hannah Leubecker as one of the strongest scorers in college lacrosse. In game two, Leubecker dominated with seven goals. An additional two caused turnovers and just one turnover boosted her to a monstrous 104-point performance.
That’s a single-game total her teammates didn’t beat.
A 62-point performance two games later, including an overtime winner against Johns Hopkins, put Leubecker at the top through the opening four contests. Consistent play from Colson, Griffin and goalkeeper Emily Sterling, who earned the starting job between the sticks in preseason practice, kept things close.
Top-five after four games:
Hannah Leubecker: 188
Lizzie Colson: 172
Emily Sterling: 141
Grace Griffin: 130
Libby May: 98
It’s the Hannah Leubecker show
Games 5-8: vs Ohio State, vs Ohio State, @ No. 3 Northwestern, @ No. 3 Northwestern
Leubecker became the biggest thorn in Ohio State’s side, scoring 12 goals over the two-game series. If she hadn’t turned over the ball five times on the weekend, she would’ve had more than 150 points for two games, instead settling for 118 combined.
The sophomore attacker wasn’t the only one to take advantage of a lackluster Buckeyes squad, with Griffin racking up 84 points in a game one win and Sterling nabbing 73 in a goalkeeping masterclass in game two.
Griffin was the picture of consistency, with four goals and four assists and no turnovers.
Sterling took that second matchup with Ohio State as a chance to show off why she beat out Maddie McSally and Madison Hine for the starting job, racking up 12 saves and only allowing five goals.
Now, let’s talk about Northwestern.
After dropping the first game to Penn State, the Terps were on a roll. Coach Cathy Reese’s squad had rattled off five consecutive wins and looked poised to remain at the top of the conference.
Then, they went to Evanston, Illinois, for a pair of thrashings to the eventual national semifinalist Wildcats.
Maryland played Northwestern as close as anyone in the first halves of both matchups, but they were thoroughly outclassed when it came to the second period.
Leubecker was the only one to hit the 50 mark in either game, riding a five-goal game two that had seen the Terps level at halftime.
At the end of this stretch, Leubecker was strongly in front, with Sterling, Colson and Griffin keeping pace with one another.
However, senior Hannah Warther entered the top-five after turning in the best performance in the first Northwestern game, with 44 points.
Top-five after eight games:
Hannah Leubecker: 394
Emily Sterling: 318
Lizzie Colson: 304
Grace Griffin: 286
Hannah Warther: 144
Defense wins championships
Games 9-12: vs No. 23 Rutgers, @ No. 14 Penn State, vs Johns Hopkins, @ No. 24 Rutgers
It’s the final stretch of the regular season and, up to this point, Leubecker has been nearly unstoppable.
But, when it came to scoring in the final few games for the Terps, it was much more spread out. In the first three games of this block, no attacker was able to crack the 50-point mark.
The sophomore pair of May and Leubecker finally showed a level of inexperience, particularly against Johns Hopkins. They registered -26 and -20, respectively, in that contest, the worst scores of the entire season.
The standouts, meanwhile, were all on the back half of the field.
Colson notched her season-high 86 points against Rutgers on Senior Day. Hine saw her first minutes of the season, getting the nod along with the other senior Terps. She had the third best total for a keeper at that point with 45, only playing the first half.
And Laurie Bracey, another senior, put in a shift with 52 points on defense against Johns Hopkins.
Even though the backline was the dominant force over these games, captain Brindi Griffin finally saw her points skyrocket after starting with just 72 points in eight games. She more than tripled her season total with four consecutive hat tricks.
Going into postseason play, Colson led the pack, with Sterling breathing down Leubecker’s neck with games dwindling.
Top-five after 12 games:
Lizzie Colson: 510
Hannah Leubecker: 454
Emily Sterling: 447
Grace Griffin: 340
Brindi Griffin: 226
Big Ten Tournament: vs. Michigan, vs. No. 13 Johns Hopkins, vs. No. 2 Northwestern
The Terps were in strange territory as tournament play dawned, having to play three games instead of the expected two in order to win the Big Ten title.
But there is one benefit — more points on the leaderboard!
And the one who reaped most of those benefits was, unsurprisingly, Sterling. She added a team-high 114 points throughout the tournament. Sterling was electric during Maryland’s run, particularly in the first halves of her games, where she was nearly impossible to get past.
Brindi Griffin continued her string of strong performances, grabbing 92 points for her total during the three-game stretch. Colson, Leubecker and May all came away with nice sums, with the latter two competing in their first tournament for the Terps.
Another surprise came from Tori Barretta, a senior defender, who more than doubled her total scoring over the weekend.
Despite starting every game for the Terps, the score sheets never gave her the credit she deserved. Barretta had a strong season, helping push an inexperienced backline forward throughout the season. It finally came to fruition on the leaderboard with a 74-point weekend.
With just two games remaining, Colson had the edge over Sterling and Leubecker, with everyone else well behind.
Top-five after the Big Ten Tournament:
Lizzie Colson: 598
Emily Sterling: 561
Hannah Leubecker: 534
Grace Griffin: 400
Brindi Griffin: 318
NCAA Tournament: vs. High Point, vs. No. 7 Duke
It all comes down to the final two games. And Colson and Sterling make it (unknowingly) interesting.
With a 37-point deficit going into the final two rounds, Sterling needed a big game to keep up with the reigning Big Ten Defender of the Year.
And she got it.
A season-high 78 points against High Point in the NCAA tournament opening round gave Sterling a seven point lead over Colson, who still put up a solid 34-point game. Sterling didn’t even play the final eight minutes, hitting the bench after posting 11 saves while only allowing four goals.
It looked like Sterling, who started 16 games last season, had grabbed the title from under Colson’s nose in the next to last game.
However, Colson had one game left in her locker.
Despite getting injured in the final few minutes of what would be her final college game, Colson put on a show. She grabbed six ground balls, four draw controls and a massive five caused turnovers, good for 80 points and the right to become champion for the season.
CHAMPION: Lizzie Colson: 712
Emily Sterling: 672
Hannah Leubecker: 584
Grace Griffin: 458
Libby May: 362
What did we learn?
1) Lizzie Colson is very good.
Shocker! Who would’ve guessed the IWLCA National Defender of the Year would be a good player? But this exercise gives just another indication of how special Colson was in 2021.
Her impact on every game and the skill with which she approached the season were unmatched in the NCAA. It’s very fitting she became the inaugural champion of our experiment.
2) Consistent goalkeeping play gives a boost.
While Sterling had an excellent season, you can’t help but notice she made it closer to beating Colson than expected. Goalkeepers seem to excel in this format, with three goalies in the top-five of this season of Athletes Unlimited.
Before the NCAA tournament, Sterling played the most games in goal and the second-most minutes in between the pipes of any Big Ten keeper. She was often one of the most consistent pieces for the Terps, and it shows in her spot on the leaderboard.
3) Mistakes can ruin your score.
Turnovers are a killer. And not even the best player can escape them, but it proved to hurt some players more than others. Leubecker finished third with 586 points, but if she had avoided her 29 turnovers, the sophomore was looking at 816 total points.
Similarly, May missed out on 176 points due to giveaways. Efficient shooting, something Reese talked about all year, can also be key to raising that score. Although it’s a slower burn than turnovers, May missed out on 56 points due to saved shots.
4) The Terps return four of their five top point-earners.
With Colson the only member of the top five not returning, Maryland looks poised to get back to final four and championship contention that eluded it this past season.
Grace Griffin is going to be the player next season, leading a group that will largely come in with good experience. Leubecker can continue to be one of the most lethal shooters in the NCAA, and Sterling and May both showed massive improvement as go-to starters for the foreseeable future.
But Colson’s graduation means one thing is certain: we’ll get a new champion next season.