On Saturday, Marquette women’s lacrosse will tangle with Florida, and I think it is safe to say that it is the most important game in program history.
First off, it’s an opportunity for Marquette to defeat a ranked opponent, something that they have not yet accomplished in the five-plus seasons of action. That alone would make it a little bit of a deal. The rest of the importance of this game comes to us via the Big East standings.
Right now, Marquette and Florida are tied atop the Big East table with a record of 5-0. Whichever team wins this game will be alone in first place in the league with three games left to play and then hold the inside track to the regular season championship. It also means that whichever team wins will hold the tiebreaker against the other in case the Big East tournament standings come down to that.
While the mere idea of inching closer to a Big East regular season championship is a massive deal for this Marquette team, the mere fact of holding a tiebreaker against a team likely to make the Big East tournament is a big deal. This is MU’s fifth year as a member of the Big East, and the Golden Eagles have yet to qualify for the four team conference tournament in the previous four campaigns. They won’t clinch a spot in the tournament with this win, but it would give MU at least a two game lead over the teams currently tied for fourth place with three games left to play. One of those three? This coming Wednesday at home against Denver, one of the teams tied for fourth place.
You can see the stakes at hand here. Win, and notch the best win in program history, inch closer to a regular season title, and walk up to the edge of clinching a conference tournament berth. No pressure, y’all.
Grace Gabriel Watch: Regardless of the result of the game, we may see history happen in Gainesville. Grace Gabriel currently has 51 goals on the season. Marquette’s single season record was set last year by Julianna Shearer..... at 55. Gabriel averages nearly four goals a game, so it’s completely possible and in fact almost likely that she breaks Shearer’s record on Saturday. By coincidence, Gabriel is also four goals away from Shearer’s career record for goals of 115.
Big East Game #6: at #9 Florida Gators (10-3, 5-0)
Marquette is 0-3 all-time against Florida. The Gators have been ranked in the top 10 for every meeting, a streak that will continue in this game. The streak that Marquette does not want to continue is losing by at least 10 goals, which has happened in all three contests. The previous meeting in Gainesville was the closest margin at exactly 10 goals, however Florida jumped out to a 15-0 lead over the first 45 minutes and held on for the 15-5 victory.
While this is a big and important game for Marquette, the odds are not in their favor. See, Florida is outscoring their opponents by more than four goals per game, which doesn’t really give a full picture of their capabilities. Seven of their eight non-conference games came against ranked teams. Look no further than Florida’s last three games for what the Gators are capable. All Big East games, all wins by at least 10 goals. That includes an 18-8 drubbing of a Villanova team that MU only beat by four.
You can be sure that the eyes of the league office will be on this game, as it will feature three of the most prolific goal scorers in the conference. Marquette’s Grace Gabriel leads the league in both total goals (51) and goals per game (3.92). Also in the top six in goals per game is Florida’s Lindsey Ronbeck (3.50, 4th) and Shayna Pirreca (3.00, T-6th). Not quite making the cut is Sydney Pirreca, who has 33 goals in 13 games for Florida. That’s “only” 2.53 per contest, and the cut off for the top 10 in the Big East is 2.67. I’m sure she’s very heartbroken.
As you can tell, Marquette’s defense is going to have their hands full defending that trio, not to mention the two other women on the UF roster that have thrown in 20 goals this season, or the total of eight women on the roster that are averaging at least a goal per game. That, kids, is what we like to call a diversification of your offense. One advantage that Marquette will have is that Florida doesn’t generate a lot of offense through passing. They’re only recording a bit over five assists per game, which means only about one-third of their goals come with a helper. Compare that with Marquette, who averages seven assists a game, pushing their assist rate up towards half of their goals.
If Marquette can find ways to keep the Gators out of Julianna Horning’s net, they’ll be presented with the riddle of putting the ball into Haley Hicklen’s net. She’s most likely going to be Big East Goalkeeper of the Year at the end of the regular season, with a goals-against average of 11.13, which is good enough for the Gators even if it’s only third best in the Big East. It’s lacrosse, so part of Hicklen’s GAA is always going to be connected to the speed of Florida’s offense. Hicklen’s candidacy for GKOTY is based largely in her league leading save percentage of .483, and seeing as Florida’s tempo has her making nearly 10 saves a game, it’s quite the overall performance from the junior from Baltimore.