For the first time since 2009, the Upper Arlington High School girls lacrosse team enters a season as the defending Division I state champion.
But according to junior midfielder Molly Plasket, the Golden Bears are doing their best to forget that achievement -- at least while they're on the field.
"It's fun to be the underdog, but it's also fun to have a target on your back," Plasket said. "Honestly, we don't think about it that much. It does motivate us, but we leave that all to last year. It's a new team. We have the same goal, but you can't come in as state champions. You have to come in as the underdog."
UA returns five starters from last season, when it finished 16-2 overall and 5-0 in the OCC-Buckeye Division and won its first state title since 2008 and fifth overall, defeating Cincinnati Sycamore 14-8 in the state final.
But the Golden Bears, who open Friday, March 28, against host Winnetka (Ill.) New Trier in the Windy City Classic, lost seven players from a year ago to graduation, including their top three scorers in attackers Samantha Farwick and Sydney Farwick and midfielder Nicole Stines.
Sydney Farwick, who had a team-high 56 goals and 19 assists, and her sister Samantha, who had 54 goals and 25 assists, were named first-team all-league, all-district, all-state and All-American last year. They are playing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Stines, who had 44 goals and a team-high 44 assists and was first-team all-district and all-state last season, is playing for the University of Findlay.
"We'll have a different personality," said senior midfielder Armonde Moore, a two-year starter and University of Cincinnati signee who had 21 goals and five assists last year. "We need to work on a lot of basics. But once we get that down, we'll get the ball rolling. I think it can be another great season."
Plasket is the top returning scorer, having recorded 31 goals and 10 assists last year to earn second-team all-state, all-district and all-league honors. Senior attacker Olivia Achatz had 11 goals and 23 assists a year ago.
UA returns its top goalkeeper in senior Hannah Panos, who stopped 89 of 205 shots (.434 save percentage) last year.
Achatz, Moore, Panos, Plasket and junior defender Caroline Buse are returning starters, although Buse is expected to miss the entire season with a torn ACL, as is junior defender Mackenzie Baumgartner.
Wendy Pinta, who is in the third season of her second stint as coach, expects this year's team to be faster than last year's, largely because of an influx of quick underclassmen, including five freshmen.
The downside is that some of those younger players who earned a roster spot, partly because of the injuries to Baumgartner and Buse, lack varsity experience. The freshman class consists of defenders Samantha Brown, Anna Schildmeyer and Olivia Schildmeyer and midfielders Anna Piscopo and Allie Stillman.
"We gained a lot of speed. That was our primary goal," Pinta said. "You can't coach speed, and it's tough to beat speed. What those players might be struggling with is stickwork or game philosophy, because it's a lot to learn very quickly. They're making up for that with pure, raw athleticism."
Also on the team are seniors Madison Baker (attacker), Rachel Eastwood (defender), Carsyn Hager (attacker), Abigail Wilmer (attacker/midfielder) and Callie Zimmerman (defender), juniors Erin Eastwood (defense), Christina Koutras (attacker) and Megan Sengelmann (defender) and sophomores Maureen Kleinhenz (goalie) and Megan Morgan (midfielder).
UA has moved to the OCC-Central this season with Dublin Coffman, Hilliard Davidson, Olentangy Liberty and Thomas Worthington. The Bears' league opener is April 8 at home against Thomas.