Title IX in Action
Article and Photos by Leigh Ernst Friestedt
2021 NCAA DI Women's Lacrosse
2021 marked a break-out year for three outstanding Freshmen in Division I Women’s Lacrosse: Belle Smith (Boston College), Emma Ward (Syracuse) and Caitlyn Wurzburger (UNC). The Top Freshmen all came from the powerhouse ACC conference and led their teams in the Final Four – tallying over 40 combined points for the NCAA Tournament and earning recognition on the Championship All-Tournament Team.
The Top Freshmen exemplify the hallmarks of outstanding student-athletes: raw talent coupled with an incredible work ethic and drive to succeed. Belle, Emma and Caitlyn excelled on the field and in the classroom earning recognition on the ACC All-Academic Team.
The Top Freshmen bring a unique style to the women’s game, molded by years of playing different sports and countless hours perfecting their lacrosse skills on a wall. These women are selfless student-athletes who approach every day with a winning attitude – eager to learn and never resting on their laurels.
Extra Year of Eligibility
With an extra year of eligibility extended to student-athletes impacted by the cancellation of college sports in 2020 due to the pandemic, 2021 proved to be a challenging year for Freshmen to earn playing time. The natural succession of Seniors graduating to make room for incoming Freshmen was disrupted by the addition of a 5th-year, extending the longevity of top players on teams contending for a National Championship.
The extra-year of eligibility boxed out even the Top Freshmen from starting lineups. Despite this extra hurdle – Belle, Emma and Caitlyn navigated the delicate balance of being the youngest member on a team and playing like a veteran. Earning the respect and confidence of their teammates and coaches, the Top Freshmen improved with every game and peaked at the NCAA Final Four to help their teams contend for a National Championship.
Belle, Emma and Caitlyn were recruited as young teenagers before the new NCAA early recruiting legislation restricted contact and communication with college coaches until Sept. 1 of a prospective student-athlete’s junior year in high-school. All three were recruited during middle-school, playing on top club lacrosse teams and attending college camps where head coaches identified their talent at an early age.
Caitlyn and Belle were in 8th-grade when they verbally committed to Syracuse and Boston College. Caitlyn reconsidered her early decision during her junior year, and ultimately decided to matriculate at UNC. While Head Coach, Gary Gait, may have been disappointed to lose the number one recruit in the country (Caitlyn), Emma Wardwas in the Syracuse pipeline and resolute about her decision, which she made as a Freshman at Babylon High-School.
The "IT" Factor
What did the top coaches see in Belle, Emma and Caitlyn at such a young age – the “IT” Factor – which can be difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Athleticism, game sense and a humble confidence define these top student-athletes. But being a great lacrosse player is not enough – these Top Freshmen are coachable – they understand their role on a team and work hard to improve every day.
Belle Smith (Boston College)
The #1 midfield recruit from Long Island, Belle Smith helped lead Boston College to the program’s first National Championship in 2021. An outstanding offensive midfielder, Belle made significant contributions on attack setting the BC single-season Freshman record for points (67) and goals (47). Additionally, Belle marked up against key players on defense to earn the ACC Freshman of the Year award.
Belle committed to Boston College during the Spring of 8th grade. Her early decision was premised on the excellent academic and athletic programs at BC and a gut feeling when she arrived on campus – that this was the right school for her. Guided by her faith and desire to be on an up-and-coming team, Belle joined her cousin, Hollie Schleicher, who was also an outstanding Freshman on the BC team in 2020.
When Belle committed in 2016, winning a National Championship was a dream but not yet a reality for the Eagles. For the next three years, Belle watched BC play in the Championship Game (2017-19), but come up short. Hungry to win a National Championship, Belle joined the Eagles in 2021 and helped the team capture the program’s first national title.
#5 Belle Smith (BC) - Midfield
Belle’s success on the lacrosse field can be attributed to her multi-sport background: volleyball, basketball and lacrosse. Belle set records in every sport she played at Westhampton Beach High-School scoring over 1,700 points in basketball, over 2,000 digs in volleyball, and 231 goals, 114 assists and 319 draw controls in lacrosse.
Belle made history as the second female athlete to be named First Team All-Long Island in three sports. The skills and lessons learned from playing multiple sports in high-school contributed to Belle’s success on the field as a Freshman at BC.
Admittedly, not the biggest, strongest or fastest player on the field, Belle has the IT factor and lacrosse IQ to make her an exceptional athlete. Building on her years of playing different sports, Belle’s games sense is exceptional and enables her to anticipate where the ball will be and when there’s an opening to goal.
Key to Belle’s development as a Freshman was the support of her family, teammates and the BC coaches. Restricted from playing lacrosse after testing positive for Covid in the Fall, Belle’s transition to college was not easy. It took several games for Belle to find her role on the team, but everything started to click when the Eagles traveled to play Hofstra in her hometown Long Island. Coming off the bench, Belle scored four goals on four shots and established herself as a young leader on the team.
Boston College’s Assistant Coach, Kayla Treanor, served as Belle’s mentor her Freshman year. The All-American Syracuse graduate taught Belle how to play at the highest level, instilling confidence and self-worth in every member of the BC team. A huge loss for BC as Kayla steps into her new role as Head Coach at Syracuse, but a mentor for life as Belle continues her career with the Eagles.
Emma Ward (Syraucse)
Emma Ward entered her Freshman year at Syracuse as an offensive midfielder, splitting time with a defensive midfielder and running on-off the field every time the ball transitioned. But when Syracuse’s top attacker, Emily Hawryschuk, tore her ACL after the first game of the season, Emma stepped up to fill the All-American’s position on attack. A huge role for a Freshman, but one that Emma embraced and excelled at with the help of her coaches and teammates.
Play Like a Girl
Emma’s style of play is premised on excellent stick work, high lacrosse IQ and a physical toughness that she learned playing football with the boys. Emma’s male teammates had doubts when she put on the pads, but once they realized that she was better than them – they had no issues letting her play and handing her the ball. Emma played every position on the football field (quarterback, running back, linebacker) from 2nd-7th grade when she started to focus on lacrosse and her size at 5’2″ became an issue.
Emma’s mentality from playing sports with the boys resonates with her play on the field at Syracuse. Tough as nails, Emma is not afraid of contact, can’t be pushed around and when she is knocked down – gets back up and plays harder.
A multi-sport athlete, Emma played soccer, basketball and lacrosse at Babylon High-School. Emma excelled at every sport she played, but suffered two ACL tears which sidelined her during these critical years of development.
Resiliency is key to Emma’s success – exemplified by using her injuries as an opportunity to grow. Instead of playing forward in soccer, Emma switched to goalie and developed invaluable mental skills. Learning how to play in the moment and make decisive decisions – Emma’s reaction time and ability to trust her instincts transferred onto the lacrosse field.
As a goalie, Emma also learned how to make mistakes. When Emma jumped to the left instead of the right on the final penalty kick in the championship game her junior year – the team lost the game. But Emma’s resiliency and ability to learn from mistakes are what make her great.
Injured and unable to play lacrosse until her junior year in high-school, Emma attended Long Island Top Guns practices and created her own version of training. Throwing the ball against the wall in every possible direction, Emma mastered her stick skills which she used to maneuver past top defenders as a Freshman at Syracuse.
Living a Dream
With lacrosse cancelled her senior-year in high-school due to covid, Emma arrived at Syracuse having played limited lacrosse. Grateful that Coach Gait believed in her and stuck with her despite her injuries, Emma was playing for something more when she arrived on campus. Never taking anything for granted, Emma worked hard to be the “best version of herself” and comeback to play college lacrosse.
Emma’s grit coupled with her decisive play fit perfectly with the Syracuse system. The Orange run a weave attack – players pass the ball and shield each other until there is a breakdown in the defense and go to goal. Emma’s ability to block off ball, make decisive decisions and rip the ball into the back of the net made her an impact player as a Freshman.
Proud to wear jersey #44, Emma is living a dream playing for ‘Cuse. Officially retired from football, #44 is a legend at Syracuse with All-Americans Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little wearing one of the most successful numbers associated with the University.
#44 was already a special number for the Ward family – both Emma and her dad wore #44 playing basketball. Emma’s outstanding Freshman year continued the legacy of #44 and is rewriting history for female student-athletes at Syracuse.
Despite losing the 2021 NCAA Championship Game to BC, Emma’s Freshman year at Syracuse was a “Fairy Tale”. Underdogs heading into the NCAA Tournament with top players injured, Emma and her teammates rose to the occasion and battled their way to the Finals.
Since the conclusion of the season, Gary Gait has taken over the Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse program and Kayla Treanor is the new Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach. With the addition of key transfers and a new incoming Freshman class, 2022 will be a year of change with Emma playing a critical role as Syracuse goes after the program’s first national title.
Caitlyn Wurzburger (UNC)
Caitlyn entered her Freshman year at UNC as the #1 recruit in the country and the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 1,027 points (503 goals, 524 assists). The extra-year of eligibility definitely impacted Caitlyn’s playing time with four starting senior attackers already established at UNC. But as the first attacker off the bench, Caitlyn played an integral role on the team and will be a key starter for the Tar Heels in 2022.
A Florida native, Caitlyn started playing lacrosse at age 5 when she moved from the midwest. Similar to Emma, the boy’s game played a role in Caitlyn’s development. Coached by her dad, Robert Wurzburger, Caitlyn learned all of the fundamentals from one of the best in the men’s game. Rob played lacrosse at University of Maryland where he set records as a crease attacker.
With the recent developments in the configuration of the women’s stick – Caitlyn’s lacrosse stick today is very similar to the stick her father played with back in the 1980s. Caitlyn’s rigorous training schedule starts early in the morning playing wall-ball on the side of her parents’ home in Delray Beach, FL. After an hour perfecting her stick skills, her dad often joins Caitlyn to shoot on the lacrosse cage in their front yard.
Beyond the lacrosse field, Caitlyn has conditioned at the highest level with her trainer, Darin, for over a decade and put in countless hours by herself to achieve the optimum strength, speed and agility. A natural runner, Caitlyn can run a 5:50 mile and has her mother’s marathon endurance on the field.
Playing at the Next Level
Caitlyn loved to play lacrosse and wanted to compete at the next level, but didn’t know where her game was relative to other top players coming from Florida. To develop her game, Caitlyn traveled to Long Island and joined the elite girls club lacrosse team – Yellow Jackets.
Belle and Caitlyn were teammates in 7th-grade playing for the Yellow Jackets when college coaches started to see their talent. After commuting to Long Island for a season, Caitlyn joined the 2018 Florida girls club lacrosse team (there was no 2020 team at the time). Playing against girls two years older pushed Caitlyn to develop her game to the next level. And as the smallest player on the field – Caitlyn learned to use her speed, skills and intellect to overcome size.
Outsmart the Defense
Not the biggest player on the field, Caitlyn relies on her exceptional stick work, speed and intellect to outmaneuver defenders. Caitlyn plays a simple game but executes it at the highest level. A consistent and creative player, Caitlyn knows how to feed her teammates and put the ball in the back of the net.
In addition to excelling on the field, Caitlyn is very driven in the classroom. Already focused on her career after college, Caitlyn was recently accepted to UNC’s prestigious Kenan-Flagler Business School for her junior year, where she will focus on sports marketing and finance in anticipation of merging her lacrosse with business.
For 2022, look for Caitlyn to start every game as she takes over for All-American graduate Katie Hoeg. A new dimension to the Tar Heels attack, Caitlyn is working hard to perfect her feeds to All-American Jamie Ortega and go after the National Championship.
Belle, Emma and Caitlyn represent the next generation of women’s lacrosse as three of the youngest members of Team USA. As the game continues to develop beyond the collegiate level, Team USA is preparing for the 2022 World Lacrosse Women’s Championship.
Belle, Emma and Caitlyn are fiercely competitive on the field playing for rival ACC teams, but off the field are friends and have supported each other coming up the ranks of women’s lacrosse. While wearing the USA jersey is a tremendous honor, for now these Top Freshmen are focused on winning the National Championship with their college teammates.
Special thanks to Belle Smith, Emma Ward, Caitlyn Wurzburger and their families for providing photos from their youth and helping with background for the article.