Courtesy of Athletes Unlimited

For Taylor Cummings, the upcoming Athletes Unlimited lacrosse season is both the culmination of a winding professional journey and a departure from everything she’s done before. 

Widely regarded as one of the best lacrosse players of all time, Cummings has excelled at every level of the sport. At Maryland, she was a three-time Tewaaraton Award winner as the nation’s best player (the only three-time winner ever, female or male). She won two national championships with the Terps, has already played in two professional leagues — the United Women’s Lacrosse League and the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League — and has long been a staple of Team USA.

But now she’s ready for a new challenge — a single-site, five-week season in which the teams change every week. With Athletes Unlimited, players earn individual points, and the top four each week are in charge of drafting their respective teams. At the end of the season, the top overall point scorer is crowned the season’s champion.

“So many of us are used to playing with a college team year-round, or a U.S. Team, or even a professional team,” Cummings said. “So that aspect will be different.”

For Cummings and others, Athlete Unlimited’s format isn’t just different — it could also be the future.

Last August, the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL) was forced to fold due to economic hardships caused by COVID-19. The league had previously announced a major sponsorship deal with Nike, but with the 2020 season cancelled, was unable to forge on.

Cummings, who had been drafted in the inaugural WPLL draft, was serving on the board at the time.

Almost immediately, rumors started swirling that Athletes Unlimited was in the process of launching its own professional lacrosse league after successfully debuting similar leagues for softball and volleyball.

As soon as the possibility was brought to her attention, Cummings knew it was something she needed to consider. She talked with U.S. teammates and longtime friends Kayla Treanor and Michelle Tumolo, who both serve on AU’s player executive committee, and figured out whether it would fit into her schedule before deciding to sign on for the season.

“It was another opportunity for a shift from the WPLL to something a little different,” she said. “But still very much a professional women’s lacrosse league.”

Cummings knew that AU’s television exposure would draw more eyes to women’s lacrosse. Despite being one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, professional women’s lacrosse has had a hard time finding its footing, in large part due to a lack of visibility and consistent coverage.

“Many of us play not only because we enjoy it, but because we want to help the next generation of players play and have things better than we do right now,” Cummings said. 

“Athletes Unlimited is a great opportunity to get a lot of eyes on our sport — to continue to grow the game at the professional level and inspire that next generation to be able to play and compete at a level as high as ours or even higher.”

Of course, this season’s location helps in that mission. The five-week season will all take place at Maureen Hendricks Field in the Metro DC area.

“We’re playing in a place where the lacrosse history is really rich,” Cummings said. “The lacrosse passion is really deep in Maryland, and to have eyes on that through this league is going to be a great opportunity.”

One of the things that Cummings is looking forward to most is being back on the field with some familiar faces. For many of the players who didn’t have a college season to break up the pandemic, this will serve as their first live action in months, aside from a couple of training weekends this summer for the U.S. team.

Whether it’s been shooting or dodging, running or lifting, Cummings has spent most of the last year and a half training alone. And now in the middle of a tryout year for the 2022 World Cup, Cummings is looking at the Athletes Unlimited season as a necessary opportunity to train and prepare.

“We haven’t really played against live bodies and actually played against other people in a long time,” she said. “Any opportunity to compete against the caliber of teams that we’re competing against on a regular basis now, when we’re in for these five weeks, is going to be awesome.”

During the season, teams will typically play three games per week and drafts will be held every Monday.

“For us to be able to play more lacrosse in five weeks than we have since many of us graduated college is awesome and something that we really are looking forward to,” Cummings said.

“The rules in AU definitely lend themselves to showcasing a really high-level game that we as professionals want to play.”

Athletes Unlimited’s format will consist of eight-minute quarters, 10-on-10 game play and a 60-second shot clock, all played on a field that’s 60 yards in width and 90 yards in length. To Cummings, the fast-paced format and up-and-down style will be lacrosse in its purest form. 

At the same time, the individual focus of Athletes Unlimited will be a major departure for athletes who are used to playing out full seasons on a single team. Cummings isn’t as worried.

“There is a sense of comfort in knowing that most of the people that are in the pool are all people that we’ve played with and against,” she said, adding that it removes an element of the unknown.

“You know how players play and what they’re like. It can help whoever is drafting build teams with a little bit more strategy.”

If Cummings gets the opportunity to be a captain and draft a team, she will be looking to the midfield as an area that needs strength.

“Being a middy, that’s something that I think is really important to the game, is having as many (midfielders) as possible,” she said.

And who would she pick first? “Somebody like Marie McCool or Dempsey Arsenault, who are both really strong, two-way midfielders,” Cummings said.

“I’d be lucky to have anyone in the pool if I’m a captain, but if I had to pick one, I’d say either of those two.”

Catch Cummings, McCool, Arsenault and others as Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural lacrosse season opens Friday. You can find the full schedule here, including how to watch.

Editor’s note: Athletes Unlimited is a sponsor of Just Women’s Sports.