May 24, 2011

Sheehan Stanwick Burch: Playoff Pedigree Matters More in May

by Sheehan Stanwick Burch |

Laura Zimmerman's five-point performance in North Carolina's NCAA semifinal victory over Loyola helped the Tar Heels reach their third straight final four and sixth in program history.

In a college women's lacrosse season where it seemed like there was no shortage of surprises and many talented teams experiencing an unexpected rise, we find the same faces in the final four that have been in mix for years.

North Carolina reached the championship weekend in 1997, 1998, 2002, 2009 and 2010. Duke was there in four straight years from 2005 to 2008. With 10 NCAA titles, Maryland has been to the final four too many times to list -- only missing championship weekend in 1988, 1989, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008. Northwestern has reached the last six NCAA championship games.

These four programs have been the most dominant in college women's lacrosse over the last 15 years.

Until now, the 2011 season had been one of the most difficult to predict in recent memory. Each week there was another upset to report. In hindsight, I'm not sure if the upsets were the result of inconsistent play or the fact that programs ranked outside of the top 10 have raised their level of play. Based on the entire 2011 season, many presumed Florida or Albany might reach championship weekend.

Despite these high expectations, the traditional powerhouses have once again shown that a regular season record will only get you so far in May. Programs with winning traditions seem to find another level once the tournament brackets are announced.

One thing is unmistakable: the ACC is still the preeminent women's lacrosse conference in the country. Still, Duke and UNC are still in search of their first national championships. No one can overlook Northwestern, though, as they are once again in the hunt to reclaim the national title.

Let's look at Friday's semifinal matchups.

No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 5 Duke

It's a toss up as to who has the upper hand in this game. This is another ACC battle that could go either way. The Terps have played half the season without Karri Ellen Johnson, who suffered a concussion in late March. This is going to be the game where I think they miss her the most. She is so skilled in controlling the draws. Her ability to finish and remain composed is enviable. Ultimately, the play of goalies Mollie Mackler of Duke and Brittany Dipper of Maryland will be the difference maker here. Dipper is coming off a career-high 15 save performance against Princeton.

Prediction: Maryland 11, Duke 9

No. 2 Northwestern vs. No. 3 North Carolina

Northwestern easily sailed to victory in its 18-4 quarterfinal win over Albany. UNC, on the other hand, was tested in its 16-13 victory over Loyola. I love seeing UNC and Northwestern play. I like the speed and intensity that is showcased and the upbeat tempo. Draw controls are the strong point for Northwestern, but I think that UNC's attack will take the day, as the Tar Heels have been outstanding of late. A prime example: Laura Zimmerman showcased some of her best play this season in her five-point outing against the Greyhounds.

Prediction: North Carolina 10, Northwestern 9.

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