May 21, 2009

Mettle-Tested Tar Heels Meet Maryland...Again

by Clare Lochary | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Strength of schedule is a delicate balance. Too hard, and your team gets ground up like hamburger meat. Too easy, and your cupcake wins are worthless, the athletic equivalent of empty calories.

North Carolina women's lacrosse coach Jenny Levy wanted none of that, so she gave her Tar Heels the toughest schedule in the nation. North Carolina enters the NCAA Division I semifinals this Saturday with a 15-4 record and a lot of confidence that the team can go the distance.

"It does prepare you. You draw from all the experiences," Levy said Tuesday in a conference call. "You feel like you have a pretty good canvas of the many different things your team has seen."

The Tar Heels have met - and lost to - the tournament's three other semifinalists, Maryland, Penn and Northwestern. Carolina couldn't avoid the Terps, whom they'll meet in Friday night's semifinals, or the rest of the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference. But they didn't have to play the Quakers or the Wildcats -- or Georgetown or Vanderbilt, two more tournament teams, for that matter. Even Oregon and Stanford had upset potential.

Grinding through such a treacherous schedule continually forced Carolina to refine and improve, an impulse toward perfection that ended four years of quarterfinal losses. (A tough lineup also gave the Tar Heels a No. 3 seed and home games in the first two rounds, an advantage they'd never had before in their quest to reach the final four.)

The downside to a tough schedule is physical and mental exhaustion. Carolina got lucky in that no players sustained any season-ending injuries, and heading into the postseason they enjoyed a two-week break after the ACC tournament. The respite let the Tar Heels recharge their batteries and allow nagging injuries to heal. They've been on a tear ever since, particularly on the offensive end. They tied a season high for points in their 16-10 NCAA quarterfinal win over Notre Dame.

It will take a powerful offense to keep pace with Maryland, a 21-0 team that averages 15.83 goals per game. Carolina has a well-balanced attack with Kristen Russell,  Jenn Taylor, Megan Bosica and Corey Donohoe. But Levy is even more excited about her defense, anchored by Tewaaraton finalist and U.S. national team player Amber Falcone.

"I really think you have to play team defense against Maryland. They're just too dangerous," Levy said. "You can't mark out one player and expect to have a good result, and Amber's a big part of that for us.

"She just does it all. She can play a lockdown defender. She can play in a unit. She can pretty much handle what we give her. Her unit around her is all sophomores, many of them starting for the first time, so she's had to continually teach and encourage and refine them as well as keep her own play at a high level."

Notes and Quotes from the Final Four

Northwestern's Hilary Bowen scored a goal in the Wildcats' 16-9 quarterfinal win over Princeton, and is expected to suit up for Northwestern's semifinal showdown with rival Penn. The senior midfielder, a two-time NCAA championship MVP, tore her anterior cruciate ligament on April in a game against Cal and missed eight games as a result... In Bowen's absence, junior midfielder Katrina Dowd has broken out, scoring 14 goals in the first two rounds of the tournament. Bowen tied an NCAA record with 17 goals just last season during Northwestern's championship run... In a conference call, Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller praised the leadership of senior goalie Morgan Lathrop, who has commandeered a young defense to a 6.62 goals against average.

NU Quote to Note: "[Dowd] and Hannah Nielsen work extremely well together. They have a great passing connection and great chemistry on the field... Hannah did a great job of mentoring Katrina right after Hilary went down. Katrina's really got a lot of confidence right now. It's pretty exciting." - Hiller, on the rise of Dowd

Penn head coach Karin Brower knows her team can score on Northwestern. It's really just a matter of getting the draw. In an 11-9 loss to the Wildcats on April 25, the Quakers shot 60 percent but had possession for just four minutes of the second half thanks to a 3-for-7 draw control performance in that period... Expect to see Penn revert to the strategy that worked against Northwestern in 2008: top-notch ball protection and extremely careful shot selection. The Quakers don't get rattled by the Wildcats' high-pressure defense, so if they can control turnovers and land their shots, they might come out on top... Senior Becca Edwards had a hat trick, including the game winner, in Penn's semifinal OT win over Duke. Edwards can create and get rebounds on the crease, a key element for the Quakers' deliberate attack. She missed most of last season with an injury, and Brower thinks the 2008 final might have gone down differently with Edwards' signature spark.

Penn Quote to Note: "If it's semis, if it's finals, to win a national championship, you have to go through Northwestern." - Brower, on the Northwestern-Penn rivalry

Maryland has no starting seniors, and was subsequently written off as young and inexperienced at the season's outset. Oops! In all fairness, no one could have predicted the greatness of rock star rookie Karri Ellen Johnson, who leads the Terps with 70 goals... Another freshman of note is goalie Brittany Dipper. Dipper (.419 save percetnage) is a two-sport athlete who won an NCAA field hockey championship this fall. The NCAA doesn't keep statistics on individual athletes who've won championships in two sports in the same year, but we're guessing it's not that many. Because she didn't play lacrosse in the fall, Dipper started shaky but has improved rapidly as the season progressed... The Terps have the shortest commute to Unitas Stadium, but don't call them the home team. "We're in a hotel like anybody else," says head coach Cathy Reese.

Maryland Quote to Note: "She sure doesn't play like a freshman with nerves so at this point I don't want to change anything." - Reese, in reference to Johnson

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