May 13, 2011

NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse Tournament First-Round Preview

by Clare Lochary |

Shannon Smith has been on a tear for Northwestern, which boasts players with more NCAA tournament experience than any other in the bracket.

Navy (15-5) at No. 1 Maryland (18-1) - Saturday 12 p.m.

Navy head coach Cindy Timchal, the all-time NCAA career wins leader with 394 victories, will take on both her former program and one of her former players when the Midshipmen travel to top-seeded Maryland. Cathy Reese, who played for Timchal during her days in College Park, will take the Terps on the first step of the postseason journey, in which they'll have to defend their NCAA title. The Midshipmen earned a berth in the tournament by defeating Quinnipiac in the play-in game. It's only their second trip to the postseason, and they are eager to improve upon last year's 18-5 first-round loss to North Carolina.

Maryland looked unstoppable this season – until the Terps were stopped, unexpectedly, by Dartmouth and specifically by freshman goalie Kristen Giovanniello in their final regular season game. The 9-8 double-overtime loss was the Terps' first since April 2010. Maryland is also playing hurt. Senior midfielders Karri Ellen Johnson and Brandi Jones are both out with concussions, Johnson since late March and Jones since the ACC championship game. Those absences will work to the advantage of Navy's leading draw specialist Caitlin Mandarin Hill (74 DCs).

Still, Maryland has a 48-1 record at home under Reese, and the Terps' attack (14.84 goals per game) is formidable, especially for Navy's middling defense (9.25 goals allowed per game). Sophomore Katie Schwartzmann leads Maryland with 54 goals. Navy might try to slow play, but Timchal could put her faith in the Midshipmen's attack (13.45 goals per game ) and try to run with the Terps.

Princeton (11-6) at No. 8 James Madison (15-3) - Saturday 1 p.m.

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The Dukes doubled up the Tigers, 10-5, back on March 16. Since then, both teams had dramatic finishes in their respective conference tournaments to nab their respective automatic qualifiers. Princeton beat Penn, 10-8, in overtime in the Ivy semifinals in a must-win situation and then edged Harvard, 12-10, to secure their postseason berth. Senior goalie Erin Tochihara made 19 combined saves in those two games.

The Dukes, on the other hand, have experienced some trouble in the cage. Head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe has been spelling junior Alex Menghetti (.385 save percentage) with sophomore Alisa Konishi, although Konishi has not yet started. The Tigers are a good shooting team, too, (.479 overall shooting percentage), led by senior Lizzy Drumm (43g). James Madison senior attacker Mary Kate Lomady (38g, 16a) earned CAA Most Oustanding Performer honors during the tournament but the Dukes' strength is at the midfield, where they typically dominate the draw. That's how they beat Princeton back in March, and if they can do it again, they'll be able to hold off a capable Princeton team helmed by Hall of Fame coach Chris Sailer. The Tigers lead this series 10-3, but James Madison has won the last two.

Penn (11-5) at No. 5 Duke (13-4) - Sunday 2 p.m.

Can Penn head coach Karin Corbett still sell her players on the idea that they are the disrespected underdogs of women's lacrosse, now that the Quakers are in their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament and facing an opponent they outhustled less than two weeks ago? Perhaps, since they are unseeded and on the road, as they will be versus Duke.

Penn sophomore Meredith Cain had a breakout game against the Blue Devils, tallying three goals and an assist and five draw controls to boost the Quakers to a 13-10 win on April 29. The oft-injured Dukies are currently operating without midfielder Kat Thomas, who sprained her ankle in the Penn game and is day-to-day. Without Thomas (5'11"), the Blue Devils may struggle to find an answer to Penn sophomore Maddie Poplawski (5'10") on the draw. The Quakers are also No. 4 in the nation defensively (8.18 goals per game) so the Duke attack will have to step up. Senior attacker (and amusing team blogger) Christie Kaestner had three assists versus Penn, giving her 40 for the season and tying Kristen Waagbo for the Blue Devils' single season record. Junior Emma Hamm leads the team with 41 goals, a career high. Duke has a perfect 9-0 record at home; Penn is 5-3 on the road.

Stanford (16-2) at No. 4 Florida (15-3) - Saturday 1 p.m.

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Stanford wins this year's Road Warrior Award: the Cardinal will travel 2,755 miles from Palo Alto, Calif., to Gainesville, Fla., to go for the program's first NCAA tournament win. (Head coach Amy Bokker admitted to being "a little disappointed" that her team didn't get a seed.) While Florida's rise to a No. 4 national ranking and the program's first NCAA tournament bid is impressive, Stanford should not be overlooked.

The Cardinal's No. 7 ranking is the highest in program history. They score an average of 16.11 goals per game, the best offensive mark in the field of 16, led by senior Leslie Foard (41g, 51 DC), the MPSF Player of the Year who is both the Cardinal's current and all-time points leader. Stanford had the grit to battle back from a 7-0 deficit to win the MPSF championship game, 12-10, over Oregon. Still, it's hard to bet against the Gators, who are 11-0 at home and have taken the lacrosse world by storm this season, as promised. Florida's meteoric ascent has been keyed by the phenomenal play of sophomore attacker/midfielder Kitty Cullen, who leads both the Gators and the nation with 71 goals. Stanford will need to shut down Cullen if it expects to win -- she was held to just one assist in the Gators' 10-9 loss to Northwestern in the ALC conference final and one goal in a surprising 9-6 loss to Cornell.

Virginia (9-8) at No. 3 North Carolina (13-5) - Saturday 1 p.m.

Virginia snuck into the tournament on the strength of its schedule. The Cavaliers are 1-7 versus tournament teams and will be hard-pressed to find a way to beat their ACC foes. North Carolina won the regular season matchup, 8-7, on March 12 and then crushed Virginia, 16-5, in the ACC semifinals. In the latter game, the Tar Heels won the draw, 14-8, and used a smothering defense (8.11 goals per game on the season) keyed by senior captain Mia Hurrin and sophomore goalie Lauren Maksym (.481 save percentage).

To compete for the win, Virginia will have to find a way to stop, or at least slow, North Carolina senior attacker Corey Donohoe (47g). The task will likely fall to senior All-ACC defender Liz Downs. The Cavaliers' other all-conference selection, junior Julie Gardner, leads the team in points (32g, 27a).

Massachusetts (17-2) at No. 6 Loyola (16-2) - Saturday 1 p.m.

The Minutewomen held off MAAC champion Canisius, 16-8, in the play-in game and advanced to face the Greyhounds in Baltimore. UMass is 10-0 on the road. Expect a tough matchup between A10 Defensive Player of the Year Katie Florence and Big East Player of the Year Grace Gavin, who is third in the nation with 88 points and Loyola's career points leader with 224.

The Minutemen aren't slouches offensively either – they average 15.05 goals per game and senior Jackie Lyons is the UMass all-time points leader with 220. Loyola will employ its team-oriented defense to try to keep Lyons and fellow attacker Katie Ferris in check, with help from junior goalie Kerry Stoothoff, who is coming off a Most Outstanding Player performance in the conference tournament, where the Greyhounds won their first Big East title. This is Loyola's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004, and first under third-year head coach Jen Adams. The Minutewomen have gone to two of the last three NCAA tournaments, but this is the first time they've done it under first-year head coach Angela McMahon.

No. 7 Albany (17-0) at Dartmouth (11-4) - Sunday 1 p.m.

Free webcast:

The Great Danes are in the midst of a historic season. They are the only undefeated team in the nation, senior attacker Taylor Frink leads the nation in assists per game (2.82) and three-time All-American Nikki Branchini is the NCAA's current active draw control leader (271). But it is the Great Danes' No. 1 defense (6.71 goals per game) that has led the program to new heights. Frink (38g, 44a) and Jody Battaglia (51g, 15a) are the heart of the offense, and they will have their work cut out for them against Big Great freshman goalkeeper Kristen Giovanniello. Giovanniello (.517) has the second-best save percentage in the nation after Maryland's Brittany Dipper (.519) and has been a difference-maker for Dartmouth. She had 11 saves in the Big Green's double-overtime upset of top-ranked Maryland, including two in the final 30 seconds to force OT. Giovanniello was the unanimous choice for Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and senior Dartmouth attacker Kat Collins was named Ivy League Player of the Year. Collins is an all-around player who can shoot, assist and play between the lines, which she'll need to do to counteract Branchini on the draw.

This game will be played in Hanover because Albany's graduation exercises precluded the school from hosting an NCAA tournament game. That's a tough bit of luck for the Great Danes, because the Big Green is 10-0 at home, including that big win over the Terps and another over Ivy League rival Princeton.

Boston College (12-6) at No. 2 Northwestern (17-2) - Saturday 3 p.m. Central

Free webcast:
Big Ten Network at 6 p.m. Central on Sunday

In their first-ever NCAA tournament game, the Eagles have the tough task of traveling Illinois to face six-time NCAA finalist Northwestern. The Wildcats are 7-0 at home this year, and they are also some of the most experienced tournament players in the business. ALC Player of the Year Shannon Smith has been on a tear lately, scoring five goals on just seven shots in Northwestern's 10-9 win over Florida in the conference title game.

In all likelihood, Boston College will try the slow-down game it used against Maryland, where the Eagles hung tough but ultimately lost, 8-5, to the defending national champs. Senior Sheila Serafino is a good stopper for the Eagles with a 8.94 goals against average, but she will need an exceptional day to keep the Eagles in the hunt for their first-ever NCAA tournament win.

NCAA Tournament Notes

Boston College is one of three teams receiving a first-time bid to the NCAA tournament, along with Albany and Florida.. Four different 2011 NCAA tournament coaches played for Navy coach Cindy Timchal, one of the game's great mentors. Cathy Reese (Maryland), Kerstin Kimel (Duke), Jen Adams (Loyola) and Kelly Amonte Hiller (Northwestern) all played for Timchal during her tenure at Maryland. (Dartmouth coach Amy Patton is also a Maryland alum, but did not play for Timchal.) UMass coach Angela McMahon played for Amonte Hiller at Northwestern, adding another branch to Timchal's impressive coaching tree...The 16 teams in the 2011 tournament represent schools from 11 different states (Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, California, Florida, Masschusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Illinois), led by Maryland, with three teams (Maryland, Loyola, and Navy)... Nine different conferences are represented in this year's tournament field (ACC, Patriot League, Ivy League, CAA, MPSF, ALC, A10, Big East and America East), led by the ACC with 5 bids.

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