May 27, 2012

Exuberance Versus Experience in Women's Final

by Clare Lochary |

Syracuse backup goalie Kelsey Richardson (above) has split time with starter Alyssa Costantino throughout the season and into the playoffs. That's one theme to watch in Sunday night's Division I women's national championship game between the Orange and Northwestern.
© Lee Weissman

STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- Facing the media after an 11-9 overtime loss to Northwestern on February 29, Syracuse head coach Gary Gait had nothing to say about Xs and Os. He only discussed his young team's mental toughness. It was the factor that allowed the Orange to blow a 6-2 lead in the first half, rally to send the game to overtime, and then let the Wildcats score twice in extra periods.

"That's the next step for us. It's putting yourself in the position to win," Gait said at the time. "That's what we did. And mentally it's going out there knowing that you're going to do what it takes to finish the game. We didn't get that part done, but we're moving in the right direction."

Three months later, Syracuse has made thrilling comeback wins a regular habit, and the team has moved all the way to its first-ever NCAA title game. The Orange will face Northwestern (20-2), the defending champs at 8 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU).

Syracuse (19-3) has gone 6-0 in one-goal games since the February loss to the Wildcats, including late rallies versus North Carolina in the quarterfinals and Florida in the semifinals. On Sunday, Syracuse will have to chance to avenge its loss to the Wildcats, capture the program's first women's lacrosse title and the school's first NCAA championship in any women's sport, all in one stroke. The young Orange team feels up to the challenge.

"We're the most prepared we could ever be, because we've been in every single situation a team could ever be in," said junior attacker and Tewaaraton finalist Michelle Tumolo.

Meanwhile, Northwestern is an old pro at winning NCAA lacrosse championships. The Wildcats have six championship rings, and are one game away from a seventh. They are playing in their eighth consecutive championship and head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller became the winningest coach in NCAA tournament history (she's 31-2) with a semifinal victory over Maryland.

"I've played plenty of championships here," said Wildcats senior goalie Brianne LoManto, a Long Island native who played high school state championships and the 2011 NCAA title game at Stony Brook's LaValle Stadium on Long Island. "We know what it takes to win a championship on this field."

The Orange upset of top-seeded Florida, a team that beat Northwestern twice this season, would seem to clear an easier path to the title for the defending champs. The Wildcats lead their series with Syracuse, 9-1, with the sole loss coming way back in 2003. But the Orange offense (15.00 goals per game) attacks the cage relentlessly, averaging almost 30 shots per game. It's a style that can test the Wildcats' pressure defense (7.57 goals per game). Normally, Northwestern sits back, waits for opponents to make a mistake and then seizes on them opportunistically. Syracuse rarely waits to do anything.

"If they're going to pressure us, we'll play," said Gait. "We're as ready as we can be for that style of defense. We'll go after it, and we'll get up and down."

Northwestern senior attacker Shannon Smith led her team with five goals in the February win over Syracuse, and has scored 10 points in the tournament thus far. In the semifinal against Maryland, she camped out behind the cage as cutters swarmed the arc to meet her passes, and she finished with four assists. Cutting off Smith without overcommitting will be a key match-up for the Orange, especially given Syracuse's platoon goalie situation. Starter Alyssa Costantino and back-up Kelsey Richardson have split time throughout the year, and Richardson got significant minutes versus North Carolina and Florida.

"Smith is a great feeder. We know that, but we're ready for that," said Orange senior defender Janelle Stegeland, who will likely draw the faceguard versus Smith. "We know she's going to make some great plays and we're prepared for that. But we're going to make them as well."

Northwestern must get the best of Syracuse freshman draw specialist Kailah Kempney, who led the Orange to a 14-9 draw advantage in February. Kempney's possessions, plus the breakout potential of a team has found unlikely ways to win, will keep the defending champs on their toes.

"They are a thrilling team. They're an explosive team when they need to be, and we're going to have to play great team defense and the same on offense," said Amonte Hiller.

Both teams agreed on one point: the February game doesn't mean too much. The regular season match-up was marred by sloppy transition play and poor free position shooting typical of early season play.

"There are people they didn't see that are going to play now. I started at a different position. Everyone does it. Teams turn into completely different teams," said Northwestern sophomore midfielder Alyssa Leonard, who will square off versus Kempney on the draw.

The two teams' shooting shirts say it all. Unpredictable and firey Syracuse wears warm-up shirts that say "Big Energy." Northwestern players, the defending champs, wear tees with actual targets on their backs, a sign of how well they know that they've won before and are in everyone else's crosshairs. Exuberance versus experience – which will prevail?

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