May 27, 2012

Northwestern's Win a Tale of Two Face Guards

by Clare Lochary | | Twitter

Syracuse attacker Michelle Tumolo is sandwiched between face guarder Kerri Harrington (right) and fellow Tewaaraton Award finalist Taylor Thornton in the NCAA championship game Sunday.

© John Mecionis

Stairway to Seven

* Northwestern Wins Seventh NCAA Title
* Cats Benefit from Soul Searching in Center
* Northwestern Win a Tale of Two Face Guards
* Live Blog Replay

- It was the story of the whole game, writ small. Shrunk down to two pairs of players – a top defender marking a fierce attacker – it was a battle for supremacy between fiery upstart Syracuse and the icy professionalism of Northwestern.

Orange defender Janelle Stegeland face guarded Shannon Smith, the quarterback of the Wildcats offense. Northwestern defender Kerri Harrington was paired with Michelle Tumolo, the creative attacker who embodies the Orange's "Big Energy" motto.

The Wildcats came out on top of both matchups Sunday and defeated Syracuse 8-6 in the NCAA championship game. Smith had a team-leading four points (2g, 2a). Tumolo was held to one goal and fouled out of the game.

For Smith, it was a waiting game.

"I was just waiting for my opportunities, when she wasn't marking me to pop off," said Smith, a senior who finished her career as the No. 2 scorer in NCAA tournament history with 58 points.

Early in the first half, Smith steered clear of her typical perch – behind the goal, dishing out assists – to give her teammates room to dodge. Stegeland's face guard minimized Smith's impact until head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller added freshman attacker Casey Bocklet (one goal) to the mix. Bocklet joined Smith behind the cage, and with the two of them running their defenders into each other, they started to get the best of Syracuse.

When Stegeland stumbled in the crease late in the second half to set up a Smith free position, Smith saw Bocklet open down low and passed to her. Bocklet buried the shot to tie the game at 4-4. A few minutes later, Smith scored to put the Wildcats up 5-4 with 2:31 left in the first half. They never trailed again.

"When Casey came in, I really used the crease. I really love the crease," Smith said. "My teammates in the middle were nonstop cutting and keeping their defenders completely occupied, and giving me so much space to dodge with, I don't think I ever got a double on me."

Bocklet and Smith also split duties when Northwestern went into slow-down mode for much of the second half. They each held the ball for several minutes at a time behind the cage, daring defenders to make a move on them, burning precious minutes off the clock.

Meanwhile, during those grinding offensive possessions, Harrington was never more than a few steps away Tumolo. A Tewaaraton Award finalist, Tumolo had three goals and two assists when Northwestern scratched its way to an 11-9 overtime win over the Orange back in February. In the second matchup, Amonte Hiller wasn't taking any chances, so she turned to Harrington, the team's best face guard. The sophomore was more than prepared to handle Tumolo.

And it wasn't necessarily a matter of checks and body positioning.

Tumolo started clowning with Harrington, running in little circles and doing high knee steps to try to exhaust and distract her opponent. It didn't work. "If that's her style, I'll respect it. And I'll just do the high knees with you," Harrington said.

"It's just as much a mental game as a physical game, and I take that route," Harrington said. "I try to get a little bit in their head, and my opportunity to do that is when we're on attack."

Thanks to the Wildcats' domination on the draw (12-4) and the ensuing long possessions, Harrington and Tumolo were most often stranded behind the restraining line watching the game play out. Tumolo started clowning with Harrington, running in little circles and doing high knee steps to try to exhaust and distract her opponent. It didn't work.

"If that's her style, I'll respect it. And I'll just do the high knees with you," Harrington said.

In terms of the mental game, it was a shutout. Tumolo has had some late-game heroics for the Orange, memorably scoring the game-winner in a 17-16 NCAA quarterfinal win against North Carolina. Against Northwestern, she scored a single goal midway through the second half, a beautiful wraparound shot. But that was all. Frustrated by the game's slow pace, her infrequent touches and Harrington's looming presence, Tumolo imploded in the game's final minutes. She drew two yellow cards for dangerous checks and fouled out of the game with 1:04 to play. The junior protested the final call and was given a red card for abusive language, displaying an explosive temper more than any explosive offense.

Meanwhile, Harrington was all business. In the 2011 title game, she blanked Maryland's attacker Sarah Mollison in the Wildcats' 8-7 win over the Terps. Last year, Harrington was a wide-eyed freshman making her first career start. She was so nervous that she wasn't entirely sure when the game had ended.

"I was just in a daze at the end. I kept saying to my friends, "Is it over? Is it over?' I was a little shell-shocked" Harrington said. "This time it definitely feels over, and it feels like a win."

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