There’s a very familiar feeling about this weekend’s NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship, which begins Friday at LaValle Stadium in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Of the four teams that will participate in this weekend’s championship, three – Northwestern, North Carolina and Maryland – were part of last season’s championship weekend. The defending NCAA champion Terrapins are hoping to start another dynasty like the seven-year reign that spanned from 1995 to 2001, but the Wildcats are looking to resume their own dominance after having a five-year championship streak snapped last season, and North Carolina and Duke are looking to graduate from perennial contenders to champions.

 

  • Maryland Terrapins

Record: 20-1 (5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference)
Ranking: No. 1 in May 9 deBeer Women’s Media Poll and IWLCA Coaches Poll
Top Scorers: Senior attacker Sarah Mollison (52g, 45a), sophomore midfielder Katie Schwarzmann (60g, 13a), junior attacker Karri Ellen Johnson (39g, 12a)
Top Goalkeeper: Junior Brittany Dipper (20-1, 6.37 goals-against average, .537 save percentage)

The Story: After dethroning Northwestern last season in the championship game, the Terrapins were all but unbeatable as the 2011 season began. They won their first six games of the season by seven goals or more, and after a hard-fought 7-5 win against Syracuse on March 12, the Terrapins continued to run roughshod over the opposition. That dominance was halted when the Terrapins traveled to Hanover, N.H. on May 1, as Dartmouth scored a stunning 9-8 win in double overtime to end Maryland’s regular season on a sour note. However, when the Terrapins began their NCAA run, it was back to business as usual, as a 19-6 win versus Navy and a 15-6 win against Princeton have put Maryland back in the national semifinals. The Terrapins lost the only one-goal game they’ve played all season, but they’ve been so dominant that getting them into a one-goal game is a challenge unto itself.

Maryland has two of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award in senior attacker Sarah Mollison and sophomore midfielder Katie Schwarzmann, with ACC Player of the Year winner Mollison on the verge of a 100-point season. Just the third Australian to be named a Tewaaraton finalist, Mollison is the driving force behind the most potent offense at this weekend’s championship. Meanwhile, Brittany Dipper leads the nation in goals-against average and save percentage, the anchor of a defense that is every bit as stingy as the offense is potent.

Head Coach Cathy Reese on the Terrapins’ road back to the championship: “We have had a very interesting season with injuries and just different challenges that we face all around that our team's really had to overcome. We do have an outstanding group of seniors that has had some success throughout their career but yet they've really stepped up as leaders this year. We graduated a great group of seniors last year as well and, you know, we've had different line ups throughout the season, different people stepping up and starting in games for whatever injury or what have you. This group of seniors led by Sarah Mollison and Laura Merrifield and Katie Gallagher has really wrote the challenge and has taken these younger players under their wings and has really encouraged and just challenged everybody on the field day in and day out to work hard and to get better.”

  • Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 19-2 (3-2 American Lacrosse Conference)
Ranking: No. 2 in May 9 deBeer Women’s Media Poll and IWLCA Coaches Poll
Top Scorers: Junior midfielder/attacker Shannon Smith (78g, 41a), sophomore midfielder/attacker Erin Fitzgerald (36g, 7a), senior midfielder Brooke Matthews (24g, 7a)
Top Goalkeeper: Junior Brianne LoManto (19-2, 8.27 goals-against average, .444 save percentage)

The Story: Opening the season without the “defending NCAA champion” mantle for the first time since 2004, the Wildcats came out on fire in 2011, opening the season with two hard-fought wins against Top 10 teams, including a 7-6 overtime win at North Carolina in the second game of the season. Northwestern scored another major win on April 2 with a 12-10 win against Duke in Evanston, but hit a major speed bump on a mid-month road trip to American Lacrosse Conference foes Florida and Johns Hopkins. The Wildcats dropped a 13-11 stunner to the fast-rising Gators, then fell to Hopkins two days later for the program’s first back-to-back losses since 2003.

Since then, however, the Wildcats have come back strong. They closed out the regular season with wins against ranked opponents Ohio State, Stanford and Virginia, then claimed the ALC tournament title with a dominant win over Penn State and a revenge victory against Florida. That set up a run to Stony Brook when they dropped Boston College 11-8 and an 18-4 dismantling of previously unbeaten Albany.

Tewaaraton Award finalist Shannon Smith has been absolutely dominant for the Wildcats, eclipsing the 100-point plateau and figuring on more than a third of Northwestern’s 299 goals. The Wildcats have been slightly less stout defensively – Brianne LoManto has the lowest save percentage of any starting goalkeeper in the Championship – but with such a strong team in front of her, it really hasn’t been much of a concern.

Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller on the Wildcats’ “outsider” status against three ACC teams: “I think it's kind of ironic both on the men's and the women's side you have, you know, three traditional teams, three ACC teams and then you kind of have one oddball, Denver and us. So it's exciting. You know, it kind of puts us in a position where we have to go out there and prove that, you know, we can play our best at the same level as these other ACC schools and, you know, just go out there and see what we can do.”

 

  • North Carolina Tar Heels

Record: 15-5 (3-2 ACC)
Ranking: No. 3 in May 9 IWLCA Coaches Poll, No. 4 in deBeer Media Poll
Top Scorers: Junior attacker Becky Lynch (38g, 35a), senior attacker Corey Donohoe (51g, 21a), junior midfielder Laura Zimmerman (39g, 14a)
Top Goalkeeper: Sophomore Lauren Maksym (15-5, 8.15 goals-against average, .482 save percentage)

The Story: The Tar Heels have taken their lumps on their way back to the national semifinals this season, having played all three of the other teams in this weekend’s Championship, and taking four of their five losses at the hands of the Terrapins (two losses), Blue Devils and Wildcats. Against everyone else, however, the Tar Heels have been powerful, going 14-1 in the other regular-season games, avenging the regular-season loss to Duke in the ACC semifinals, and reaching this weekend’s Championship with wins over ACC rival and Big East champion Loyola. That’s led to UNC’s third straight NCAA semifinal against the Wildcats, where the Tar Heels hope the third time will be the charm.

Statistically, the Tar Heels have been solid but unspectacular, with Corey Donohoe and Becky Lynch leading an offense that ranks 21st in the nation in goals per game. Defensively, however, the Tar Heels have been impressive, as the defense has stood tall in front of Lauren Maksym to allow just 8.30 goals per game, the fifth-lowest average in the country.

Head Coach Jenny Levy on the Tar Heels’ tough schedule: “The three other teams besides Carolina that are in the final four, you know, we've played all of them and those are the top three teams we've played this season. So you get to this point and regardless of the team that you're playing you know it's going to be a great challenge. And you hope through preparation and focus that your kids have a great time and a great day and are up for the challenge to play regardless of who your opponent is. And it just happens to be Northwestern again and they've had a great season. They're a great team. They've got a lot of kids who are contributing in a lot of different ways and so it's on us to go in and play the type of game we want to play.”

 

  • Duke Blue Devils

Record: 15-4 (4-1 ACC)
Ranking: No. 5 in May 9 IWLCA Coaches Poll, No. 7 in deBeer Media Poll
Top Scorers: Senior attacker Christie Kaestner (32g, 45a), redshirt junior attacker Emma Hamm (48g, 25a), junior midfielder Kat Thomas (45g, 2a)
Top Goalkeeper: Mollie Mackler (15-4, 10.21 goals-against average, .444 save percentage)

The Story: The Blue Devils are the only participant in this year’s championship that didn’t reach last year’s semifinals, having fallen to Northwestern in a quarterfinal matchup. Duke proved an elite team in the regular season, losing only to Northwestern and Maryland, but hit a speed bump in the ACC tournament against North Carolina, and closed out the regular season with a loss to Penn in Philadelphia. After stumbling into the tournament, the Blue Devils picked it up, avenging the loss to the Quakers in Durham in the first round, then going on the road and ending Florida’s dramatic run with a 13-9 win in Gainesville. Now, the Blue Devils look to avenge their 18-11 loss to Maryland on February 26 and make the Championship game, where they’ll look to do as their men’s team did last year and bring home the first NCAA Championship in program history.

The offensive catalyst for the Blue Devils has been the return of Emma Hamm, who missed the 2010 season with an injury and has returned to earn a Tewaaraton finalist berth after scoring 48 goals and assisting on 25 more. Christie Kaester has had her own standout season, leading the Blue Devils with 77 total points. Duke has struggled to keep the ball out of the net this season, allowing more than 10 goals per game, but with Hamm and Kaester making things happen up front, the Blue Devils generally get all the stops they need from the defense.

Head Coach Kristen Kimmel on Hamm: “Well, I think something that makes Emma special is that if you look at her line like her stat line, her stats read like a midfielder. And she does not play the midfield for us. I know people call her a midfielder but she doesn't, she rarely goes over on defense for us and she's more of an offensive player. I think the thing that separates her from other kids is she plays with so much heart and so much passion.”