Nov. 20, 2009

By Roger van der Horst
Special to

Sidebar: ACC Dominates Again

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Before her team arrived here for the Division I Field Hockey semifinals, North Carolina coach Karen Shelton insisted she was satisfied.

"I've always said that if you can make it to the final four, you've had a successful year, so getting to the final four relieves a lot of pressure," Shelton said earlier in the week. "This is the most fun weekend of the year. You can be loose and celebrate your season and hopefully win one or two more."

The third-seeded Tar Heels started with one Friday, hanging on to beat Virginia 3-2 and advance to the championship game at Wake Forest's Kentner Stadium. UNC (19-2) will face No. 1 Maryland (23-0) at noon Sunday. CBS College Sports Network will televise the game live.

After a record-setting 12 goals in the first semifinal — Maryland ousted Princeton 7-5 — this one proved to be a taut, defensive contest, much like the previous two meetings this season. Carolina had won at Virginia 2-1 in overtime and lost 1-0 in Charlottesville in the ACC Tournament.

With 12 minutes, 1 second left in a scoreless first half, UNC finally broke through when Dani Forword, a senior from South Africa, scored off a penalty corner. She is, appropriately, a forward.

Leading 1-0, the Heels then caught a break. Virginia's Inga Stockel appeared to score the tying goal on a hard, high shot early in the second half. The goal, however, was disallowed because it was too high. Even though the ball hit the 18-inch-high board at the back of the goal, it has to cross the line no higher than 18 inches.

"They ruled it didn't," Virginia coach Michele Madison said. "... (My players) were just so disappointed when the goal was called back."

"I don't like the rule myself," North Carolina's Shelton said. "I kind of feel that if it hits the board, it hits the board. But it went like this after crossing the line," she added, making a downward motion. "It was a good call."

The second-seeded Cavaliers (20-4) tied it anyway on a sliding shot by Traci Ragukas.

It didn't take UNC long to respond. Less than four minutes later, sophomore Taryn Gjurich scored her first goal of the season on a nice tic-tac-toe passing play, with Katelyn Falgowski getting the assist. Only 2:40 later, Carolina extended the margin to 3-1 when Elizabeth Drazdowski made a run from the top of the circle and beat Virginia goalkeeper Kim Kastuk.

From that point, Carolina braced itself for the pressure that the Cavs inevitably applied, relying on its defense and goalie Jackie Kintzer to protect the lead.

"The mindset of our team is: 'We've got a 3-1 lead. Let's hold on,'" said Shelton, who's in her 29th season as UNC's coach.

Virginia got one goal back when Paige Selenski scored her 27th of the year.

How close were the Cavs to tying the score?

"Awfully close," Shelton said.

Virginia's Haley Carpenter was so confident that she told teammate Kastuk as much.

"I walked back to our goalie, and I was like, 'We got this. We're gonna win this game.' I was wrong," Carpenter said.

Shelton knew she could count on her defense and goalie.

"Our corner defense played incredibly well, and as a whole, our defensive backfield was strong," she said. "We played one-v.-one defense. We jabbed. We tackled. We kept them out.

"I would have liked to control the ball more. I would have liked to pass it around better and maintain possession. But they're so darned fast. What we normally do they made it hard for us to do. Credit them. It was a battle."

For Madison, it was a challenge just to keep her young team on the field and not mentally floating above it. On her roster of 22 players, only two are seniors; 15 are freshmen or sophomores.

"I almost had to buy some rope and tie 'em in bed," Madison said. "They couldn't stay still since they woke up this morning. That's just a young team."

Going into the final, Shelton is still embracing the role of an underdog — but one with upset potential.

"I like to think our defense is one of the best in the country, and I certainly think we have one of the best goalies in the country," she said. "They say defense wins championships. Hopefully, that will hold true for us.

"But they're awfully tough to stop," she said of Maryland. "I mean, any team that can score seven goals in the national semifinal, that speaks to some offensive firepower."