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Michael Smith | | November 21, 2014

Attackers, not defenders

  UConn has won 12 games in a row en route to this weekend's semifinals.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When Nancy Stevens strolled out of her office Wednesday on her way to the team bus that she would ride on for the nearly six-hour trip from Storrs, Connecticut to Maryland -- the site of this year’s NCAA championships -- the Connecticut field hockey coach didn’t pause to gaze at the round, mahogany and gold object with a circular base sitting on her desk.

“It’s not going anywhere,” she said of last year’s national championship trophy. “No one is taking it.”

Stevens’ words were not her way of guaranteeing another championship. Rather, they explain her forward-thinking philosophy she has drilled in the Huskies all season long.  She does not talk about defending a championship. “You cannot defend something when it’s not under attack,” she said. 2013, Stevens maintains, is in the past. Her focus this week is only on collecting another object to perch in her office.

“We are just after the 2014 national championship,” Stevens said. “Our goal is to go 2-0 this weekend.”

To go 2-0 -- and collect the school’s fourth title overall -- UConn will first have to defeat the upset-minded Albany Great Danes, the only unseeded team among this weekend’s semifinalists. They play at 4:45 p.m. on Friday.

The 20-2 Danes, who knocked off No. 2 seeded Maryland this past weekend to reach the semifinals, are not only in their first field hockey semifinal in school history, but this year is the first time they have ever won an NCAA tournament game.

“They’re a fantastic team,” UConn’s Roisin Upton said. “Nobody would have put their name down to get to the final four. We have massive respect for them.”

The Huskies have won 12 games in a row en route to this weekend’s tournament, but the winning streak isn’t distracting, at least according to Upton.

“It’s not a huge thought to be honest,” she said.  “It gives you confidence but it doesn’t put pressure on you.”

Stevens’ defending-a-championship-does-not-exist doctrine is evident in the Huskies’ style of play.

“We play an attacking style,” she said. “We don’t play defensively.”

The Huskies have scored 55 goals in their past 12 games, and on the season average nearly 18 shots per game, compared with only six for their opponents. “We don’t win 1-0,” Stevens said. “We win 6-1.”

Familiar faces

On the other side of the semifinals bracket are two programs with rich history and familiarity.

ACC rivals North Carolina and Syracuse play at 2 p.m. Friday for a spot in Sunday’s title game. The teams have already played twice this season, with each team winning once.

  Syracuse and UNC will be facing off for the third time this year. Each team has one win in the series.
Like UConn, the semifinals seems like an annual trip for the Tar Heels, who are making their sixth consecutive appearance in the national semifinals. North Carolina, under coach Karen Shelton, has won 18 ACC titles and six national championships in her 34 seasons at the helm -- but has not came away with the title since 2009.

“I’ve always felt like once you get to the final four, you can relax and celebrate your season,” Shelton said. “We’re going to try and win. But the pressure for me, and I think our team, is off.”

Syracuse is no stranger to this environment either.

The Orange, who defeated Penn State in last weekend’s quarterfinals, are in the semifinals for the fourth time in school history, but have never advanced to the championship game. The last time they were beaten in the semifinals was in 2012, when they lost to Friday’s opponent, North Carolina.

“We don’t operate off of revenge,” coach Ange Bradley said. “We have created an opportunity for ourselves to be here. It doesn’t matter who we play.”

When asked what her team needs to do in order to knock off the heavily favored Tar Heels for a second time in two weeks, Bradley said directly, “We need to win.”

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