ANN ARBOR, Michigan – After scoring two goals apiece in their team’s victories, Syracuse’s Alma Fenne and North Carolina’s Malin Evert were the stars of Friday’s semifinal round of the NCAA Field Hockey Championship.
On Saturday, a new name emerged in Ann Arbor: Bella. As in Winter Storm Bella, the outskirts of which provided southeast Michigan with its first snowfall of the year.
The University of Michigan began preparations for the expected three inches of snow immediately following North Carolina’s 2-0 win over Duke in the second semifinal. Crews rolled a tarp over the blue turf at Ocker Field and planned to blow heat beneath it all day Saturday to prevent the field from freezing.
The team’s Saturday practices and a scheduled college field hockey all-star game were moved inside to the nearby Oosterbaan Field House.
Forecasts call for Sunday’s 1 p.m. national title game to be played under sunny skies, but temperatures will be below freezing. During the semifinal round, played in temperatures in the high 40-degree range, Syracuse was the only team that had players forsake compression tights and long-sleeved shirts beneath their uniforms.
“I certainly would think they have more experience in the cold weather, but I think our kids are pretty tough,” North Carolina coach Karen Shelton said. “I think we're prepared ... we have leggings and little ear things, which I think we're going to need. It was fine out there (Friday) for the players on the field, but I think it's going to be a bit colder and the conditions are going to be a little bit different on Sunday.”
Regardless of weather conditions, the championship game will serve as the rubber match between the two teams that established themselves as the best in the country throughout the season.
Syracuse (20-1), the top seed in the tournament, was undefeated and the No. 1-ranked team in the NFHCA poll through the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title game, when North Carolina (21-2) handed them a 2-1 loss and claimed their top ranking. In an earlier regular season game, Syracuse overcame an early 2-0 deficit to win 4-2.
For Syracuse coach Ange Bradley, just completing the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season qualified the Orange and Tar Heels for a shot at a national championship. All seven of the league's teams were ranked within the top 11 in the final NFHCA poll.
Prior to back-to-back titles by UConn and one by Princeton in 2012, the ACC had won 10 consecutive national titles. And the winner beat conference rivals in nine of those championship games. North Carolina is seeking its seventh national title and first since 2009. The Tar Heels lost three consecutive finals between 2010-12. This is just the second time Syracuse will play for a national title, the first being last season’s 1-0 loss to UConn.
“They're very different in their style and their approach,” said Duke coach Pam Bustin, whose team crossed paths with both during the ACC season. “I think set pieces are going to be a key component to the game. Whoever gets the momentum early and can execute the set pieces I think is going to come out on top.”
One thing the teams had in common on Friday was their ability to strike quickly. Evert scored her first goal 2:13 into the game and Fenne struck at the two-minute mark of Syracuse’s 3-1 win over two-time defending champion UConn. Both goals came off penalty corners.
“Sometimes when you get to this point, you want to win so badly that you tend to be conservative and back off and you're afraid to take chances,” Shelton said. “We want to be aggressive, and I think Syracuse feels the same way. You've got to come out of the blocks, dare to be brilliant, take chances and go for it.”