BALTIMORE, Md. -- Ten games into the 2014 season, most lacrosse aficionados would not have predicted Julie Myer's Cavaliers to be among the final four teams playing on championship weekend.
That tenth game, a 16-11 loss to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke, sent Virginia into the final week of March with a 4-6 record.
"The turning point was that loss to Duke."
Myers' squad righted the ship in a big way, bouncing Old Dominion and American by a combined 37-12; it was the start of a run that saw the Cavaliers win six of eight and earn a spot in the NCAA championships, the program's twenty-seventh appearance. After an opening 13-11 victory against Princeton, UVA knocked off the defending champions, North Carolina 10-9 in last weekend's quarterfinals.
Defense has been the key to the turnaround. The numbers back it up: seven of the past 10 opponents have failed to reach double-figures in goals. A big part of the stinginess is thanks to senior goalkeeper Liz Colgan, a First Team IWLCA All-American. Her 9.75 saves per game leads the ultra-competitive ACC and her 195 saves are third in the NCAA. Junior Morgan Stephens started the season at midfield, but moved to defense. She was named a Second Team All-American.
Cavalier defenders will be tested on Friday when Syracuse (20-2) suits up a pair of Tewaarton finalists. Alyssa Murray was a finalist in 2013 and quarterbacks the Orange offense. A senior from West Babylon, New York, she has 56 goals and 41 assists, teaming with perhaps the nation's top attacker, sophomore Kayla Treanor, who has 73 goals and 107 points. Both are First Team All-Americans.
It's a pick-your-poison endeavor when facing Syracuse.
"Kayla and I are obviously very effective attackers," Murray said after SU's semifinal victory against Boston College. "But we are not supposed to take on seven defenders. If they are [doubling] us that opens up huge lanes for other players on our team who are equally capable of scoring goals."
In the semifinal win against Boston College, SU tallied eleven goals, only three coming from Murray and Treanor. Midfielders Katie Webster, Bridget Daley, and Erica Bodt combined for six goals.
The ACC foes met back in February, an 18-14 victory for Syracuse that saw Treanor score five goals and dish out a pair of assists.
"[Virginia is a] different team now, the stakes are a lot different," Syracuse boss Gary Gait said.
Syracuse lost to Maryland in the NCAA semifinals in 2013, a year after falling to Northwestern in the NCAA final. The Orange also lost in the semifinals in 2008 and 2010.
The nightcap on Friday night features two heavyweights of women's lacrosse.
Maryland is 21-1 this season and participating in the NCAA championships for the 30th time. The Terps are 53-19 all-time in tournament games and have won 10 NCAA titles. Under Cindy Timchal, Maryland won seven consecutive titles from 1995 to 2001. Cathy Reese, in her eighth year, led the program to the top spot in 2010.
The other side of the ledger has Northwestern and Kelly Amonte Hiller. The Wildcats have won seven of the past nine NCAA championships and are 37-8 all-time in NCAA tournament contests. Maryland's 2010 championship ended a five-year reign by the Illinois juggernaut.
"We are at a point in this season where we feel ready. ... ready for this moment," Amonte Hiller said after her squad's win against Florida. "[The team] has put themselves in this position and they could not be more excited."
The Wildcats (14-6) have played ten one-goal games in 2014 and relied on a balanced attack. Eight players have at least twenty points with the New York trio of Alyssa Leonard (74), Kara Mupo (70), and Kat DeRonda (70) leading the pack. Like Virginia, NU, especially senior defender Kerri Harrington, has to deal with a high-powered offensive attack.
Maryland sophomore Taylor Cummings is a do-it-all player, scoring 59 goals and leading the Terps in draw controls with 111. Brooke Griffin and Kelly McPartland each have 57 goals with Beth Glaros (47), Zoe Stukenberg (33), and Halle Majorana (20) also contributing to one of the nation's best offenses. At the back end, junior defender Megan Douty is the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year.
"We have to be ready to battle," Leonard said. "We've played a bunch of one-goal games, the types of games that get you ready for the final four."
Getting ready for the NCAA semifinals is nothing new to these tradition-rich programs. Of the 32 national champions at the Division I level of women's lacrosse dating back to 1982, twenty of them have come from Maryland, Northwestern, or Virginia. Might Syracuse add its name to that mix this weekend?