Before the most recent merry-go-round of Division I conference realignment, this weekend’s NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvannia, would have served as an exciting sequel to the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s lacrosse tournament.
Rather than having the same four ACC semifinalists as a spring ago, however, Maryland became a Big Ten member last fall as part of the ever-shifting landscape of major college sports, denying the conference a clean sweep of this weekend’s NCAA Division I semifinals.
“I'm sure Maryland is really happy with their new conference home,” North Carolina coach Jenny Levy said. “But when you look at the lineup right now and it's three ACC teams and Maryland, who a year ago, was an ACC team and you get through the gauntlet of the ACC tournament, I think it does prepare you really well, especially if you can win, like Syracuse did and we did. If you can win two games in a row to get to the championship game, that's a hard four days, both mentally and physically.
“It prepares those teams well going into the final four."
Maryland mostly dominated its new rivals, and everyone else, but one recent exception gives its former rivals some hope: An 11-10 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals that halted a 27-game win streak and made the defending champions appear somewhat mortal.
In the first round, the Terrapins reestablished themselves as the prohibitive favorite with one-sided wins against UMass (19-8) and Big Ten rival and No. 9-ranked Northwestern (17-5), the second time this season they beat the perennial power by 10 or more goals, to earn their seventh consecutive trip to the national semifinals.
Although Maryland coach Cathy Reese insisted on a conference call that her team faces the same day-in and day-out challenges as the company it will keep this weekend -- “Every team has a different personality and a different makeup” -- her squad still holds a distinct advantage in playing, and succeeding, on a national stage with an experienced squad featuring All-Americans including first-team honorees in reigning Tewaarton Award winner Taylor Cummings (89 points), Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Megan Douty (21 caused turnovers) and Brooke Griffin (63 points).
However, their former conference foes will provide a tough road to repeating.
Syracuse will hope to finally push past its perennial nemesis Friday night, having lost three times last season and by a 10-7 count earlier this season. Between Maryland’s loss to Ohio State and capturing the ACC tournament after taking a bit longer than expected to overcome the loss of eight starters from 2014, the Orange have a budding confidence within their ranks that they could be on the verge of a breakthrough behind junior attackwomen Halle Majorana (89 points) and Kayla Treanor (86).
“It gives that reality that anybody can be beaten on any given day,” said Syracuse coach Gary Gait, a former Maryland assistant who once coached Reese. “It’s kind of nice to at least put that in the back of your mind that they can be beat. But it’s going to be how you prepare and how you execute on game day.
"And even if you give your best, it may not be enough, but we'll be prepared and we'll be focused and we'll give it our best shot."
In the other half of the bracket featuring the famed Tobacco Road rivalry, North Carolina is two years removed from defeating Maryland for the Walnut and Bronze and is mostly healthy after injuries to four standouts ruined their hopes of repeating. Two of them have bounced back nicely as Sydney Holman scored four goals in an 11-8 quarterfinal victory against Penn State and Sammy Jo Tracy has dominated on the draw, offsetting the loss of top scorer Molly Kendrick to a torn left ACL.
“Both of them are playing at the top of their game,” Levy said.
Meanwhile, Duke has never appeared in a championship game and is making its first semifinal appearance since 2011, but a strong eight-women senior class could offset a lack of championship experience. Of them, Kerrin Maurer (43 goals) earned first-team All-American honors while Brigid Smith (37), Taylor Trimble (36) and Katie Trees (33) might be the most formidable offensive quartet playing this weekend.
"The years that we've been in the final four and we haven't gotten past that semifinal game, it's been for all sorts of different reasons, most of which had something to do with our opponents," said Duke coach Kerstin Kimel, whose squad lost to North Carolina, 12-6, on April 17. "I think what makes this group special is we're senior heavy. Seven of our eight seniors have either started or played for us since they were freshmen. ... They've done a fantastic job of leading our team to this point."