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Rich Rezler | | November 19, 2015

Familiar faces promise intriguing field hockey championship weekend

With return appearances by four frequent visitors to recent NCAA Division I Field Hockey Championships, there will be no Cinderella story emerging from this year’s semifinals and title game.

Along with top-ranked North Carolina making its seventh consecutive semifinal appearance and 20th in program history, fellow participants Connecticut (fourth appearance in five years), Syracuse (third in four years) and Duke (second in three years) are no strangers to the party.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t plenty of intriguing sub-plots to this weekend’s matchups at Phyllis Ocker Field on the campus of the University of Michigan.

When two-time defending champion Connecticut (22-0) meets the tournament’s top seed, Syracuse (19-1), in a semifinal at noon Friday, it will not only be a rematch of last year’s championship game, but also the rekindling of an old Big East rivalry. Before Syracuse joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Huskies and Orange met in five straight Big East tournament title games from 2009 through 2013.

There’s no rekindling necessary in the 2:45 p.m. semifinal, in which North Carolina (20-2) meets Duke (14-6). The two programs, separated by a less than 10-mile stretch of Tobacco Road, will travel nearly 700 miles to meet for the fifth time in the past two seasons. The stakes have never been higher than the right to advance to the NCAA championship game.

RELATED: Division I field hockey bracket

There’s also the potential for the two winningest college coaches in the history of the sport going head-to-head in Sunday's 1 p.m. championship game if UConn’s Nancy Stevens (617-178-24) advances and meets North Carolina’s Karen Shelton (607-152-9).

Here are more storylines for the two semifinal games:

SYRACUSE (19-1) VS. UCONN (22-0)

UConn coach Nancy Stevens doesn’t much care for her team being defined as the two-time defending national champions.

“We are defending nothing. The 2013 and 2014 national championship trophies are sitting in the field hockey offices and I don’t believe anyone is coming to get them,” Stevens says. “We are in attack mode right now.”

That’s not to say that Stevens doesn’t cherish the experience of back-to-back titles, a feat she says has impacted her players on and off the field.

“At the end of the day, it really isn’t about the field hockey. Our focus has been to empower young women to believe they can accomplish great things by putting their teammates ahead of themselves,” Stevens said. “They have navigated a clear path to two consecutive national championships, so they already know the way. This is clearly a competitive advantage.”

UConn has won 36 straight games dating back to last season, a run that includes a 1-0 win over Syracuse in the 2014 national championship game. The Huskies average a nation-best 5.77 goals per game and sophomore forward Charlotte Veitner leads the nation with 39 goals and 21 assists for 99 total points.

UConn’s former Big East rival, Syracuse feels well-prepared for a run at its first national championship after spending its second season in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. All seven of the ACC’s field hockey programs ended the regular season ranked among the top 11 teams in the final National Field Hockey Coaches Association rankings.

“It really prepares you. Three of the four teams that advanced are all from the ACC, so every weekend you’re basically practicing to play in a final and you’re playing against a lot of speed and a lot of team speed,” Syracuse coach Ange Bradley said. “That really tests you day in and day out.”

It didn’t take Syracuse long to fit in with the other ACC powers. They were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country until losing to North Carolina in the ACC tournament championship game. The Orange still claimed the league’s Offensive Player of the Year (Alma Fenne), Defensive Player of the Year (Alyssa Manley), Freshman of the Year (Roos Weers) and Coach of the Year (Bradley) awards this season. It’s the first time a team has swept the honors since North Carolina did so 21 years ago.

Fenne, a native of the Netherlands spending a single graduate season with the Orange, leads Syracuse in goals (16), assists (9) and points (41). She joined an attack that already featured the program’s all-time leading goal scorer in senior forward Emma Russell, who along with Manley and three-year starting goalkeeper Jess Jecko form a core group of senior leaders.

“They’re focused and they’re committed,” Bradley said. “This is their last opportunity to represent our great university and they want to make history.”

To do so, they’ll need to end UConn’s string of 10 consecutive NCAA tournament victories.

“We play our best when the light shines brightest,” Stevens said.

2:45 P.M., FRIDAY, NOV. 20

North Carolina opened its season at Michigan’s Ocker Field – beating the host Wolverines and Iowa by 2-1 scores in ACC-Big Ten Challenge games – and returns to the recently renovated stadium’s blue AstroTurf to end the campaign.

“We said we’d like to be back, and if we did come back here, we felt like it was a little bit of an advantage that we’d been on that field and seen that magnificent facility,” North Carolina coach Karen Shelton said. “We’re anxious and delighted that we were able to start there and that we’re going to end there.”

North Carolina is seeking its sixth national title, the last of which came in 2009. Duke has reached the championship game four times – including a 2-0 loss to UConn in 2013 – but came up short each time.

The Tar Heels beat Duke, 2-1, in a mid-October regular season game. Duke coach Pam Bustin said her team “definitely had our chances and opportunities that we just didn’t capitalize on” in the loss. 

“Against a good team like UNC … we have to make sure we are more prepared and anticipate those opportunities so we can finish on them,” Bustin said. “We just have to bring our best game and be ready to take advantage of the chances that we have.”

Shelton said the familiarity between the programs makes preparation a little easier for both teams.

“We know them positionally and they know us positionally. It’s just going to be a matter of who plays best in Ann Arbor,” Shelton said. “We’re just excited to play someone at the final four. It doesn’t matter who it is at this point in time. We want to survive and advance. We want to earn another game.”

Based on Duke’s NCAA tournament run to date, the result of that regular season game against North Carolina mean little. The Blue Devils advanced to the semifinals by beating Stanford and Virginia, two teams it also lost to during the regular season.

“We don’t set up our opponents (in the tournament), it just happened to be teams that maybe got the best of us earlier in the year,” Bustin said. “We’ve grown as a team and we’ve become stronger as a team. We can make some adjustments and some changes so that maybe we get our better game in this time.”

Shelton was particularly impressed with Duke’s win over third-seeded Virginia in Charlottesville, considering the Cavaliers beat them 5-1 in an ACC tournament quarterfinal  just 10 days earlier.

“When you have a loss like that, it gets your attention. Duke’s such a good team that you know that they went back, they studied that film, they fixed the problems and I’m happy for them that they were able to turn that around,” Shelton said. “Coach Bustin prepared her team well and they responded.”

Bustin said a key to the Blue Devils’ improvement during the tournament has been its defensive organization coming together, something that will need to continue against a North Carolina offense that features sophomore forward Gab Major (17 goals) and sophomore midfielders Emily Wold and Nina Notman (14 goals apiece). Wold, the only collegiate on Team USA’s 2014 World Cup team, recently became the 13th player in history to make the all-ACC first team for four consecutive seasons.

“This is when you want to play (your best hockey). You’ve got to set yourself up to give yourself this opportunity, and this group was able to do that,” Bustin said. “But now to be in the tournament and have earned our way into the final four, we’ve just got to keep it rolling, keep our energy high and just enjoy the matches with some great intensity.”

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