May 24, 2009

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Can the Tar Heels Pull Another Upset?

by Clare Lochary | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Just 85 people attended Northwestern and North Carolina's last meeting, a 12-7 Wildcat win on March 2 in Chapel Hill. Today, the 'Cats and the Tar Heels will meet at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, Md., before a crowd of thousands to decide the 2009 NCAA Division I women's lacrosse championship.

Top-seeded Northwestern (22-0) will compete for its fifth consecutive national title; fifth-seeded North Carolina (16-4) is competing in the program's first championship game.

It's hard to draw conclusions from that March 2 game, witnessed by so few and played under bizarre circumstances. The game was originally scheduled for March 1, and North Carolina led Northwestern, 4-2, when the match was called due to driving rain and standing water on the field.

The next day, a freak snowstorm dumped several inches of snow on Chapel Hill, rendering grassy Fetzer Field useless. The two teams and their coaching staffs shoveled off the turf field at Henry Stadium to play. The Tar Heels hung with the Wildcats for the first half, but yielded a 6-0 run that put the game out of reach.

But things will be different this time. First of all, it won't be snowing. Secondly, Northwestern will play with senior midfielder Hilary Bowen in a limited capacity due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

While Bowen has been back in action in the tournament, she has been limited to two points and doesn't quite seem like the two-time championship MVP that she is. HilBo committed uncharacteristic turnovers in the Wildcats' 13-12, double-overtime win over Penn in Friday's semifinal.

Junior attacker Katrina Dowd has more than picked up Bowen's slack with what coach Kelly Amonte Hiller calls a "magical stick." Dowd's four-goal performance, which included a no-look shot from her knees in the first overtime period, was actually a tournament low for Dowd. She scored seven goals each in of the first two games and is has set an NCAA tournament record with 18 goals.

Northwestern also has senior Hannah Nielsen, reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner and the NCAA's all-time assists leader. Nielsen fared well against the Tar Heels last time, scoring three goals.

If anyone can go toe-to-toe with either Dowd or Nielsen, it's Carolina senior defender Amber Falcone. Falcone's tenacious crease defense helped to limit fellow Tewaaraton finalist and U.S. team member Caitlyn McFadden to a single assist in the Tar Heels' 8-7 semifinal win over Maryland.

Falcone is the centerpiece of a fierce team defense, along with goalie Logan Ripley, who made some big saves in the semifinal win. Falcone drew Nielsen in March, but things could get shifted around to accommodate the lineup changes. Northwestern has only lost two games in the last three seasons, but one was to Carolina, a  9-8, double-overtime defeat in the 2007 season opener.

The cliché is that defense wins championships, and certainly that is important against the top scoring team in the nation (17.45 goals per game). But Carolina's attack must do whatever it did to score four goals in 10 minutes against Northwestern in that ill-fated March 1 match, because it's fatal to fall behind the Wildcats. The Tar Heels' deliberate offense thrives on long possessions, but doesn't have a second gear when times get tough.

(Consider that Carolina's season-high goal total is 16, which is less than Northwestern's season average goals per game.)

Freshman midfielder Laura Zimmerman came out of nowhere to score a career-high three goals against the Terps in the semis, and she could very well be a factor in the finals, since her low profile makes for difficult scouting. More typically, the Tar Heels get their goals from Megan Bosica (35g), Jenn Russell (37g), Kristen Taylor (36g) and Corey Donohoe (35g), a well-balanced unit that shares the wealth and looks for the high-percentage shot.

Donohoe (.552 shooting percentage) has the best shot of the four, and she has particular motivation to win: her big sister Casey Donohoe (15g) is a senior attacker for Northwestern. If you see a group of people in custom-made shirts of Carolina blue and Northwestern royal purple, that's the Donohoe family, who will definitely go home with a championship tonight.

Which daughter will raise the trophy remains to be seen.


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