History is dominant heading into this weekend’s NCAA championship games. The history of the Northwestern-North Carolina rivalry is hanging over both teams. The history of Northwestern’s legacy is demanding to be upheld.
However, to the Wildcats, that history means little.
“Every year is a clean slate,” senior midfielder Erin Fitzgerald said. “We don’t take our history with us. You can’t get confidence from something that happened in the past.”
Although Northwestern faced North Carolina in its third game of the regular season and lost 11-8, head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller agrees with Fitzgerald and puts little stock in the past.
“We have faced each other quite a lot but every year is a new year,” she said in a teleconference with all four NCAA semifinalist coaches Monday. “You have to really look at it with fresh eyes and use the experience that you’ve had against that team, but I think each team is always evolving.”
Even though both teams are completely different than the ones that met in February, something can still be learned from the past.
In their first matchup, junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard was spot on, scoring two goals and winning 12 draw controls to help her team battle back from an early 7-1 deficit.
Tar Heels’ head coach Jenny Levy said that Leonard is one of the players North Carolina will have to plan for. Every time the two teams head back to the circle, Leonard gives Northwestern an edge of confidence, Levy said.
“Alyssa Leonard is special,” Levy said. “She really is very good at what she does and takes a lot of pride and brings a lot of energy.”
North Carolina rattled off five unanswered goals in the game’s first half before Fitzgerald finally scored. But the second half rally wasn’t enough to overcome the hole Northwestern had dug for itself.
After North Carolina handed them their first loss of this season, the Wildcats went on to win 11 games straight, outscoring their opponents 134-97 and never allowing their offensive output in a given game to dip below nine goals.
In fact, Northwestern didn't lose again until a 22-4 beating at the hands of Florida back on April 20. That loss, the ‘Cats’ second of the season, woke the team up.
“I think that after our late season loss to Florida, our team just realized that we need to go our there and play and be satisfied with the effort that they put forth,” Amonte Hiller said.
A six-game winning streak suggests the team has taken its coach’s words to heart.
Team defense will be a key component of Friday’s game for both sides. North Carolina’s high-powered offense has scored 253 goals on the season and the Northwestern defense has to find a way to stop the early scoring.
That's where Wildcat defender Kerri Harrington has a chance to shine. As a sophomore, Harrington may be one of the only players in the country who can put “face-guarding specialist” on her lacrosse resume. Earlier in her collegiate career, Harrington’s official role was “face-guarder of the defense.”
Although she can still provide Northwestern with that much-needed support, she now takes on any job her coach gives her, which has made her a better all-around defender.
“Whatever role we give her, she is really a huge competitor and that has enabled her to step up in these pressure situations,” Amonte Hiller said. “All season long, she’s been a stable defender.”
Both Northwestern and North Carolina are used to making it to the Final Four. The Wildcats have qualified for each the last nine years, and the two teams faced off for the 2009 title, a game the Wildcats won 21-7.
“I think when it comes to Tournament play experience is everything,” senior midfielder and captain Taylor Thornton said. “We’ve been here before and I think we know what to do.”
This matchup in particular will prove to be different than past trips to the Final Four. In those games, Northwestern was usually heavily favored and delivered wins by heavy margins. In Friday’s game, some people consider No. 2 Northwestern the underdogs, a title Thornton willingly accepts.
The past that the team is quick to forget will prove vital in its matchup against North Carolina. Both teams know each other, the Tournament and themselves well. If Northwestern can use the tools that have supported its program all season long — Leonard’s dominance on the draw, Fitzgerald’s and Thornton’s power on offense and the team defense — then it’ll have a good chance of moving on to the title game and making history once again.