Lacrosse NCAA Final Four: NU vs. UNC, a first look

The head coaches of the teams in the women’s lacrosse Final Four held a conference call today to talk to the media, and I got to listen in. Most of the call was an ACC lovefest, which I suppose is somewhat understandable, given that three teams in the Final Four are from the ACC.

I’m sure NU head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and her Wildcats will take great pleasure in upsetting the lacrosse world order, just as they have for most of the last six years, nonwithstanding the fact that Amonte Hiller is a Maryland grad.

"I’m just glad that we can represent the other side of the country," she said in response to a question about the ACC’s dominance. I pictured her rolling her eyes while saying this.

"It puts us in a position where we have to go out there and prove we can play at the same level as these other ACC schools," she continued.

NU, by the way, beat two of those ACC teams in the Final Four during the regular season — Duke and North Carolina. NU (19-2) will face North Carolina (15-5) in Friday’s second semifinal (Duke and Maryland face off in the early game Friday), and we’ll have a full preview later in the week. But here are a few more insights from the coaches’ conference call.

UNC head coach Jenny Levy spent much of her allotted time talking about how past results in the budding NU-UNC rivalry are not indicative of how Friday’s game will go. I’m sure Levy’s been instilling that clean-slate mentality in her players, given that the Wildcats beat the Tar Heels earlier this season, 7-6 in OT, in February. Levy said that game, which was UNC’s fourth game of the year and NU’s second, "feels like a decade ago."

"They’re a different team than they were in February, and we’re certainly a different team," she said. "There’s a lot of growth that happens between February 25 and May 24. You do make improvements."

Amonte Hiller was subscribing to the same philosophy.

"Both our team and their team have improved tremendously," she said. "I know they’ve been playing well recently. We just want to make sure we study them up as much as we can and are ready for Friday night and that our players feel confident going into the game."

In that February game, NU held UNC star attacker Corey Donahue scoreless, with just two shots. Amonte Hiller was asked how the Wildcats would seek to contain Donahue, who leads the Tar Heels in goals with 51, again on Friday.

"Corey is obviously a tremendous player, [but] I wouldn’t say she’s the only player they have," Amonte Hiller said. "Our focus going in is to play strong team defense. They have a number of weapons. If we can play together and just be aware of Corey and Becky [Lynch], who’s a tremendous player, and they have a host of great midfielders. They’re tough top to bottom. You can’t just focus on one player."

Amonte Hiller was then asked about the two uncharacteristic losses that the Wildcats had in April. NU lost on April 14 to Florida, which was no shame given that Florida was ranked No. 6, but then came a bad loss to unranked Johns Hopkins on April 16. Amonte Hiller was asked about what changes the Wildcats made in response to those losses.

She said freshman Alyssa Leonard, who had been playing a couple of different positions, was moved to defense full-time, and Taylor Thornton, who had been switching between midfield and defense, was also moved to defense full-time.

"Now we’re picking our spots for when we put her in the offensive end," Amonte Hiller said. "She obviously will get some looks in transition, too. Those were the main defensive changes. We made some changes in the midfield, too. It’s just recommitting and making sure that our [midfielders] know that defense is the No. 1 priority, and we have to make stops. We really weren’t getting that before. We’re really getting some beautiful stops now."

Meanwhile, Levy had high praise for NU attacker Shannon Smith, who leads the NCAA in scoring by a healthy margin, with 78 goals and 41 assists. Smith (she goes by Shanimal, Sessy, Sharon, Ron, Shar Bear or Shannay, according to an online chat on NUsports.com that she and Thornton held with fans on Monday) is in the midst of an offensive tear, having scored five goals in four straight games, and the Tar Heels will no doubt be blanketing her with defenders — not that that tactic has slowed her down in every other game.

"She’s involved with every play on the field," Levy said. "They put her in positions to score, and her team relies on her to score. She’s smart, she’s talented, she’s dynamic, and she’s done a great job for them this year."

Asked to compare Smith to previous NU greats, including Katrina Dowd, Kristin Kjellman and Hilary Bowen, Levy said Smith’s season has been more remarkable in that she has not had a second or third offensive star to share the load, as those other players did. Smith’s 119 points on the season are almost triple that of NU’s second-leading scorer, Erin Fitzgerald, who has 43 points.

"When you had Kjellman out there, you also had to figure out how to mark [Sarah] Albrecht and [Lindsey] Munday," Levy said. "Last year with Katrina Dowd and Danielle Spencer, those two, again, they were difficult marks. I think Shannon has separated herself in the sense that the offense around her, they play well and they’re talented, too, but she has more on her shoulders than the other kids."

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