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Sunday, May 25, 2008
Northwestern completes four-peat in women's lacrosse

By David Lomonico

TOWSON, Md. -- From 1995 to 2001, the Maryland women's lacrosse team won seven straight national championships.

In three more years, the Terps could have company. Northwestern is officially a threat after its fourth straight NCAA lacrosse championship.

A new dynasty?

"I'm not going to say that," said Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, smiling, after her Wildcats dispatched the Penn Quakers 10-6 before a record crowd of 6,125 at Towson's Johnny Unitas Stadium on Sunday evening.

The difference between the top-seeded Wildcats and the second-seeded Quakers is similar to reaching the summit on Mount Everest and falling just a few hundred feet short. The top is within grasp, you can almost touch it, but each step forward is as taxing as a 10-mile run. Penn went from barely making the tournament two years ago, to the semifinal game last year, to the school's first championship game this season. But the juggernaut still stands in the Quakers' way.

"I'm really proud of our girls, but Northwestern is a tough act to follow," Penn coach Karin Brower said. "Four national championships is incredible."

Penn showed it could hang with the elite back on April 27, when it handed Northwestern (21-1) its only defeat of the season, but the Quakers couldn't trip up the champs twice. The defense held initially, just like Syracuse's did in the first half of Northwestern's semifinal match. The back-breaker, however, came 11 seconds before halftime. Penn, down 4-2, turned the ball over on its final possession, and the Wildcats' Hannah Nielsen raced down the field and found teammate Meredith Frank, who delivered a bullet to the back of the net.

The Wildcats followed that score with a 3-0 second-half run to put the game away. Nielsen led the Wildcats with three goals and three assists and did most of her damage in the second half, igniting the Northwestern attack.

"We weren't being aggressive on offense, and I saw an opening and took it," Nielsen said. "[Penn's] Sarah Waxman is a great goalie. The second half we had some great shots and started to get to her."

While the Wildcats' offense grinded away with a frustrating ball-control attack -- at one point they held the ball for 11 straight minutes -- the defense swarmed the Quakers with face-guards and double teams. Maggie Bremer, fresh off her finest performance in shutting out the nation's leading scorer (Syracuse's Katie Rowan), held Penn's Melissa Lehman scoreless. Bremer's backfield mate, senior Christy Finch, continued to dominate and even scored a goal.

Goalie Morgan Lathrop denied the Quakers with several kick saves, including a spectacular stop at the end of the first half and another with Penn attempting a comeback down 8-5 in the second half.

"Penn was coming at us hard and I didn't want them to go into halftime with momentum," said Lathrop, who recorded a season-high 11 saves. "I didn't have my best game Friday [against Syracuse], so it's an incredible feeling to come back like this."

A 3-0 Quakers run closed the gap to two goals, but Northwestern's attack -- led by Nielsen and Hilary Bowen -- tested Penn's depth, and the Quakers eventually succumbed. Bowen, the recipient of two Nielsen give-and-gos, finished with 17 goals for the tournament, tying the NCAA postseason record. Bowen, who had six goals against Syracuse and five goals in last year's championship game, has 32 tourney goals in her career, just seven shy of the 39-goal record. She'll have one more year to become the all-time postseason leader.

"Kelly said everyone had to step up and play a team game," said Bowen, who earned her second straight tournament MVP award. "Every individual did their part to lead us to a championship. That's what has been successful in the past and that's what was successful today."

The veteran Quakers remembered last year's 12-2 drubbing in the NCAA semifinals at the hands of Northwestern and were looking for a better showing in the postseason finale this year. They knew any such chance of avenging that loss began with their defense, ranked No. 1 in the country at 6.08 goals allowed per game. In the April 27 meeting, the Quakers shut out the Wildcats for the entire second half.

"Northwestern definitely made some changes [on offense] from April 27," Waxman said. "They're four-time national champs for a reason."

Brower said before the finals started that her team would have to play a perfect game to beat Northwestern. Penn didn't come close, and while a lot of credit goes to the Wildcats' defense, the Quakers beat themselves on numerous occasions.

"They double you early; it's an extreme amount of pressure," Brower said. "They create a frenzy, and you really need to be composed, and at times, we weren't composed."

The Wildcats have won 16 straight tournament games, giving Amonte Hiller a 17-1 postseason record. There's no reason this team won't be back next year. There might be more parity in women's lacrosse than when Maryland recorded its run, but with the influx of talent Amonte Hiller brings in on a yearly basis, the Wildcats may stand alone by 2012.

Does winning ever get old? Absolutely not.

"This [championship] is my favorite one yet," said Finch, who has won a championship all four years and is the only Northwestern starter graduating. "It feels great to go out on top."

David Lomonico is a senior at Loyola College and a freelance writer.