Princeton breaks through to face UNC
NORFOLK, Va. -- She whispered the words to herself.
"This just has to go in."
Then Teresa Benvenuti of Princeton swatted the penalty stroke past a lunging Natalie Hunter of Maryland, and with it came history.
Changed history. No more North Carolina versus Maryland for the NCAA field hockey championship.
Instead, it will be the Tar Heels (23-1) versus Princeton (20-1) playing for a title at 1 p.m. ET Sunday at Old Dominion University's L.R. Hill Field.
The top-seeded Tar Heels -- in the Final Four for the 17th time -- dominated Syracuse 6-1 in Friday's first semifinal. The Tigers didn't advance in as cozy of a fashion, needing overtime to survive a resilient Maryland team that had won back-to-back NCAA championships. Benvenuti's penalty stroke in the seven-on-seven overtime secured the 3-2 victory, sealing Princeton's first trip to the title game since 1998.
"My high school coach told me I couldn't really perform under pressure, so I proved her wrong," said a giddy Benvenuti, a freshman midfielder from Morristown, N.J. "This was pretty much the highest pressure you could be in, and I knew it had to go in or I'd let the team down."
Unlike ACC foes North Carolina and Maryland, such regulars in the Final Four that one of them has won it each of the past seven years, the Tar Heels and Princeton have not played against each other since 2002, a game the Tigers won 4-2, coincidentally in Norfolk. The Tigers are 0-3 against North Carolina in the postseason, including a 1996 loss in the national championship.
"We said pregame that passion would win this game, not pedigree," said Princeton coach Kristen Holmes-Winn, though nothing is second-rate about the Tigers' personnel, which includes Olympians Julia and Katie Reinprecht, Olympic alternate Michelle Cesan and NCAA scoring leader Kathleen Sharkey.
Sharkey, whose family sits in the stands clutching stuffed orange tiger sharks bearing toothy grins, is Princeton's all-time leader in points and goals. Her two goals Friday gave her 37 for the season.
She was a first-grader when her sister, Laura, needed someone to bat the ball back and forth to in the driveway in Moosic, Pa. Kathleen was drafted and baby sis has excelled in this sport ever since, displaying not just a nose for the ball, but a knack for reading passes to put herself in position to score.
"It's her quick wrists," said her mom, Anne, emotional not just after the game but during it given that this is her daughter's senior year. "I'm trying to imprint every play on my brain. It's been a wonderful journey."
Princeton's ride this season has had all happy endings minus a 2-0 loss to Syracuse on Sept. 23. The Tigers have shut out 10 teams, outscoring Lafayette, Drexel and Virginia 16-0 en route to Friday's semifinal. They defeated Maryland by this same score on Oct 2.
"Their counterattack is probably the best in the NCAAs I've ever seen," said Maryland coach Missy Meharg, whose Terps (18-6) own the national record for most wins in the tournament (53).
North Carolina earned its 50th victory in the national tournament in stunning fashion. The Orange (19-3) struck first after Lauren Brooks whacked a rebound past the left post, an advantage that lasted all of 63 seconds when North Carolina answered behind Jaclyn Gaudioso Radvany's fast-break goal. The teams played even until the 32nd minute, when an avalanche of three goals in 1:02 confirmed the Tar Heels would be vying for their seventh national title.
North Carolina coach Karen Shelton called it an explosion unlike any she has experienced thus far this season, and the trigger proved to be Charlotte Craddock. The sophomore did not play the first time these teams met on Sept. 1, when the Orange handed the Tar Heels their only loss, 1-0 in overtime. Craddock missed the Tar Heels' first six games due to an eligibility issue. The forward from Wolverhampton, England, had her fourth hat trick of the season against Syracuse, which put her in her least favorite place postgame.
Was she frustrated initially when her shots didn't find the inside of the cage?
"Ah ..." Craddock mumbled, looking around for an assist. "I just ..."
Coach Karen Shelton helped out. "We knew the goalie was going to be strong," she said. "What we talked about was widening the goals. We practiced some corners that were a little bit different."
And while Craddock added something about being in the right place at the right time, Shelton heralded the youngest member of the British national team in the Beijing Olympics as among the best players she has had in 32 seasons at UNC.
Syracuse, which had outscored opponents 47-4 in the first half this season, surrendered four goals in Friday's first half. Coach Ange Bradley played with an empty cage for much of the final 22 minutes, but Syracuse, which came in ranked third in the NCAA in scoring offense, couldn't capitalize. The Orange were outshot 18-8.
That didn't deflate the sizable contingent that made the nine-hour drive south in hopes of cheering on Syracuse to its first NCAA team title in a women's sport.
"We bleed orange," said Marc Kuzio, wearing a brilliant orange wig. Uncle to freshman goalie Jess Jecko, his outfit also included two pairs of Syracuse earrings in each ear, team pajama pants and underwear he promised was orange and blue.
There will be plenty of orange in the stands on Sunday, though, as Princeton also sports that color. That will contrast with the Carolina blue reserved for a team whose nine seniors will be playing in the title game for the fourth straight time. Winners as freshmen, they want to experience that high one more time.
"We've made it to as many games as possible every year," Tar Heels senior defender Caitlin Van Sickle said. "We know this is our last game, so hopefully we'll come out on top."