The selection committee couldn't have scheduled two better semifinal games.
It's doubtful that the NCAA women's lacrosse tournament selection committee seeded reigning champion Northwestern (18-1) fourth just so the Wildcats could meet No. 1 seed Duke (18-2) in the semifinals. It's even harder to believe that anyone predicted that No. 2 seed Virginia and No. 3 seed Georgetown wouldn't make it to Boston, the site of this year's championship.
The strange events of the first two rounds of the tournament opened the door for either Notre Dame or Dartmouth to make its first-ever appearance in the title game. That's not only great for the fans in Boston, who will get to see two great teams battle for that position, it's great for a sport which needs more parity. It's a sign that while the powerhouse programs are still alive and well, their stranglehold on the championship is at least loosening.
Duke and Northwestern face off at Boston University's Nickerson Field Friday at 6 p.m. This will be a rematch of the teams' fateful April 7 game, in which Duke ended Northwestern's 31-game winning streak. This matchup pits arguably the top two teams in the country in what could be considered the real championship game.
If you have already written off Notre Dame and Dartmouth, you're in the majority. You're in good company, too; I am sure Georgetown, Virginia and Princeton had also dismissed the Irish and Big Green.
But like those programs, you would be mistaken. Both Notre Dame and Dartmouth have been consistently good for quite some time. Unfortunately, they are too often lost in the shadows of the lacrosse powerhouses that reside in their respective conferences. The Fighting Irish have fallen just one game short of winning the Big East three times; in each of those seasons (including 2006) their lone loss came to Georgetown. In defeating the Hoyas last week, Notre Dame not only advanced to the semifinals for the first time in the program's history, but it exorcised some demons in the process.
Likewise, Dartmouth is often the ugly stepsister of the Ivy League. Since 2000, Princeton has appeared in the title game four times, winning two championships in the process. Even though this will be the second consecutive appearance in the semifinals for the Big Green, it may be the first time they get the attention they deserve.
Had the selection committee seeded Northwestern differently -- say, at No. 2 -- the scene in Boston would look mighty different. The Blue Devils and Wildcats would have been expected to roll over their semifinal opponents in similar fashion to the way they demolished teams in earlier rounds. The closest either team came to elimination was in Northwestern's first-round game against Stanford, a 17-9 Wildcats win; Northwestern rebounded from that "scare" to dismiss North Carolina by 11 points. Duke put away Holy Cross 18-2 and James Madison 16-6. On average, Northwestern and Duke beat their tournament opponents by more than 11 points per game.
We'll never know if Notre Dame or Dartmouth could have provided a little more resistance on the paths Duke and Northwestern take to the title game. Instead, fans will get to see a fast-paced, well-coached matchup in Duke and Northwestern -- two teams that have enjoyed a recent run of success, culminating in Northwestern's championship last year. Should Duke win, it will mark the Blue Devils' first title game appearance. Both teams sport balanced attacks. In their last meeting, Duke held Northwestern to a season-low 10 goals. If the Wildcats want to make it to the title game for a second straight year, they will need increased production from every player on offense -- not just leading scorers Kristen Kjellman, Aly Josephs and Lindsay Munday.
Strategy will be the deciding factor in the Notre Dame-Dartmouth semifinal. Notre Dame features a high-octane offense, powered by Jillian Byers, Caitlin McKinney and All-American and Tewaaraton Trophy candidate Crysti Foote. Each tallied a hat trick in the Irish's 12-9 win against Georgetown. Dartmouth, on the other hand, boasts a bruising defense which held opponents to 6.61 goals per game. Notre Dame averages nearly double that, at 13.98 goals per game. Whichever team is able to control the pace of play will ultimately win a date with the winner of Duke-Northwestern.
The championship game will feature at least one newcomer. Should Duke win in the semifinals, it will mark the first time since 1983 (just the second title game in NCAA history) that two teams will be there for the first time in their programs' histories. That's a monumental stride for a sport that has seen just 10 different champions in its 22-year history. Maybe the selection committee knew what it was doing all along.
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.