For the third consecutive season, the North Carolina field hockey team will face Maryland in the NCAA title game.
But unlike the past two championship meetings, the Tar Heels are the favorite this time — not the underdog.
The top-seed Tar Heels enter this year’s championship game having beaten Maryland the one time the teams clashed in the regular season, a feat UNC failed to accomplish in the 2009 and 2010 season.
UNC defeated Maryland 2-1 in Chapel Hill in October, but the game was not as competitive as the final score indicated. UNC junior forward Jaclyn Gaudioso Radvany scored off of a penalty corner eight minutes into the game, and the Tar Heels doubled their lead in the 50th minute when Kelsey Kolojejchick scored. Maryland’s lone goal came from a penalty corner as time expired.
But UNC head coach Karen Shelton said none of that will matter come game time on Sunday.
“When you get to these kinds of (games) you throw out the record books,” Shelton said. “It doesn’t matter what happened this whole regular season. What matters is who’s going to be able to play tomorrow.”
Shelton said Maryland typically uses a quick-passing, finesse-based playing style that is very similar to UNC’s style of play.
“It’s going to be a wide-open game would be my guess,” Shelton said. “We know them very well. They know us very well.”
When scouting Maryland in their semifinal 4-0 win against Old Dominion, Shelton noticed the Terrapins altered their tactics slightly, pushing defender Harriet Tibble into the midfield.
But Shelton is confident her team matches up well, regardless of how Maryland lines up tactically.
“I don’t know if they’ll do that against us, but if they do, we’re not going to move people around,” Shelton said. “Whoever they want to match up with against us, that’s what we’ll play.”
Though the Tar Heels conceded three goals in the first half against Connecticut in the semifinals on Friday, they responded well after halftime, shutting the Huskies out in the second half and both overtime periods. Coming into the Final Four, UNC led the nation defensively in terms of goals allowed per contest.
On the offensive end, the Tar Heels will look to get the ball to Kolojejchick as much as possible. The junior forward scored twice in the win against UConn and leads the team with 23 goals this season. Gaudioso Radvany and senior Elizabeth Stephens are both scoring threats as well.
In the regular-season victory against Maryland, UNC was without star midfielder Katelyn Falgowski who was playing for the U.S. national team.
Since Falgowski’s return to the team in the final regular season game, she has occupied her usual midfield role, which has enabled Kolojejchick to play more as a forward. That has allowed Kolojejchick to focus exclusively on goal scoring, rather than the added defensive responsibilities that come with playing in the midfield.
Maryland defender Tibble and midfielder Megan Frazer, both of whom scored in the NCAA title victory against UNC last season, are key players on the Terrapin squad.
“They have a very strong team in general,” UNC midfielder and defender Marta Malmberg said. “But they definitely have some key players that we know we have to pay special attention to and really take care of.”
The Tar Heels will have to battle fatigue Sunday as well.
UNC narrowly escaped an opportunistic UConn team in the semifinals on Friday. Trailing 3-1 entering the final minute of the game, UNC scored two goals in 31 seconds to force overtime. Kolojejchick’s goal in the 94th minute completed the comeback.
“The UConn game physically was a tough game. Mentally, it was a very tough game,” Malmberg said. “But we’re doing everything we can to recover and get ready for tomorrow.”
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