Title IX in Action
NCAA DI Women's Lacrosse
Article and Photos by Leigh Ernst Friestedt
2021 Division I Women’s Lacrosse Final Four features the top four teams in the country: UNC, Northwestern, Syracuse and Boston College. While the journey to Championship weekend encountered unprecedented challenges and protocols, the top teams have persevered and are playing at the highest level – ready to face off for a national title.
University of North Carolina (“UNC”) is the undisputed #1 seed with an undefeated record of 20-0 and 9-0 in the powerhouse ACC conference. For the top seed, this will be UNC’s 12th Final Four appearance as the program goes after its third National Championship under Head Coach, Jenny Levy.
The Tar Heels are on a 27 game win streak dating back to 2020 when UNC was undefeated and the #1 team in the nation until an abrupt shut down of college sports. Ironically, the last game UNC lost was against Boston College in overtime at the 2019 NCAA Final Four. For UNC’s veteran squad led by Jamie Ortega, Katie Hoeg and Taylor Moreno – the loss was painful and serves as a constant reminder of what is at stake with every game.
UNC is stacked with exceptional athletes in every position on the field and has tremendous depth off the bench providing the Tar Heels with a competitive advantage to make key adjustments on game day. The Tar Heels hit the ground running in 2021 blowing out top opponents, but as the season progressed teams are chipping away at their dominance.
The road to the Final Four has not been easy for the #1 seed. UNC faced the 2018 National Champions JMU in their first round and Stony Brook last weekend in the Quarterfinals. Both teams challenged UNC and the Tar Heels found themselves down 9-11 in the second half against Stony Brook. But UNC embraced the pressure, locked down defensively and scored 5 goals to advance to the Final Four.
UNC has a winning culture – both the men and women’s lacrosse teams are ranked #1 in the country and heading to the Final Four. UNC Women’s Field Hockey captured a national title earlier this month, and the women’s lacrosse team is poised to add another title to the UNC dynasty. While some speculate that UNC could buckle under pressure, Coach Jenny Levy leveraged this winning culture to prepare her team recognizing that if UNC embraces the pressure – great things can happen.
Northwestern enters the Final Four seeded #2 with an undefeated record of 15-0 but against a limited Big Ten schedule. The highly anticipated matchup between Northwestern and the ACC finally took place last weekend at the NCAA Quarterfinals where the Wildcats met Duke. After being down 6-1 early in the first half, Northwestern accelerated into high gear and never looked back taking down the Blue Devils in a decisive win 22-10.
As the only Big Ten team in the Final Four, Northwestern has something to prove and has overcome tremendous adversity with an uncertain schedule, cancelled games and a tough travel schedule during the pandemic. Underlying the team’s mentality is a genuine appreciation for the opportunity to play this year – the Wildcats did not even have a schedule one week prior to the start of the season.
For Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, winning is ingrained in her DNA with nine National titles – two as a former player at Maryland and seven as the Head Coach of Northwestern. Similar to UNC, Northwestern experienced a shock to the system at the 2019 Final Four losing to Maryland 25-13. Two years later, Northwestern is back and with many of the same top players who are ready to set the record straight and win a national title.
Northwestern’s veteran team is anchored by a powerful attack led by Izzy Scane, who leads the NCAA with 94 goals this season (tied with Charlotte North) averaging over 6 goals per game. But beyond the Scane train, Northwestern is an extremely athletic and physical team who will not take anything for granted, which could provide the extra edge needed to win a National Championship.
Underlying Northwestern’s success is an “unwavering will to win” and belief in each other that will be hard to take down. In addition to scoring over 20 goals per game, Northwestern fights for every ball and knows how to do all of the little things right to put themselves in a position to win. Northwestern’s relentless ride all over the field puts constant pressure on their opponents and breaks them down. Syracuse will be the strongest opponent Northwestern has faced all year, but the Wildcats are up for the challenge.
The Orange exemplify a great team who has overcome adversity with injuries to key players over the course of the 2021 season. Emily Hawryschuk suffered a season ending ACL tear during practice one game into the season and Megan Carney suffered the same injury later in the season. Without Hawryschuk and Carney, many thought the Syracuse attack might not have the firepower needed to navigate a tough ACC schedule. But the Orange took the injuries in stride and exemplified how Gary Gait creates winning teams not just superstars.
2016 marked the last time Syracuse made a Final Four appearance and this would be the program’s first National Championship. With 10 of 11 seniors returning for an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, the mission is very clear – to win a national title.
At the heart of Syracuse’s success is teamwork and it starts with their solid defense led by Sarah Cooper who has tremendous reach to shut down potent attacks and Asa Goldstock in goal. On the other end of the field, Syracuse runs a well-balanced attack with every player acting as a threat to goal running a weave that penetrates any openings and runs opponents in circles (literally).
Given everything the Orange have gone through this year, it “would be amazing to pull this off.” At the core of Syracuse’s success is a team that has fun playing together and rises to the occasion like a true champion. Syracuse has lost this season to UNC twice and Boston College, but they never seem defeated and come back every time making key adjustments and doing whatever it takes to win.
Boston College played UNC at the 2019 NCAA Final Four in front a crowd of 10,000+ screaming fans for one of the most exciting games in the history of women’s lacrosse. The Eagles emerged victorious with an overtime goal to defeat UNC 15-14, but for the third consecutive year, the Eagles failed to capture a national title. BC’s game against UNC this Friday will be a rematch of the 2019 Final Four, but with many new faces on the field for the Eagles.
After a year of rebuilding, Boston College has turned the page and opened a new chapter filled with outstanding players who have been recruited to fulfill BC’s destiny – to win a National Championship. Unlike UNC, Northwestern and Syracuse who have rosters filled with experienced veterans, BC is a young team who has developed at every position on the field under Head Coach, Acacia Walker-Weinstein.
In addition to recruiting the top Freshmen in the country, BC brought in top transfers to fill key positions on their roster: Rachel Hall in goal and Charlotte North on attack.
Charlotte North is one of the most explosive and dynamic attackers in the women’s game. Teams face guard her and she still scores 7+ goals a game with one of the highest shooting percentages, which is remarkable considering the velocity and pressure she shoots the ball. In addition to her 94 goals this season, Charlotte plays a key role on the draw bringing down 170 possessions. Charlotte’s success is simple – she loves the game and wants to win – her competitive energy is infectious for her teammates and a nightmare for opponents.
But beyond the superstar, Boston College has a multi-dimensional attack that is quarterbacked by veteran Cara Urbank. While this will be North’s first NCAA Final Four, Urbank has played in all three of BC’s previous Final Four games and will be integral to guiding the younger talent against an experienced UNC.
For Head Coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein, she fully acknowledges that “it is not easy to win” and their losses in 2020 helped to refocus their efforts. For the Eagles, 2021 will be their fourth consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance – it’s a remarkable accomplishment that is not easy pull off so maybe this will be the year BC takes home the national title.
Bursting the Bubble
UNC, Northwestern, Syracuse and Boston College have made tremendous sacrifices on the road to the Final Four. Living in a bubble is not easy – and the fact that these teams are playing at such a high level exemplifies the hard work and commitment these women have to their team and the sport of lacrosse.
2021 marked a year of adversity with lessons learned at every step of the way. It is unfortunate that the NCAA scheduled the semifinals midday Friday on Memorial Day weekend which is unlikely to generate the attention it deserves. But regardless of the coverage or protocols, Championship weekend will showcase the best teams in the nation. The Final Four teams have endured adversity the entire season and it has only made them stronger – so look for an outstanding weekend of lacrosse.