Nina Mandell
Thursday May 8th, 2008

Could the fourth time be the charm to knock off three-time defending national champion Northwestern? Perhaps. The Wildcats' 36-game win streak dating back to last season was broken by Penn when mental breakdowns and lackluster plays kept Northwestern from getting past the Quakers' tough defense.

But that was one game.

"We're glad the loss happened in the regular season and not the playoffs," junior Hannah Nielsen told the Daily Northwestern after the game.

Kelly Amonte Hiller's built nothing if not a focused program -- uncelebratory after wins, the only thing the Wildcats focus on each season: winning the national championship. They've done it three times in a row now, and despite the bullseye on their backs, cruised through the season, beating teams by an average of nine goals.

This year might be a little tougher for the defending champs, with a confident Penn team gunning to prove it can knock off Northwestern again, Syracuse riding the only offense more explosive than the Wildcats' and East Coast schools like Virginia ready to bring the crown back to where they think it belongs.

"I don't think anyone feels comfortable in the first round," said Duke coach Kerstin Kimel, whose squad faces Georgetown in the first round. "And whoever does [advance] faces a bear of a second round. I think there are a lot of teams capable of winning the tournament."

So watch out Wildcats, just like you did four years ago, you never know who could sneak up on you.

Northwestern (17-1) vs. Notre Dame (12-6)

Northwestern may be the favorite to win, but don't rule out a tough game against Notre Dame. The Irish were booted from the Big East tournament via a triple overtime loss to a Georgetown team that came within one of Northwestern during the regular season. Plus, Big East midfielder of the year Caitlin McKinney will be motivated by her last chance to avenge a loss in the semifinals two years ago.

Unfortunately for McKinney, she'll be facing a team that outscores its opponents by an average of nine goals a game and features Aussie national team star Hannah Nielsen, US national team midfielder Meredith Frank and All-America Hilary Bowen.

Vanderbilt (13-5) vs. Princeton (12-4)

The Commodores are heading to Princeton after their first 12-win regular season ever, thanks in part to senior attacker Margie Curran, who's averaging more than four points per game. But if Vandy thinks it can play with the big players, it needs to perform better than it did in a 16-5 loss to Northwestern in the ALC finals. It'll also need to stop Tewaaraton Trophy nominee Holly McGarvy, who's put away five goals in her past two games and is leading Princeton in draw controls and forced turnovers this season.

Syracuse (16-2) vs. Towson (13-5)

Led by a coach who holds the Syracuse men's record for all-time goals scored, the Orange heads into its first home tournament with, what else, the top scoring offense in Division I. Syracuse averages 19 goals a game with Tewaaraton finalist Katie Rowan's 123 points the most in the nation. Conversely, Towson's defense isn't even in the top 30, so it could have a very difficult time stopping the barrage.

Penn (14-1) vs. Colgate (11-9)

After losing badly to Northwestern in last year's tournament, the Quakers made amends this season by snapping Northwestern's 36-game win streak last month, 11-7.

The Quakers are ninth in the country in winning margin, averaging four more goals than their opponents. They allowed only 90 goals all season, primarily with All-America Sarah Waxman in net, which was good enough to make them the top scoring defense in the country. Colgate, by comparison, ranked 67th out of 84 Division I teams in scoring defense, so the Penn juggernaut should continue easily.

North Carolina (12-6) vs. Virginia (14-3)

If there's one first-round game with upset written all over it, it's this one. After a season of close and frustrating losses (three of six losses by two goals or fewer), the Tar Heels enter this contest with six seniors, including national team midfielder Erica LaGrow, looking to make their last mark a memorable one.

Virginia, with senior Kendall McBrearty in goal, plays a disciplined defense and isn't easily shaken. To win the ACC tournament, the Cavaliers came back from a five-goal halftime deficit against Duke in the semifinals and a four-goal halftime deficit against Maryland in the championship game to win by one in overtime. After two losses to Northwestern in the past three years, Virginia coach Julie Meyers has to have her team focused on that championship trophy.

Maryland (17-2) vs. Temple (13-5)

Tewaaraton Trophy finalist and national team star Dana Dobbie broke the record for career draws earlier in March and the record for most draws in a single season in the Terps' 20-4 win over Loyola on May 3. Twice this season she had more draws than the other team combined.

Given that it's Dobbie's last season at College Park, it's highly improbable that she'll let the ball go into anyone's hands but her own or those of her fellow Terrapins, including two-time All American midfielder and Teewaaraton finalist Kelly Kasper.

Duke (11-7) vs. Georgetown (12-6)

Duke's going through a rebuilding phase with the loss of four key seniors from the squad that made it to the Final Four last season. The Blue Devils lost seven games this year and bowed out of the ACC tournament with a second-round loss to Virginia. They also suffered a huge blow in March when national team striker and Tewaaraton trophy nominee Caroline Cryer was lost to a season-ending foot injury.

Georgetown is coming off a season in which it came within one of knocking of Northwestern earlier in the season and in which it defeated Princeton last week, but blew a three-goal lead against Syracuse in the Big East final. For Duke to win, it'll have to shake up the hotshot freshman duo of Jory Kirr and Ashby Kaestner and get past junior captain Bridget Noon.

Boston University (17-2) vs. New Hampshire (13-5)

New Hampshire beat Marist in a play-in game while BU got here when it topped Sacred Heart in it's play-in game. While BU's strength of schedule might not be so strong, give this one to the Terriers, who defeated New Hampshire in both meetings this season -- by one each time.

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