Bob Ford | Wildcats, like true champions, took Quakers out of their game

Posted: May 26, 2007

The University of Pennsylvania women's lacrosse team reached high this season, higher than it ever had before, but yesterday, in the semifinal round of the NCAA championship, the Quakers couldn't quite reach the Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern, which will play tomorrow for its third straight national title, did what great teams are able to do. It made the opponent play just a little faster than usual, a little more out of control, a little more uncomfortably. In the end, the losing team barely recognizes its own game.

That is what happened to Penn at Franklin Field, and what has happened all season long to opponents as Northwestern won 17 straight games after an opening, double-overtime loss at North Carolina. The Wildcats have now added three more wins in the NCAA tournament - by an average score of 15-6.

Northwestern plays a harassing, clinging defense and then comes down the field and piles up goals. So yesterday's 12-2 win over Penn was nothing new, but it was new for the Quakers.

"You just want to play your best on a day like today," Penn coach Karin Brower said. "Northwestern is a great team, but we just don't feel like we played our best game, and that's frustrating. We had some opportunities."

Not that many, though, and not many before Northwestern put the game out of reach. The Wildcats, now 61-2 over the last three seasons, played conservatively through the opening minutes of the first half, but then kicked it into gear. The scoreless tie was broken with 4 minutes, 27 seconds gone, and the Wildcats held a 7-0 lead with 9:34 left to play in the half.

At halftime, it was an 8-0 advantage for Northwestern, and the lead grew to 10-0 until, almost midway through the second half, Penn finally broke through for a goal by Chrissy Muller. The scoring drought of 43 minutes, 31 seconds was the longest in the history of this round of the tournament.

"I think we beat ourselves today," Muller said, "If you look at the stats, the shots, we beat ourselves. We took a lot of shots and didn't finish them. If we finished more, it would have been a totally different game. They're an excellent team and you can't deny they deserved to win today, but it would have been a different game if we weren't down so much, if we had put some goals in the net in the first half. Then we would have had a different spark."

Perhaps, and that is what makes the competitive spirit great - it believes in the face of long odds - but it is hard to envision a scenario yesterday in which the outcome would have been different. Northwestern was that good, and Penn, still a developing program, had trouble keeping up.

"We've come a long way and it's been a wonderful year," said Brower, whose team finished 16-2, its only losses coming against Northwestern. "I'm proud we made it here. It's a dream come true to play in the Final Four. I wish we had played better today, but Northwestern deserved to win."

Against another team, the Quakers probably would have played better. But champions do this to you.

"I was really pleased with the way we executed our plan against a Penn team that is a tough team, a great team," said Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who knows something about toughness. She is the younger sister of Tony Amonte, the NHL player and former Flyers right winger.

Penn was all of that this season. The Quakers were tough and resilient and took the next step forward for the program. They needed to come back from a halftime deficit against Maryland last week just to get to yesterday's game.

"This was a fantastic experience for the entire team, especially the seniors," defender Sarah Eastburn said. "We came in as freshmen and Karin instilled in us this belief that we could be here, could win the national championship. We truly believed that and worked incredibly hard for four years to accomplish that goal.

"Someone in the locker room was just saying that this is just the next step. Last year was a great season, a winning season, and we were proud of it. This year, we made it this far, and that was incredible for us. Obviously, we're disappointed, but next year the team is going to take another step, and they will."

The Quakers will have to do it without Muller, Eastburn, and fellow seniors Karen Jann and Caitlin McDonnell, however. And a game like yesterday's, the finality coming so quickly, makes that difficult.

"It's bittersweet," Muller said. "You don't think about this game today, you think about everything we've done. I'm really sad to leave and that it has to end this way."

If it has to end, though, getting to the Final Four before hitting the finish line is the way to go.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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