PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Maryland senior captain Zoe Stukenberg is the do-it-all midfielder on and off the field with impressive stats and a 4.0 GPA.

Women's Final Four Preview: Maryland vs. Penn State


The NCAA tournament will open with a rematch between the Big Ten's top two teams — No. 1 seed Maryland and No. 4 seed Penn State — on Friday evening at Gilette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

On April 20, the Nittany Lions handed Maryland its toughest challenge of the regular season, taking the Terps down to the wire for a two-goal game. Penn State tied the Terps 6-6 at halftime by outshooting them, netting more saves, snagging more draw controls, and being perfect on clears. However, Maryland did what it does best, coming back in the second half for a 16-14 win, limiting the Nittany Lions’ shots, winning the ground ball battle and recovering on the draw.

Without a doubt, Friday’s first semifinal will be exciting, but either team is capable of winning. The Terps almost didn't advance to championship weekend, not leading against Stony Brook until the final three minutes, and the Nittany Lions also had to come back in the final six minutes against Princeton.

“It’s going to be a battle and the swing of momentum is always important,” said Penn State coach Missy Doherty. “Being good at the draw and getting possession giving our team a chance to win this game.”

Added Maryland coach Cathy Reese: “Every game’s a fight. Every team that’s coming is bringing its all. It’s not about secrets.” 

Maryland

At A Glance

 

 

National Rankings

 

2017 Overall Record 21-0   Offense 1st (16.86)
NCAA Tournament Appearances 33   Defense 14th (9.19)
NCAA Tournament Overall Record 64-20   Draws 10th (15.19)
NCAA Final Four Appearances 25   Caused Turnovers 69th (8.52)
NCAA Championship Appearances 20   Save Percentage 3rd (0.530)
NCAA Championship Wins 12      
Head Coach Cathy Reese      
Head Coach Record at UMD 226-19      
Assistants Lauri Kenis, Caitlyn Phipps      
Leading Scorers Megan Whittle (66G), Kali Hartshorn (52G)      

Penn State

At A Glance

 

 

National Rankings

 

2017 Overall Record 17-3   Offense 14th (14.65)
NCAA Tournament Appearances 23   Defense 29th (10.35)
NCAA Tournament Overall Record 23-20   Draws 16th (14.70)
NCAA Final Four Appearances 11   Caused Turnovers 63rd (8.75)
NCAA Championship Appearances 4   Save Percentage 24th (0.468)
NCAA Championship Wins 2      
Head Coach Missy Doherty      
Head Coach Record at PSU 93-45      
Assistants Amy Altig, Brooke Matthews      
Leading Scorers Madison Carter (69G), Katie O'Donnell (61G)      

"Playing Maryland is always exciting. In order to go where we want to go, you have to go through teams like Maryland and these top teams. We’re up to that challenge and excited for it." - Penn State coach Missy Doherty


Top Storylines

Maryland is the clear favorite to win it all, but it won’t be without a challenge.

As the No. 1 seed, and only one of two seeded teams in the final four, Maryland may be the favorite to win it all for the third time in four years. The Terps have what they need – defensive leadership from senior captain Nadine Hadnagy and rising keeper Megan Taylor, midfield standouts in senior captain Zoe Stukenberg and new draw specialist Kali Hartshorn, plus a multitude of offensive stars including Megan Whittle.

But they almost didn’t make it to the final four thanks to Stony Brook, which led for most of the game — Maryland's first lead came with just 2:14 left in the game. Prior to the on-goal win over Stony Brook, Penn State handed Maryland its toughest challenge with a two-goal scoring margin.

“It was a really good test for us to have a game where we weren’t great and it was hard for us to catch a break to really pull things together and chip away and come out with the victory,” said Reese of the Stony Brook game. “For us to be behind in the second half of the game, that’s something we haven’t seen this season so it was good for us to have to do that, to focus on things one play at a time.”

Penn State is poised, returning to the final four with experience.

Penn State is returning to the final four for the second straight season. Prior to last year, the Nittany Lions hadn’t advanced to the final four since 1999. That’s all they heard when they arrived at Talen Energy Stadium in 2016.

"Everyone keeps reminding me we haven't been here for a while," said Doherty then. "We're here for a reason. We're here because we're ready. We're not here because we somehow lucked into it."

To have back-to-back final four appearances proves it’s not luck. Penn State is on the rise and is ready for this year’s final four thanks to last year’s experience.

“Last year, I really tried to keep the players focused … not getting overwhelmed by the environment of the final four because we hadn’t been there in a while,” she said. “This year, I think we have the chance to really enjoy it. We know what to expect. We know we’re going to be ready for the game and hopefully do the simple things well, recognizing the environment when you get in there, but knowing when the game starts, you win it on the field.”

Strengths

Maryland’s offense is stacked.

The Terps have nine players who have goal totals in the double digits, six of whom have 30 or more. Megan Whittle leads the way with 66 goals, followed by Kali Hartshorn (52), Zoe Stukenberg (50), Caroline Steele (49), Jen Giles (35) and Caroline Wannen (33). For assists, the same six players are also in the double digits for their totals. Wannen has a team-best 37 assists.

“Offensively, yes, that is a great strength for us – the fact that we have so many different people that can score,” said Reese. “They share the ball well and are selfless.”

“We know how hard they are,” said Doherty, who is well aware how many scorers the Terps have and is hoping her defense is ready to step up on Friday.

Penn State sophomore Madison Carter is the ultimate weapon.

Madison Carter is the do-it-all player for Penn State this season, recording 69 goals and 11 assists for 80 points, while also securing 22 ground balls, nine caused turnovers and a whopping 123 draw controls. While Maryland is concerned about the draw, Carter can enter Friday’s game with confidence when she goes to the center circle.

Against Princeton, she had her second consecutive game with a career-high 12 draw controls, including nine in the second half. If her second half performance becomes clutch for the Nittany Lions against Maryland this weekend, as opposed to the team’s performance back in April allowing the Terps to come back, they could be looking at a championship berth.

“To have Mad Carter playing so well… and moving Abby [Smucker] back to the midfield, it’s really allowed us to continue to have a bunch of different threats,” said Doherty earlier this season.

Weaknesses

Draw controls are a key area of improvement for the Terps.

With the graduation of Taylor Cummings, the draw has become a big focus this season. Whom would fill her role and how Maryland would match up against its opponents were two of the main questions posed.

In Maryland’s last matchup with Penn State, they dropped the ball in the first half, losing the draw battle 8-5. The Terps recovered in the second half to claim the midfield 17-15 for the game. The team’s improvement on the draw was evident against Stony Brook as Maryland won the battle 19-7. Freshman Kali Hartshorn has become the leading specialist with a team-best 96 draw controls, with Zoe Stukenberg trailing with 67.

“We did a nice job against Stony Brook on the draw,” said Reese. “That’s an area we’ve been focusing on – the little details of fighting out those draw controls for possession. We want to do a nice job in the middle of the field of coming up with them.”

Penn State needs to take care of the ball.

The Nittany Lions have a strong offense, like Maryland, ranking 14th in Division I, and they generally take care of the ball ranking 14th in the country in turnovers with just 14.75 turnovers per game. But because Maryland likes to plays clean, its defenders won’t be attacking Penn State’s attackers as aggressively, meaning any turnovers could likely be caused by Penn State itself. And you don't want to give possession back to Maryland's offense without making them earn it.

“When you get to the NCAAs, you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel against any team,” said Doherty. “From our standpoint, we try to limit turnovers [and] keep your nerves in check.”

“Regardless if it’s Maryland or any other team, it is our No. 1 focus to make sure we take care of doing the simple things well,” she added.








X-Factor

Maryland stays disciplined and plays clean.

Historically, one of the key staples of the Maryland lacrosse program is that its defense is known for playing clean. In 2014, the Terps defeated Syracuse for its 11th NCAA championship by drawing just 18 yellow cards on the season. This year, Maryland has docked 385 fouls, compared to its opponents’ 724 fouls.

“We’re a team that plays a very disciplined style of defense,” said Reese. “We’re not trying to be overly aggressive. We’re trying to be smart. We’re trying to be disciplined and play together. When we do that, we’re able to come up with a lot of stops.”

The Maryland defense is led by senior captain Nadine Hadnagy, who has tallied 24 caused turnovers and 26 ground balls. Sophomore defender Julia Braig has a team-high 25 caused turnovers. Starting goalie Megan Taylor anchors the defense with a .541 save percentage.

Penn State senior goalie Cat Rainone has been a rock during the postseason.

As a junior, Rainone appeared in just six games coming off the bench to fill in for Emi Smith, stopping just 13 shots. With minimal experience, questions popped up during the preseason about Smith’s successor – but Rainone has done exactly what she needed to.

The Nittany Lions are returning to the final four much in part thanks to their new starting keeper. Rainone has a .479 save percentage on the season, tallying 21 saves in two games in the NCAA tournament – eight against James Madison and 13 against Princeton, including a last-minute save against the Tigers’ leader Olivia Hompe.

“We’re just so proud of her in the Princeton game,” said Doherty on Rainone. “She’s just done a great job for us. Her patience and last save was unbelievable. To make that save on Hompe was a great indication of how much she’s meant to our team all year long and that’s what you need going into the final four. You always need a steady hand in the cage and thankfully she’s really come through big time for us and makes me feel better going into these big games.”

Best-Kept Secret

Maryland junior attacker Taylor Hensh is the unexpected threat.

When Maryland has offensive stars like Megan Whittle, you wouldn’t expect a player that’s started just one game to step up in big games.

Junior attacker Taylor Hensh is the bench player that saved the day against Stony Brook. Down 11-7 with 14:57 to play, she scored two goals in a three-goal run to bring the score within one, assisted on the game-tying goal with 3:18 on the clock, and then scored the game-winning goal off a Zoe Stukenberg assist at the 2:14 mark to send the Terps back to the final four.

“Look at Taylor Hensh coming off the bench in the last game,” said Reese. “She had three of our last [six] goals in our last game and I don’t know people would have picked her to be that person for us. A strength of ours is that everybody steps up in different ways.”

Penn State has a freshman on fire.

The Nittany Lions have a similar storyline as Maryland. When you have offensive standouts like Steph Lazo, Madison Carter and Katie O’Donnell, all experienced with the NCAA tournament, most wouldn’t expect freshmen to step up to the plate.

But it was freshman Maria Auth who had a career-high five points on four goals and an assist to help lift Penn State to the final four. Starting just one game this season, against Princeton in the quarterfinals, she is sixth on the team in goals, but was the leading scorer for the Nittany Lions last week. Auth has scored 11 of her 17 goals on the season over the last four games.

“We’ve had a lot of key players and that’s when you’re consistently successful,” said Doherty earlier this year. “The strength of our team is you never know who will step up.”




PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Senior goalie Cat Rainone has been the clutch player Penn State needed in net this season.


Ground Balls

0

Losses for No. 1 Maryland. This year’s senior class has lost just three games in their four-year playing career. Can the Terps stay undefeated?

3.45

Goals per game for Penn State’s Madison Carter, making her the leading scorer among the remaining NCAA tournament teams. She is also the leader among the final four teams with 6.15 draw controls per game.

4.0

GPA for Maryland senior captain Zoe Stukenberg, who majors in biological sciences. She’s also a Tewaaraton candidate, alongside senior defender and fellow captain Nadine Hadnagy. Stukenberg, the do-it-all midfielder on and off the field, has 50 goals, 26 assists, 44 round balls, 67 draw controls and 18 caused turnovers.

8

IWLCA All-Americans playing in the first NCAA semifinal Friday – five for Maryland (Nadine Hadnagy, first team; Zoe Stukenberg, first team; Megan Taylor, first team; Megan Whittle, second team; Caroline Wannen, third team) and three for Penn State (Steph Lazo, first team; Madison Carter, second team; Katie O’Donnell, second team).

120

Total assists tallied by Penn State this season, compared to just 78 for its opponents. Steph Lazo is the clear leader in helpers with 42 on the season.

Coaches’ Corner

Maryland coach Cathy Reese

The annual teleconference with the head coaches of all final four teams took place on Monday, with Reese on the docket to speak first. However, a majority of the questions were not about her team given the Maryland connection between the coaches, three of whom played for Navy head coach Cindy Timchal.

“What about Maryland?” Reese exclaimed, laughing during the call.

Maryland has been there, done that, but should not be forgotten. The Terps have been to countless final fours, winning two of the past four titles, and is the No. 1 seed yet again this year, yet despite all the storylines surrounding the final four, the Terps are still the only undefeated team in the nation. That’s a big story in itself.

Penn State coach Missy Doherty

One buzz phrase that gets the lacrosse world fired up is Chris Hogan. The New England Patriots wide receiver makes it known that he is an alum of the Penn State men’s lacrosse program and is proud of it. He continues to support the Nittany Lions lacrosse programs and was spotted shouting “We Are” at Gillette Stadium on Thursday morning to support the women’s team during their practice.

“There’s the extra excitement of Gillette Stadium,” said Doherty. “We have a Penn State alum that played in there this past year and won a Super Bowl in Chris Hogan, so he warmed up the field for us.”

So like Boston College having home-field advantage, the Nittany Lions will feel right at home with Hogan on their side.

Making the Case

Maryland

Maryland has the championship experience. It has won two of the past three NCAA titles. To be able to claw back against one of this year’s toughest teams in Stony Brook shows the caliber of the Maryland program and its ability to keep dancing despite any challenges thrown their way.

“I give this team a lot of credit with their ability to fight back and they were disciplined and poised despite being in the position they were in when things were not falling their way,” said Reese.

If Penn State throws challenges its way, which likely will happen, Maryland is more than capable to come back on the multitude of strengths it has on the field from offensive dynamo Megan Whittle – who had a hand in three of the Terps’s second half goals to secure the tie, comeback and one-goal win for the NCAA titte in 2015 – to one of the smartest midfielders in the game in Zoe Stukenberg.

Penn State

Penn State isn’t new to the final four anymore, and that could be to its advantage. It appears the Nittany Lions have leveled the playing field with the Terps this season and also have the weapons necessary for a championship run.

Steph Lazo, Madison Carter and Katie O’Donnell will dominate the offense, and goalie Cat Rainone seems confident in her play when they need her most. If they stay strong on the draw, capitalize on offense taking the right shots at the right time, and hold off Maryland’s firepower, Penn State could in fact upset the lone undefeated team.

“We’re excited to represent Penn State at the next level,” said Doherty. “You’re not catering to any certain team when you get to this point. You’re just trying to get your team to play the best. Regardless if it’s Maryland or any other team, it is our No. 1 focus to make sure we take care of doing the simple things well.”