When it comes to winning tradition, not many college programs are as steeped in success as Maryland and Northwestern women's lacrosse.
Maryland has won 11 national championships, including 10 since the NCAA took over the sport in 1982 and seven in a row between 1995 and 2001. Northwestern has five — consecutive titles between 2005 and 2009. Between them, the Terrapins and Wildcats have combined for 13 national crowns in the past 16 years.
By Sunday night, that will be 14 national crowns in 17 years.
For the second straight year, the two will meet for the title with the defending champion Terps (21-1) taking on Northwestern (20-2) Sunday at 4 p.m. at Stony Brook University's LaValle Stadium.
In the last poll before the NCAA tournament began, Maryland was No. 1 and Northwestern No. 2. It doesn't get much better — or much closer as fans saw last year when the Terps rallied from six goals down to beat the Wildcats, 13-11.
"Both teams have a winning tradition and I think in games like this it's a mental edge," said Sarah Oliphant, who has been women's lacrosse analyst for Verizon Sports and CBS Sports this season. "With Maryland and Northwestern, you never see a full-out emotional breakdown the way you sometimes do with other teams. They play with invincibility."
So much success breeds an air of confidence around both teams. Of course, they have strategies to deal with the opposition's strengths, but each is more concerned with its own game and supporting each other on the field.
"The way we look at it and the way we prepare for it is we're focusing on us, focusing on the things that we've done well all year and building on that. No changing anything crazy. We're just trying to be ourselves," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said.
On offense, both have a host of players who can score, although the Wildcats rely mostly on attacker Shannon Smith, who has 82 goals and 42 assists. She hit all four shots she took in Friday night's 11-10 semifinal victory over North Carolina, including the game winner with 18 seconds left.
The Terps were a bit more balanced on attack in their 14-8 semifinal win over Duke. Katie Schwarzmann had four goals and two assists, while Sarah Mollison had four goals and Laura Merrifield added three goals and an assist. Those three account for 229 of Maryland's 479 points.
Both offenses can put up points quickly and, as Tewaaraton finalists, Mollison, Schwarzmann and Smith rate among the top five players in the nation. Oliphant said neither side is afraid to take risks, something that might stem from Reese and Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller's days as Terrapins players.
"Watching both games [Friday night], there's a sense of try, try again whereas with Carolina — and Duke from the offset — being very deliberate on offense to the point where it was holding them back," Oliphant said. "I think Maryland's a little more willing to just stir that ball and see what happens. Northwestern seemed a little different. They want the ball with Shannon, but they're so athletic they can recover so well that it's a risk-taking encouraged environment."
On defense, Maryland may have the edge. Goalie Brittany Dipper and defenders Katie Gallagher, Brittany Poist, Iliana Sanza and Sara Cooper anchor the best scoring defense in the country, allowing just 6.67 goals per game. The Wildcats and goalie Brianne LoManto don't give up many more at 8.57.
"We have to come up with possessions," said Amonte Hiller, whose team trailed North Carolina Friday night in draw controls (14-9), ground balls (17-14) and thus shots (30-19), while Maryland came out ahead of Duke in ground balls (21-16) and shots (32-20) and was even in draws (12).
"Draw controls are going to be crucial and ground balls," Amonte Hiller said. "Maryland is very explosive offensively, so we have to make sure that we clamp down defensively and come up with some stops and then take advantage of those stops. I think Duke was able to come up with some stops, but they just weren't able to convert and converting is going to be key."