Ali Cassera, Iliana Sanza

Northwestern's Ali Cassera and Maryland's Iliana Sanza collide during the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse final at Stony Brook. The Wildcats won, 8-7. (Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke, MCT / May 29, 2011)

Maryland and Northwestern haven't played during the regular season since 2007, but the two most successful NCAA women's lacrosse tournament teams are well-acquainted with each other.

In 2010, the Terrapins won their 10th NCAA title by beating the Wildcats, 13-11, to end Northwestern's string of five straight championships. Last year, the Wildcats took the title right back, edging Maryland, 8-7.

This year's showdown between the teams that have combined to win 15 of the past 20 NCAA titles comes a round earlier, in a national semifinal. The No. 3 seed Terrapins will take on No. 2 Northwestern on Friday night at Stony Brook, N.Y. for a chance to advance to the title game against No. 1 Florida or No. 4 Syracuse.

Coached by former Terps teammates Cathy Reese (Maryland) and Kelly Amonte Hiller (Northwestern), the Terps and Wildcats certainly have bigger rivalries within their conferences, but none is bigger on the main stage.

"Maryland's the type of program that doesn't lose many games all season — all four teams in the final four are that type of program — and when you don't lose a game or you trade wins and losses with another team, it becomes your rivalry," Northwestern coach Amonte Hiller said. "I would say we have a rivalry with every team in this final four. They're all unbelievable top programs, but obviously Maryland, with the history that they have and the job Cathy's done since she's gotten there, has just been tremendous."

Both of their national-title showdowns featured come-from-behind victories. The Terps were down by six goals in the 2010 game, and the Wildcats trailed by three last year. Maryland leads the all-time series 7-5.

The young Terps defense will face a challenge in trying to stop the Wildcats' all-time leading goal scorer, senior Shannon Smith. In last year's game, Smith scored four goals, including the game-winner, and went on to claim the Tewaaraton Award as the top player in the country. Smith has 64 goals and 22 assists this season, and while the Wildcats have only two players with more than 40 points and the Terps have six, there's still plenty of firepower all around.

"Their offense isn't just one player," Reese said of Northwestern, "and that's what makes them so dangerous, too, is they have a lot of weapons. We've got to come up with a way to play really good team defense. Our goal is really just going to be to work together well and try to help each other out in different situations."

Another key will be draw control. Having starting center Karri Ellen Johnson (Broadneck) back after missing last year's tournament will be a big plus for the Terps. Last year against the Wildcats' Alyssa Leonard, the Terps struggled to win critical possession battles, especially late in the game. Johnson's experience will challenge Leonard, won five draws as the Wildcats took 10 of 17 last year.

"I don't think Northwestern or Maryland will be looking to slow down the tempo, so possesion will be a huge factor for these teams that can score pretty much at will," said Sheehan Stanwick Burch, a Notre Dame Prep grad who is a women's lacrosse analyst for CBS Sports Network. "Karri Ellen and really all of Maryland's draw team, they are so tough. Northwestern has the ability to dominate the draw, but I don't think they've been as strong this year."

Each team also has a game-changing All-America junior midfielder who is a Tewaaraton finalist. Both excel all over the field, but Maryland's Katie Schwarzmann (Century) is more attack-minded, leading the Terps with 69 goals and 22 assists, while Northwestern's Taylor Thornton, who has 30 goals, was last year's national Defensive Player of the Year.

With so much firepower in the game, Burch said the wild card could be goalkeeping. Both teams have senior veterans. Maryland's Brittany Dipper, last season's national Goalie of the Year, has a .480 save rate and allows 7.82 goals per game. On the other side, Northwestern's Brianne LoManto has a .460 save rate and gives up 7.23 goals per game.

"I think goalie play will again be huge," Burch said, "and both keepers have the ability to have huge games. I can't imagine this not being a one- or two-goal game."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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