This year’s NCAA Division I women’s tournament looks more like the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament 2.0 than a national tournament. Six quarterfinalists hail from the ACC.
Top-seeded and ACC champ Maryland, No. 2 Syracuse, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 6 Virginia, No. 7 Boston College and unseeded Duke come from what might've been the most dominant single season ever by a women’s lacrosse conference.
Three all-ACC quarterfinal matchups – Maryland vs. Duke, North Carolina vs. Virginia and Syracuse vs. Boston College – ensure that three-quarters of the Final Four will be from the ACC. If the seedings hold up through the title game, Maryland could meet Syracuse for the third time this season, having beaten the Orange in the regular season, 12-10, and in the ACC championship game, 13-7.
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The ACC, which originated with just four teams -- Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke -- certainly has been dominant in the past, with 13 national championships and 12 finalists since 1990. This year, however, the addition of Syracuse and Notre Dame, the tournament No. 8 seed and a loser to Duke in Sunday’s second round, as well as the emergence of Boston College as a national power, has only strengthened the conference more.
With those seven in or close to the Top 10 in the national polls all season, having six in the quarterfinals isn't really a surprise.
“It just showed their dominance in the sport of women’s lacrosse,” said Courtney Connor, an ESPN analyst and former Maryland All-America defender.
“It’s a conference that attracts a lot of top recruits, and so they’re able to reload year after year and it’s been the best conference, in my opinion, in women’s lacrosse. … It’s a tough conference to be a part of, but those wins and losses – even a loss is still considered good within the ACC, so it’s just all around a win-win for those teams.”Only one of this year's quarterfinals includes teams not in the ACC – No. 4 Florida vs. No. 5 Northwestern – from the American Lacrosse Conference, which has been the second-most dominant conference this season with as many as five Top 10 teams at one point.
With the alignment of the quarterfinals, no team will face an opponent it hasn't played this season – sometimes twice.
“There’s always that old saying that it’s tough to beat a team twice, let alone three times,” Connor said, citing North Carolina’s national championship victory over Maryland last season after the Tar Heels had lost twice to the Terps.
“It’s nice, the fact that you know those programs,” Connor said, ”but you don’t want your players going in with a preconceived notion whether they’ve won or lost. That’s the hardest thing, to make sure your team is focusing just on themselves, but as a coach, it’s nice to know, 'OK, we know what we need to do, we know what we need to change,' whereas with a new opponent everything is new.”
Next year, the ACC will lose its reigning champ when Maryland moves to the Big Ten to join seven-time national champ Northwestern, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan, which are leaving the ALC, as well as Rutgers. Without those teams, the ALC will dissolve.
Connor, a former Mount St. Mary's and UMBC coach who now coaches the St. Paul's girls, said she expects the ACC to remain on top, although time will tell whether there ever again will be a conference as dominant as it was this spring.
"Minus one team, the ACC is still going to be strong," she said. "Obviously, the new superconference has the potential in their big football money and with programs in it who want their lacrosse teams to succeed, so I think that could be a good conference that Maryland will be a part of. I think it'll take a little bit of time before it can take over what the ACC has done. The ALC has always been close but hasn't quite overtaken the ACC's prowess, and this year solidifies that."