For the past month, Pennsylvania and Northwestern have been the top-ranked women's lacrosse teams in the country, so it only seems fitting that they should meet in tonight's national final.
Three-time defending champion Northwestern reigned at No. 1 for most of the season until Penn ended its 36-game winning streak with an 11-7 win on April 27 in Philadelphia. The Quakers then replaced the Wildcats at No. 1.
Still, the two are so closely matched that Northwestern (20-1) earned the top-seeded spot and Penn (17-1) the No. 2 seed for the Division I tournament, which concludes at 7 tonight at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
The Quakers, aiming for their first national championship, want to break a four-team lock on the title and become the first program other than Northwestern, Maryland, Virginia or Princeton to win since 1990.
Last month, defense trumped offense as the Quakers, who have not allowed an opponent to score more than 10 goals this season, held the Wildcats scoreless in the second half - a difficult task.
Northwestern averages 16.05 points, but the Quakers, the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allow 6.08. Still, the Wildcats are no slouches on the defensive end, where they are the nation's second-stingiest unit, limiting teams to 7.05 goals a game.
"Northwestern is a team that takes you out of your game," Penn coach Karin Brower said, "and if you haven't played them it's really hard to understand the tempo that they bring and the defense that they bring. I'm glad that we have been able to play them [in the] regular season, that we know what to expect. We played very well against them and we're going to have to play really well against them again to come out with a win."
While the Wildcats are out to avenge that regular-season loss, the Quakers have some strong motivation as well. Although they won this season's meeting, the Quakers are still stinging a bit from the 12-2 drubbing they took from Northwestern in last year's national semifinal on their home turf at Franklin Field.
"Last year, our two losses were to Northwestern," Penn senior Melissa Lehman said, "and we were very upset by that and ... very heartbroken, and I think now it's our time, we get another chance and we're ready."
The question is whether the Quakers can hold down the Wildcats' offense for a second straight time. With Hannah Nielsen and Hilary Bowen, who combined for 10 points in Friday night's 16-8 semifinal win over Syracuse, the Wildcats have two of the top-five scorers in the nation.
The Wildcats can strike fast, and even though they are young this year, they pulled out several close games in midseason and have fully reloaded.
"The chemistry on this team is really special," said Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "We have a lot of young players. We graduated a heavy class that was personality strong, and I think the way this team has stepped up and led ... and the energy of the younger players has really made this team extremely dynamic."
A consecutive fourth title would move the Wildcats into second place behind Maryland's seven straight titles and nine total NCAA crowns. That's even more remarkable considering the Wildcats were a club team seven years ago.
"I think what Northwestern's done in the time that they've done it is pretty spectacular," said Duke coach Kerstin Kimel, whose team had been to the semifinals four straight times. "There's so much parity that ... getting yourself back here on this stage on a consistent basis from here on out is going to be quite a challenge for everybody."