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Maryland, North Carolina women meet Saturday in national championship rematch

UMD, UNC have emerged as the elite women's lacrosse teams in the nation, and meet again Saturday.

After meeting in the national championship game three times in the past four years, Maryland and North Carolina draw a lot of attention anytime they face each other on the women's lacrosse field.

Defending champion North Carolina is No. 1, the Terps are No. 2 and there's no question they are the top two programs in the game right now. They've combined to win the past four national titles — the Tar Heels in 2013 and 2016 and the Terps in 2014 and 2015 — so Saturday's showdown at Maryland Stadium at 3 p.m. is the marquee game of the early season.

Still, the matchup doesn't mean a lot to Terps coach Cathy Reese or to North Carolina coach Jenny Levy in terms of who walks away from it with the No. 1 ranking.

The rematch, however, does mean a lot to the coaches in terms of revealing what needs to be changed or tweaked to mold a team that can compete for the national championship on Memorial Day weekend.

The Tar Heels (3-0) come to College Park fully loaded all over the field. They have the strongest, deepest midfield in Division I, prolific balanced scoring, a draw control ace in Sammy Jo Tracy and one of the nation's top goalies in Caylee Waters.

By contrast, the Terps (2-0) are younger than they've been in a long time. They rely on rookies and last year's role players, along with a few veterans such as All-Americans Megan Whittle on attack and Zoe Stukenberg in the midfield. But they also have balanced scoring and one of the top goalies in Megan Taylor.

Reese expects to find out a lot about her team Saturday.

"Here we have an opportunity to play a team that is very good, that's very strong all over the field, that's going to challenge us in different ways. What can we learn from this? How can we get better?" Reese said. "It's our third game of the season. We've got these young players and … they have no idea what it's like to play a team like Carolina, because we don't play them in the fall and the rivalry is intense. I think for us, it's just about getting experience."

Levy stressed that her team has some things to sort out, too.

"We have a lot back, but you lose the seniors and you miss some leadership from that group," she said. "We're trying to find this team's identity. ... I like the early season games that are hard. We learn a lot about ourselves and it's a good place to grow from. There's a good chance we'll see these teams late in the season and things will definitely have changed."

An early season matchup like this one isn't likely to predict what might happen should the two meet again in the national final. Only once in their three title-game meetings has the team that won during the regular season won the championship.

Maryland won, 8-7, early last year and then fell in the title game, 13-7. In 2013, the Terps won 14-13 during the season and 12-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, but North Carolina won the national final, 13-12, in triple overtime. Only in 2015 did Maryland win the regular-season game and the national championship — by a combined three goals.

The 12-time national-champion Terps lead 24-13 in the series, which dates back to North Carolina's debut in the ACC in 1996. Four of the past eight meetings have been decided by a goal and two have been decided by two goals.

Halley Quillinan, women's editor for Inside Lacrosse, said she believes there's a good chance the Terps, now in their third year in the Big Ten, and the Tar Heels could meet in the national championship again this year.

"What's going to be interesting is the tables have turned. North Carolina has been so young for the last few years, playing a veteran-heavy Maryland team," Quillinan said. "But those Maryland vets are gone, so now, North Carolina is the team with a lot of junior and senior leadership and Maryland is a team playing the bulk of its freshman class and relying a lot on underclassmen."

One major challenge for Maryland will be trying to counter Tracy on the draw. The senior has won 34 draws in three games, including 10 in the 13-10 win over No. 4 Florida on Feb. 11.

After four years of Taylor Cummings almost always dominating the draw for the Terps, freshman Kali Hartshorn has taken over and won 13 in the first two games.

In addition to Hartshorn, others will have to shake the freshman jitters and settle into their roles, Quillinan said, while the Tar Heels need to clean up the turnovers that made the Florida game closer than it could have been.

"It's just really early in the season," Reese said, "and we're all trying to get things going and to get better. You recognize that the end result in a game doesn't mean a lot right now. It's something for us to throw ourselves into and be willing to make mistakes and learn from that, because that's how we grow."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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