Walfish: Underdog Northwestern has upper hand against Maryland


Josh Walfish, Columnist

Maryland, you can run from Northwestern, but you can’t hide forever.

For years, the Terrapins have rejected opportunities to play the Wildcats in the regular season and prayed the purple showed up on the opposite end of the draw. The reason is simple: NU almost always ruins Maryland’s hopes for a national championship.

Since Kelly Amonte Hiller revived NU’s program in 2002, the Terps have lost four of five matchups with the Cats. Maryland lost the 2011 national title game to NU and then again the next year in the national semifinals. Any way you look at it, the Terps have not matched up well with the Cats in recent history.

Which is what makes Friday’s matchup so intriguing. Maryland is the deserved No. 1 seed after a stellar season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the best conference in the country. NU has struggled with consistency and is rightfully the No. 5 seed and the underdog.

It was just a few short weeks ago that I questioned if NU could put together its most consistent run of lacrosse and even extend the streak to 10 consecutive national semifinals. The Cats proved me wrong and went to Florida, showed the fight of a champion and beat the Gators, a team that had beaten them twice already this season.

Now the competition level increases, but so should NU’s confidence level. This is a stage most of the players are familiar with, so the moment won’t be too big. The opponent is the undisputed best team in the land, so the motivation should be there. NU is built for these situations with a patient but effective offense and the best draw control specialist in NCAA history.

If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m picking NU to beat Maryland on Friday. The rationale is simple: The Cats are battle-tested; the Terps are not. NU has faced adversity this season, with close losses and injuries. The Cats are therefore prepared for the tight games that are to be expected in the national semifinal.

The Terps have only had four games decided by two goals or fewer, the Cats had 11. NU stacks its non-conference slate with top-10 teams and by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around, the Cats have prepared against the best competition. The Terps’ biggest tests are conference opponents they have familiarity with and therefore their relatively weak out-of-conference schedule does not prepare them for the unique challenges NU brings as an opponent they don’t see year in and year out.

Maryland was far superior to most of their competition and therefore should have dominated those games. But you don’t know how to deal with certain situations until you are placed in them, and winning close games gives you confidence when faced with similar situations. If the Terps are behind by a goal or two late in the game, we don’t know if they have the fortitude to make a comeback.

Ironically, Thursday was graduation day for Maryland and I want to congratulate the five seniors on Maryland’s squad who I assume  joined many of my close friends in finishing their college education. As a Maryland resident, I recognize the quality of this degree and although you will be adversaries on the field, I will take the time to honor your incredible accomplishment.

Just don’t expect a national championship trophy to be added to the celebration this weekend.

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Twitter: @JoshWalfish