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Sunday, May 28, 2006
Strong second half gives Wildcats a second title

By Lauren Reynolds
ESPN.com

BOSTON -- An hour before game time, Rene Zimmer busied herself by handing out green-and-white pompoms and megaphones to a sizeable group of Dartmouth family, friends and alumni. Dressed in the Big Green's legendary colors and sporting "Go Green" temporary tattoos on her cheeks, the mother of senior midfielder Kristen Zimmer went through her own pregame ritual. She and the rest of Dartmouth's supporters were clearly as well-prepared as the team.

Aly Josephs and Sarah Albrecht stepped up when Kristen Kjellman sprained her ankle and were crucial in Northwestern's win.
Dartmouth came out of the gates swinging, scoring the game's first goal and taking a 3-2 halftime lead. Unfortunately, the Big Green's vaunted defense was not enough to keep Northwestern from clinching its second consecutive NCAA women's lacrosse championship, 7-4.

To put it mildly, most women's lacrosse observers had counted Dartmouth out of Sunday's title game two days before the teams took the field. Friday's semifinal between No. 1 seed Duke and the fourth-seeded Wildcats was supposedly the "real" title game.

No one told Rene Zimmer, or her daughter, or the rest of Dartmouth that. The Big Green controlled the pace of the first half from the first draw. And while the Big Green weren't able to get off four quick goals as they were against the Irish in Friday's semifinal win, their commanding presence on defense may have been just as intimidating as a 4-0 deficit to Northwestern, a team that had rarely had to rally from behind.

Northwestern was able to even the score and take the lead late in the first half with goals from Lindsey Munday and Aly Josephs, but two quick goals by Dartmouth's Casey Hazel and Jen Pittman gave the Big Green the lead at the half. Northwestern's Tewaaraton Trophy candidate Kristen Kjellman suffered a sprained right ankle in the final minutes of the half. Combined with Dartmouth's stellar record when going into the second half with the lead -- the Big Green are 12-0 in that scenario -- it appeared Northwestern's quest to become the third team to ever win back-to-back women's lacrosse championships might be doomed.

Wildcats coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who was honored in a halftime ceremony as one of the best players of the last 25 years, made a few adjustments at the intermission that paid huge dividends for Northwestern. In Kjellman's absence, Amonte Hiller moved midfielder Sarah Albrecht to attack. Albrecht quickly made an impact, scoring just 1:42 into the second half to tie the score. She finished the day with two goals and an assist. Josephs also picked up the slack, totaling four goals in the win.

"We made some adjustments at halftime [in the event Kjellman couldn't return]," Amonte Hiller said. "We actually moved Sarah onto attack to give our offense a boost and played with fewer people in the midfield."

"[Albrecht] is their heart and soul. The kid plays with a lot of emotion," Dartmouth coach Amy Patton said. "She is really gritty out there and I have always been impressed with her play. When Kjellman went out, I knew that [Albrecht] would probably be the one to step it up."

Kjellman was able to return in the second half, but was held scoreless for one of the few times in her decorated career.

"Even Kristen at 30 percent is a huge asset on the field," Amonte Hiller said.

The championship game was literally night and day from Friday's semifinals. On Friday, teams were forced to wait for more than an hour while rains soaked Boston University's Nickerson Field; the late game finally got under way at 10 p.m. ET. On Sunday, the teams took the field squarely at noon, in some of the nicest weather the Northeast has seen in more than a month, and in front of a record crowd of 5,684. (Sunday's attendance broke the previous record of 5,422 set during the 2002 Georgetown-Princeton title game, which was held at Loyola, Md.)

While the game was as close and as intense as the Duke-Northwestern semifinal, the final featured a much slower, more tactical attack. Though the Wildcats clearly favor a fast-break offense, Northwestern proved it has the creativity and patience to manufacture an offense off the perimeter.

Both defenses were showcased in the matchup, applying pressure from sideline to sideline. Both schools committed and caused a large number of turnovers, but the most telling statistic in the game was shot differential -- Dartmouth took just 10 shots in the entire game. By comparison, Northwestern took 15 shots in the first half alone.

"[Northwestern] executed much better than they had in the first half. The glaring thing that really stands out to me is that we took 10 shots," Patton said. "You can't win a national championship game taking 10 shots."

Northwestern's ability to beat Duke in a fast-paced shootout and then turn in a gritty, well-executed performance against one of the nation's top defenses -- essentially beating both schools at their own games -- shows just how balanced the Wildcats are. And although they are losing a number of key players to graduation, the core of the team -- including Kjellman, Josephs and freshman goalie Morgan Lathrop -- returns next year.

Amonte Hiller was quick to say how hard winning two -- much less three -- consecutive national championships was for Northwestern.

"This one was harder, which is unreal, because last year we were underdogs all season," she said. "This year we had a bit of a target on our back. Next year is a new year, a new slate. It's anyone's ballgame."

It may be, but no one is underestimating Northwestern's chances of scoring a threepeat.

Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at lauren.k.reynolds@espn3.com.