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Maryland women's lacrosse hosts North Carolina in early season showdown

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The North Carolina Tar Heels come to College Park Saturday in the first of three early season save-the-date-worthy contests for the Maryland women's lacrosse squad. The game may have a layer of meaning beyond No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: #2 North Carolina Tar Heels (3-0) @ #1 Maryland Terrapins (1-0)

WHAT: Women's lacrosse non-conference game

WHERE: Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex, College Park, Maryland

WHEN: Saturday, February 21, 2015 11:30 a.m. ET

WATCH: In Person (Dress warmly)


The Rivalry

Here are two dates Maryland lacrosse fans might want to forget: May 26, 2013 and April 5, 2014. In the last two seasons, the Maryland women's lacrosse team has compiled a 45-2 record. These are the dates of those two losses. The first came in triple overtime in the national championship game while the second was the only blemish on the road to winning the 2014 title. In both cases, the team that tripped up the Terps was the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Doubtless, everyone associated with both programs will tell you that those games are in the past and they need to be focused in the moment. However, the fact remains that the Tar Heels have two consecutive wins over the Terrapins and are the only team to register a win over Maryland's junior class. Maryland's last win over UNC came in the 2013 ACC Championship game by 12-8 in a game played at Carolina.

North Carolina's last two wins have come by a total of three goals. Although Maryland holds a 21-12 edge in the all-time series, 18 of the 33 games have been decided by one or two goals and each squad has won nine of those nail biters.

Meeting with the media in the preseason, Maryland head coach Cathy Reese noted that the scheduling approach of the Big Ten necessitated playing these challenging games early in the season and that in the past, the Terps and Tar Heels would typically face one another in April. This is a development that has occurred in the last decade or so. Maryland and North Carolina met in the first or second game of the season in three of Reese's four seasons during her playing days at Maryland.

Even as a coach, a tough early season game is not unfamiliar territory for Reese. In 2013, the Terps traveled to Syracuse for the second game of the season picking up a 19-11 win over a squad they would later edge in the NCAA semifinals.

But what about 2015?

First, Maryland

One of the challenges of previewing a game so early in the season is the lack of time to get a good reading on the teams involved. Most of our expectations for Maryland are based on the Terrapins' position as the defending national champion that returned 10 of its 12 starters. The 2015 edition of the Terrapins have played a single game against the William & Mary Tribe -- likely the weakest of the four Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) opponents on Maryland's schedule.

The Terps coasted to a 15-5 win in a game that allowed Reese to get playing time for about 80 percent of her roster. Maryland got production from most of the expected places with sophomore Zoe Stukenberg picking up six points on three goals and three assists, enabling her to win the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Week Award. Highly touted freshman Megan Whittle added two goals on three shots and earned the B1G Freshman of the Week in the process. And, of course, Taylor Cummings scored four times on four shots and had nine draw controls.

Perhaps not wanting to give UNC too much to scout, senior preseason All-Americans Kelly McPartland and Brooke Griffin combined for only two goals while taking only four of the Terps' 25 shots. Still, fans should refrain from taking too much from this lone game.

Now for UNC

The Tar Heels have three games under their belt and demonstrated that they will be a formidable scoring force finding the back of the net 49 times in those games -- two of which have come against quality opponents. UNC won its opener, 13-9, over James Madison -- a CAA squad that crept into the top 20 this week. In their third game, they crushed High Point, 19-5, and in between those handed the No. 4 Florida Gators a 17-11 defeat in Gainesville in a game in which the Tar Heels never trailed.

The Florida win is certainly a quality win but again, I caution against reading too much into it. Although it was at home, it was also Florida's season opener. Last year the Gators visited Chapel Hill for their first game and the Tar Heels drubbed them by an even more lopsided 20-8 margin.

Florida went on to win 18 of their next 19 before losing in the Elite Eight to Northwestern. North Carolina ripped off 11 straight wins to open the season before fading down the stretch to finish 15-5.

Key players

In the off season, the Tar Heels picked up an important transfer from the University of Southern California, sophomore Alex Moore (#30). As a freshman, Moore led the Trojans in goals scored and she has picked up right where she left off as the Tar Heels' leading scorer with nine goals. She is aided and abetted by fifth-year senior and preseason All-American Brittney Coppa (#35). Coppa has scored eight times and leads UNC with nine draw controls.

Though Moore and Coppa come out of the midfield, a third player the Terps are likely to have in their defensive sights is junior attacker Aly Messinger (#27). Both Molly Hendrrick with seven and Sammy JoTracy with six have scored more goals than Messinger's four, but Messinger has added four assists to hold third spot in total points and she is tied for the team lead in ground balls at seven. In addition, Messinger scored three times in each of the two recent Tar Heels wins over the Terps.

Expect Caylee Waters to get the start in goal for North Carolina. The sophomore has started all three games this season and has 16 saves and a .471 save percentage. If Waters struggles, UNC coach Jenny Levy won't hesitate to replace Waters with junior Megan Ward. Ward, an Annapolis native, has had her share of good moments against the Terps.

A brief conclusion

Unless the game turns into a total rout, neither fan base should be too surprised or project too far whatever the result of this game may be. It's still early in the season for both squads and both are likely to be much improved by the time May rolls around.

Fans of up tempo, attacking, high scoring lacrosse should probably put this one on their list of games to see. Neither Reese nor Levy have shown much inclination to take an alternative approach. If you somehow find the thought of watching this spring sport (by NCAA terminology) on a potentially snowy 30 degree February day somewhat daunting, you should, by all means, try to pick up the BTN2GO stream.

Thanks to astute reader abartolomei who noted elsewhere on the site that the game time has moved from 12:00 p.m. to 11:30 a.m. due to weather considerations. I advise interested parties to check Maryland women's lacrosse Twitter account or for any further possible updates.