PLYMOUTH, N.H. - After capturing its fifth consecutive conference championship, the Plymouth State University women's lacrosse team moves on to the national tournament this weekend with a trip to the second round of the NCAA Division III Championship.
The undefeated Panthers (16-0) received a first-round bye, and will face Ithaca College (12-4) this Saturday in a regional semifinal at Amherst, Mass. The other semifinal features defending national champion Amherst College (14-2) against the winner of Wednesday's first-round game between Western New England College (14-3) and Scranton (13-4). The semifinal winners will meet at 1:00 p.m. Sunday for the regional title with a trip to the NCAA Final Four at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., at stake.
Plymouth State, ranked 12th in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association Division III poll, captured its third straight Little East Conference Championship last Saturday, defeating rival Keene State College in the title game, 9-5. The Panthers recorded their school-record 16th victory of the season, and extended their overall winning streak to 25 games, dating back to last season.
This will be the third NCAA appearance for Plymouth State in the last five years. The Panthers advanced to the tournament in 2000 and 2001 after winning New England Women's Lacrosse Alliance titles, but were defeated both times in the first round by Middlebury College.
"We've been working very hard for this for quite a while," said PSU coach Wynne Lobel, who gathered her team together for Sunday night's official NCAA announcement. "We feel we deserved getting a first-round bye, too. It's exciting to be recognized and acknowledged as one of the top teams in the country. It affirmed to people that hard work does pay off, and that makes us really proud."
The PSU -Ithaca second-round match-up features former teammates as the head coaches. Lobel, who is in her fourth season at Plymouth State, is a 1993 graduate of Ithaca, and third-year Bombers head coach Karen Hollands is a 1994 graduate of Ithaca. They were teammates on both the field hockey and lacrosse teams at the central New York school, competing together in the 1993 NCAA Lacrosse Tourney.
"Nothing makes me happier than playing Ithaca," said Lobel. "It's an honor and an awesome challenge. We talked about the NCAA Tournament earlier in the year, and our players wanted to play Ithaca because they knew that's where I'm from. Our girls have friends that play for Ithaca, too. Karen's a great coach and a great person, and it'll be fun."
Ithaca, ranked 18th in the IWLCA Division III poll, comes into the NCAA Tournament after defeating Nazareth College last Saturday in the Empire 8 Championship, 9-8. (Nazareth (13-3) received an at-large berth in the NCAAs despite the loss.) The Bombers are making their seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1989, and third in the past four years. Ithaca won a first-round game 9-8 over St. Mary's (Md.) in 2001 before losing to Amherst (13-6) in the national quarterfinals, and the Bombers were defeated in the first round last season by Williams, 7-5.
"New York lacrosse is good lacrosse," said Lobel. "They consistently play at a high level. The games that prepared us for this are Bowdoin and the LEC Tournament. Those games were great competition."
The Panther offense, which is ranked third in the nation with over 16 goals a game, is led by senior Katie Sheridan (West Sayville, N.Y.), the three-time Little East Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Sheridan, who was the LEC Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, is one of the nation's scoring leaders with 98 points (73 goals, 25 assists). She is also one of Division III's all-time scoring leaders, as she is now tied for fifth on the career goals list with 264, and is 10th in the career points department with 350.
PSU also gets plenty of offense from seniors Michelle Norton (Sandwich, Mass.) and Jill Matteson (Chatham, Mass.), sophomores Bethany Brown (Norwich, Conn.) and Nicole Evans (Scituate, Mass.), and freshmen Kelsey MacDonald (Oak Bluffs, Mass.) and Meg Cupoli (Southboro, Mass.). Brown has scored 45 goals, Norton 35, MacDonald 28 and Evans 26, while Cupoli has 22 assists, second-most on the team.
The Panther defense, which is among the national leaders with just over six goals allowed per game, is backboned by senior goalie Carmen Villanueva (East Schodack, N.Y.), the two-time LEC Defensive Player of the Year. She has a 38-4 career record, and is among the NCAA leaders with a 6.17 goals against average and a .627 saves percentage.
Villanueva has an outstanding defensive unit in front of her, which consists of senior Cathy Berei (Trenton, N.J.), sophomore Megan O'Neil (Scituate, Mass.), and freshmen Steph Blanchette (Sudbury, Mass.) and Amanda Spadafora (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.). The group allowed only three teams to score in double figures this season.
Plymouth State also made ECAC Tournament appearances the last two years, as the Little East Conference champion did not have an automatic bid until this season. PSU won the ECAC New England Championship last spring after finishing runner-up in 2002.
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