THE ACC TOURNAMENT IS AMERICA'S TOUGHEST HOCKEY
By Al Mattei
Liz Tchou is a thoughtful, rational woman not given to hyperbole.
This makes her statement, made immediately after her Duke Blue Devils were eliminated after the 2000 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, even more extraordinary.
"It is an incredible tournament, with a national championship atmosphere," she said after Duke lost a 2-1 overtime decision to Virginia. "All five teams are great, the coaches respect each other a lot. The ACC does a great job of putting on the tournament, and makes the kids feel special. Quality."
Ever since the first ACC tournament was contested in 1983, the ACC championship has become the premier conference tournament in the United States, and has become perhaps the toughest single college tourmnament to win.
It is an odd situation, given the fact that the tournament actually means next to nothing to the NCAA tournament committee; since the ACC has fewer than seven hockey teams, the conference does not get an automatic bid to the Division I tournament.
However, the five ACC hockey-playing schools -- Duke, Virginia, Wake Forest, Maryland, and North Carolina -- are more often not ranked in the nation's Top 20 and have good won-loss records.
"Three out of our top four teams are in the Top 10, and the No. 10 team (Virginia) is capable of upsetting No. 2 (North Carolina)," said Karen Shelton, head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. "I'm proud of being in this conference."
Given the excellent records of the teams involved in the ACC tournament, a team with a middling record can boost its NCAA Tournament standing with a win or two in the ACC tournament.
Each game has an edge because of the "familiarity breeds contempt" concept; teams in the ACC play each other at least once during the season, sometimes twice, depending on the schedule.
"Having played in this conference (with Maryland) and having coached, I know how tough our conference is," said Virginia head coach Jessica Wilk. "That's what makes it exciting and challenging."
Then again, the ACC has gotten the reputation of having programs willing to offer scholarship money to top American players in recent seasons; numerous Team USA players come from the five ACC schools.
"The athletes in this league are unmatched," said Maryland head coach Missy Meharg. "From that sense, every year is more of an opportunity to compete."
What has made the ACC tourney such a bastion of American hockey is the high level of competition, which is almost as good as an NCAA Final Four or some international four-nations gatherings.
Yet, it must also be said that exactly two teams have ever won the ACCs in their 18 years of existence: North Carolina and Maryland. Still, the games have been ultra-competitive over the years. Each of the five teams made the finals in the 1990s -- and, but for the hockey gods, each of the five could have an ACC title from the last decade.
The excitement was palpable from the opening game of the 2000 tournament at the University of Maryland, which, as it turned out, became "just another" ACC tournament.
Virginia, the fourth seed, played fifth-seeded Duke in the opener. Duke, with a sub-.500 record on the 2000 season, needed to win the tournament to have even the slimmest of hopes of making the NCAA Division I tournament.
Duke, though yielding an early goal to the Cavaliers, held on tenaciously to prevent Virginia from getting that second goal.
Virginia was attempting to maintain possession in the last few minutes of regulation, but with about 1:20 to go, freshman back Kim Gogola stole the ball and created a defensive violation which led to a free hit into the circle. That free hit led to a pair of Duke short corners, the second of which led to a goal with 7.3 seconds left to play in regulation.
"We were in their circle a lot," said Duke's Courtney Sommer. "We deserved that goal for having attacked that whole second half."
In overtime, Virginia won on a Carrie Goodloe shot which came from just inside the scoring circle along the right wing. It was one of those unexpected shots that hit the goal boards just inside the post.
"We didn't play as well as we could play, and as well as we are going to play better tomorrow (against North Carolina)," Goodloe said. "We have a great chance, as good as anyone else in the country."
That statement, it turned out, was not bombast. Though the Cavs fell behind 1-0 to the top-seeded Tar Heels at the halftime break, Virginia was able to te the score in the second term.
The fact that the teams tied after 70 minutes was typical of an ACC contest. However, there was an unexpected plot twist a few minutes into the 7-on-7 overtime session.
On a Carolina rush, a shot headed for the goal line was thwarted by a Virginia body, leading to a penalty stroke. The game would have ended with a successful attempt from seven yards, but Becky Worthington stopped the shot at her shoulder.
It was a sign of things to come.
As neither team scored in 30 minutes of golden-goal overtime, a penalty stroke shootout ensued. In the shootout, Worthington was magnificent, making four stops as UNC won the shootout 7-5 after tying 4-4 in the first group of five shooters.
"That's tournament play," Shelton said. "When you blow that whistle, anything can happen."
In the other semifinal, Maryland bested Wake Forest 3-1, gaining a measure of revenge for a 5-2 loss to the Demon Deacons in a regular season game. The Terrapins went to extraordinary measures to win -- and not just tactically. Maryland went with an alternate red color scheme for their uniform (the normal road kit is black), and it apparently worked.
"We played with a complete sense of urgency," Meharg said. "We've been working hard in the last couple of weeks on the attack, and I feel confident with the way we are playing."
"Everyone played with emotion," said senior midfielder Keli Smith. "We knew that we needed to play at a higher level."
The game was a replay of the 1999 final, which went to a second overtime before the Terrapins took the title.
"This season was important to us to validate for what we did last year," said Wake Forest head coach Jen Averill. "We put ourselves in the position to get us to postseason play, and to not have this be a season-ending game. The ACC is great to prepare us for NCAA play."
These semifinal matches led to a Maryland-Virginia championship game two days later. In many women's sports, this matchup of adjacent states is indicative of the state of the game as played domestically. Maryland-Virginia field hockey games are normally ones for which both teams peak, but in an ACC final, it became even more important.
The pre-game chants were a few decibels louder. The shots in the warmups were a few miles an hour faster. The jumping high-fives during the introduction of the Maryland starters were a few inches higher.
Once the whistle blew, Virginia, which had worked so hard to get from the Thursday play-in game to get to the finals, could not find an answer for Maryland's attack.
As was the case in last year's ACC championship game, the Terrapins scored on their first penalty corner, as Carissa Messimer stuck in a rebound. Messimer would score once more in the first half to build a 2-0 halftime advantage.
"It was important for us to get up by two early," Meharg said. "And Carissa had an outstanding game."
The Maryland defense, led by ACC MVP Autumn Welsh and Lindsay Gorewitz, allowed Virginia very little offense. The Cavaliers were without Goodloe, who was sidelied with a broken bone in her hand. That led to a Wahoo attack that got U.S. international Lorraine Vizzuso only one possession in the attacking third of the field at speed.
"Maryland played a great game," Wilk said afterwards. "We didn't play our best game, but they showed why the were the national champions last year, and why they are so strong this year."
By the time team captain Carla Tagliente stuck in a goal a few minutes from time, it was clear that Maryland was going to take its third straight ACC title.
"This was a national championship of sorts, given the caliber of play," Meharg said after the 3-0 victory. "And it's nice to win championships."