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Field Hockey: Getting to know the other Final Four teams

Northwestern stands in the way of a complete ACC takeover.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

By the end of the weekend, field hockey will have a national champion. Ahead of the Final Four, let’s take a look at who Northwestern will play on Friday, and will hope to play against on Sunday en route to its second title in three seasons.

No. 3 Duke (18-4, 5-1 ACC)

In terms of a bounce-back season, Duke couldn’t have performed any better. A season after posting a 7-11 record and not winning a single conference game, the Blue Devils took down then-ranked No. 3 Maryland, No. 9 Liberty, No. 6 Syracuse, No. 5 Louisville, No. 8 Virginia, No. 9 Liberty, No. 11 Boston College and No. 15 Harvard.

Duke’s only regular-season losses came against No. 2 Northwestern in the third game of the season, No. 8 Virginia in double overtime — a week after beating the Cavaliers in OT — and No. 8 North Carolina before the ACC Tournament. Against the Tar Heels, the Blue Devil actually scored first in the fourth quarter, but UNC was able to tack on two goals.

In the postseason, Duke made it to the ACC Championship but fell to its ultimate rival in North Carolina, surrendering two goals in the third frame.

The Blue Devils have spent much of this year alternating between second and third place in the rankings, but unlike its Final Four opponent Northwestern, they’re not necessarily an offensive powerhouse. Much of this season’s success can be tied to sophomore Alaina McVeigh, who sat out last year with an injury. She leads Duke with 17 goals — which makes her the highest scorer of any of the Final Four teams — and 37 goals. Behind her, the second-highest scorer is Hanna Miller with eight. McVeigh is the offensive catalyst, and stopping her will be key for the ‘Cats.

Another advantage for Duke comes from goalkeeper Piper Hampsch. While Northwestern’s Annabel Skubisz is first in save percentage and goals-against average, Hampsh is 10th and fourth in these respective categories.

A lot has changed since these two teams faced off at the beginning of the season. Friday will make for an interesting matchup as Northwestern, one of the most successful programs as of late, takes on one who wants to erase the memory of last year.

Virginia (14-6, 3-3 ACC)

The Cavaliers took some time to find consistency, showing sparks of a team able to rise up to top-tier competition, but also seldom playing at the levels of squads they should’ve beaten.

UVA headed into the season ranked at No. 6. It beat No. 5 Penn State to start the season, but then fell 3-1 to No. 14 Liberty. Virginia recovered by beating lower-ranked teams in No. 11 Saint Joseph’s and No. 14 Harvard but then lost to No. 14 BC — a team eight spots behind in the rankings.

After falling to No. 5 Louisville 2-0 and No. 4 Duke, Virginia began to prove its ability to play quality hockey. At No. 8, it bested No. 2 Duke in a rematch and then delivered North Carolina its only ACC loss. While the Tar Heels came out victorious against the Cavaliers in the ACC Semifinals with a 3-2 win, UVA continued to show an ability to stay close with the best.

That became evident in the First Round of the NCAAs, where Virginia dominated Maryland 4-0, a team to which it had previously lost. Northwestern had just recently barely beaten Maryland in the Big Ten Championship — 1-0 in double overtime.

Virginia is riding the high of its recent success that brought it to its first Final Four since 2019. Pending its third matchup against the Tar Heels in four weeks, a Cavalier upset could be a real possibility. After all, Virginia is part of a limited, elite group that can say it has taken down the top-seeded team this year.

No. 1 North Carolina (16-3, 5-1 ACC)

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about this team. 23-year-old Erin Matson was named head coach just a few months after winning her fourth championship last season, and North Carolina has made it to its fourth straight Final Four.

Northwestern may have gone 20-1 and not lost since the season opener, but the Tar Heels are the most talked about team in the country and enter the tournament as the team to beat. A storied program like this one is never not capable of winning the whole thing.

Its only losses came from Iowa, Liberty and Virginia — all highly respected teams. And, right now, the Tar Heels are sitting happily with their recent performances. They were relatively unchallenged by Virginia and Duke in the ACC Tournament and have steamrolled William & Mary and Harvard in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s biggest advantage is its offense. Its 49 goals and 1.55 scoring margin were the 11th-most ahead of the NCAA Tournament, and UNC averages nearly three goals per game. Virginia will particularly have to watch out for ACC Freshman of the Year Charly Bruder, who leads the team with 14 goals, and Ryleigh Heck, who has 12.

The Final Four will take place on Friday in Chapel Hill. North Carolina and Virginia will face off at 11 a.m. CT before Northwestern and Duke duel at 2 p.m.