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Maryland women’s lacrosse has unfinished business with Northwestern

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On Wednesday afternoon, the Maryland women's lacrosse team left College Park bound for Stony Brook, N.Y., and LaValle Stadium — a trek that has become quite familiar for the Terrapins.

There, No. 3-seeded Maryland will make its fourth straight final four appearance in hopes of avenging its 2011 title game loss and taking home the program's 11th NCAA championship.

Standing in its way, though, is a squad that might be even more comfortable in the high-stakes environment.

In the NCAA semifinal Friday at 8 p.m., the Terrapins will take on No. 2-seeded Northwestern — the team that beat Maryland in last year's championship game and owns six of the past seven NCAA titles.

It's a daunting task, but Maryland goalie Brittany Dipper insists her team isn't concerned with the weight of the Wildcats' hardware.

"[We're] just focusing on ourselves and just taking it one step at a time and focusing on the little things — getting groundballs, the hustle, and working together," said Dipper, who also has played for an NCAA title in field hockey. "The rest will take care of itself."

Top-seeded Florida and No. 4 seed Syracuse will square off in the other semifinal Friday, and the national championship will take place Sunday at 8 p.m.

Northwestern eked out an 8-7 victory against the Terrapins in last year's title game. Shannon Smith, who is just two goals shy of breaking Northwestern's all-time record, will return to likely wreak havoc on the Terrapins' defense.

This go-around, Maryland will have a fresh rebuttal.

Senior Karri Ellen Johnson was selected first-team All-America during her freshman and sophomore campaigns before sustaining a season-ending concussion in a game against James Madison as a junior. Johnson was sidelined for the last 12 games of the season.

Having missed out on the opportunity to compete for a national championship last season, Johnson can't help but approach this year's final four with a different mindset.

"I think when something is taken away from you obviously it means that much more," she said. "You play with a little more heart and you hustle just a little bit more."

Johnson, one of three starting seniors on Maryland, is second in scoring and leads the Terrapins in draw controls.

Coach Cathy Reese has won national titles as a player and a coach. But with Johnson back out on the field, the home stretch is just a little more special for Reese this time.

"That's the best part, when you see your players overcome things like that and set themselves up and have the opportunity to finish out their career that way," she said. "There's no doubt in my mind she's just going to enjoy it and she's going to play her heart out. Whatever happens happens, but she's going to leave the field having given it everything she can."

Maryland no doubt is facing an uphill battle. The Wildcats allow the second fewest goals per game in the nation. Having not played them in the regular season, the Terrapins have only what they see on film to help them prepare for their next opponent. Perhaps most importantly, Northwestern has built an almost unbeatable dynasty.

The Terrapins know what it's like to be on the losing end of that championship battle. And though Johnson might not have the same kind of revenge-driven motivation as her teammates, she finds inspiration in something else.

A member of Maryland's 2010 national championship team, Johnson knows what it's like to end a season with a victory. But ending a career with one?

"That's kind of the Cinderella story, always," Johnson said.

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