Appelt, UVa Are Tops in 2004

By Michael Spinner

Virginia 10 - Princeton 4

For Virginia Head Coach Julie Myers, the third time was not the charm in fact it wasn't even close. Her third trip to the NCAA championship game at the Virginia helm was back in 1999 when the Cavaliers were defeated by Maryland, 16-6, in the midst of Maryland's record run of seven straight titles. Four years later, her luck would only get worse as the Cavaliers advanced to Myers' fourth National Championship Game. An 8-7 overtime heartbreak gave Princeton its second straight National Championship and a boost into dynastic territory.

Few thought trip #5 to the big stage would send more than another runner-up trophy back to Charlottesville with Myers. But Virginia attacker Amy Appelt stepped up and transformed the proverbial "bride's maid" of Division I Lacrosse right before our eyes. Virginia and Julie Meyers would finally have their day. Thanks to the timely scoring of Appelt and heroic goalkeeping from Tournament MVP Andrea Pfeiffer, Virginia defeated Princeton 10-4 in Princeton, New Jersey to halt the Tigers' streaks at 28 consecutive wins and two straight National Titles. The win also avenged a 12-9 setback to Princeton in March, and Princeton's four goals tied the lowest single game scoring total in an NCAA championship game.

The story of the NCAA final was Myers. But the surprise hero of the weekend was Andrea Pfeiffer who made a career-high 19 saves en route to an NCAA Tournament record .826 save percentage. She held the potent Tigers offense to only one goal in the first half and allowed Virginia to grab a 5-1 halftime lead. For those of you who claim to know little or nothing about the women's game, when was the last time you could remember a men's goalie having an NCAA Tournament with an .826 save percentage who gave up one goal in the first half of the NCAA Championship Game? Tillman Johnson was historic in the Virginia men's goal last May, and his performance was imitated or ever bettered by Pfeiffer for the women this year.

Andrea Pfeiffer

But 2004's shining star is Amy Appelt. The Junior, who finished the season with 90 goals and has 201 tallies for her career thus far, finished the game with four goals, including two in a row when Princeton trailed by three down the stretch to blow the game open. It was Appelt's 20th hat trick of the 2004 season. That's 20 hat tricks in 22 games.

Simply put, Amy Appelt is the single best lacrosse player in the sport - men's or women's. With all due respect to Michael Powell, whom I consider to be the best men's player in college, opponents have not given up on defending Powell one-on-one as we saw in the NCAA quarterfinals against Georgetown. In Appelt's case, the team defensive concept for every opponent is to stop Appelt at all costs and worry about everything else afterwards. It seems like every time she has the ball, the opposition not only has their best defender in Appelt's face, but the slide to double her is already there. Against Georgetown in the NCAA semifinals, Appelt did not score a goal until the second half, but had two assists early when it looked like Virginia was going to blow the game open. Those assists came because the entire Georgetown defense was watching Appelt and seemed to forget about everybody else. And in the second half, when the Hoya defense cleaned up its act and began to play better team defense against everybody on Virginia, Appelt took over, scoring a hat trick down the stretch to put an otherwise tight game out of reach.

No Better in '04: Amy Appelt

I first had the opportunity to see Appelt play when she was a senior at Garden City High School, leading the Trojans to their fourth consecutive NY State Championship. I was amazed at what I did not see more than what I saw. Instead of a six-footer who dominated with size and strength, or a petite speedster, I saw a smaller, stocky girl with a simply incredible pair of hands. Appelt was kind of in the middle of what has become the two norms for a top lacrosse player - a smaller, stocky player with the strength of a six-footer, but the finesse and jets of a speed player.

A year ago, a Virginia team that many felt was the best in the country lost to Princeton in the NCAA championship game at Syracuse. For Appelt, the experience must have been harrowing to say the least, not because she was held to only one goal in the championship game, but because she was heckled ruthlessly by several fans with endless comments about her stocky build. Those few fans were brutal and as one of the game's top players Appelt did not deserve the criticism. But she may have taken it to heart. In 2004, she was maybe 20 pounds lighter and her hard work clearly showed on the field as she finished the season with 121 points and a healthy plate of Tiger Tartar for revenge. She is still stocky. She is still not a six-footer. But she is the best player in the game just as she is.

To illustrate just how good Amy was this season, she had 11 goals and three assists in Virginia's three losses. That means there was little else she could do for her team in those games. Where often times you read about the top player for a team being shut down when a team loses, Appelt was never shut down in 2004. We have not had a talent like Amy in college lacrosse since Jen Adams graduated. With all due respect to Erin Elbe, Lauren Aumiller, and the many other great players since Adams graduated, Amy Appelt is the best we have seen and I would venture to say that a monster senior season is ahead of her.

When comparing Appelt to the other top Division I players over the last few years, it is important to keep one thing in mind - supporting cast. I don't think Amy Appelt has the supporting cast that Elbe, Aumiller, and even Adams had. In the case of Jen Adams, she was one major part of an offensive machine at Maryland. She was great, but also made great because too much focus on Adams would leave others open. Maryland always had seven great looks on offense which spread the defense, allowing Adams to take control. Elbe had less of a supporting cast at Georgetown, but still stronger nonetheless than what Appelt has around her. And Aumiller had Appelt out there with her.

In a lot of ways, Appelt was on a bit of an island on her own this season. Virginia graduated a ton from the 2003 National Runner-up, including Aumiller and several great defenders. There were many who thought that Virginia was the third best team in the ACC behind Duke and Maryland coming in. But the "X factor," the reason why Virginia could challenge for the National Championship was Appelt herself. There is no player like her in the sport, so teams really had a hard time preparing for her. Even Princeton with its great defense, could not stop Appelt as she had seven goals and three assists in two games against the Tigers.

It's simple: How do you stop somebody with Appelt's power and speed when she cradles with one hand in a way that makes her stick almost uncheckable? You can't. They didn't.

Theresa Sherry

So, here's to Julie Meyers and the National Champions at Virginia. She's been at the Virginia helm for nine years and reached the NCAA Finals five times - more than half of her career. That is simply unbelievable. She won her first ring in the face of a Princeton Dynasty in, perhaps, its peak. She won it at Princeton and her star is the player of the year. And, here's to Amy Appelt, who used the weekend to showcase her amazing talents and put to rest any argument against her for the Tewaaraton Award, which will one day be called "The Prestigious Tewaaraton Award" if they don't miss the obvious historically correct choices like this one. They named Mike Powell as a sophomore so they have a good record on picking the best player over the popular senior. The others nominated for the women's award are terrific players but Appelt was the best by far. She's the unofficial E-Lacrosse player of the year, in any case and we think she'll be honored in Washington, DC in June by those official types too.


Princeton 11 - Vanderbilt 3

They were the underdogs of such incredible proportion that it would have been all too easy to smile and say, "we were just happy to be here." They were the neophyte, the unknown, the team from an area of the country where lacrosse is almost completely non-existent. And if that was not enough of a challenge for the Vanderbilt Commodores, they had to face two-time defending National Champion, Princeton, in their first-ever NCAA Semifinal. They had to beat a team that was 18-0 heading into the game, a team that owned a 28-game winning streak, and a Tigers squad that was undefeated in 2004 against teams that Vanderbilt lost to. Oh, and by the way, Vanderbilt also had to try to tame a Princeton team that was playing on its own home field.

Vandy's Cathy Swezey

But somehow, someway, Vanderbilt did just that for 30 minutes. They played tremendous defense, slowed the game to a crawl for the first half, and took away some of the Princeton swagger that has made the Tigers the most dominant women's lacrosse program in the land since the millennium began. Princeton led 2-1 at halftime, a result that left much of the 3,215 fans at Princeton Stadium wondering if they were about to witness one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.

But that's when Kathleen Miller stepped in.

The Tiger freshman - considered to be perhaps the best freshman lacrosse player in the NCAA - took exactly 10 seconds in the second half to erase any doubt that Princeton was going to defend their NCAA Championship, as she won the opening draw and raced the length of the field, firing a shot past Commodore goalie Ashley Bastinelli for the 3-1 lead. That was the proverbial inch Princeton needed as it soon became a mile. The Tigers turned Miller's heroics into a 6-0 run over a 15-minute span that gave Princeton a commanding 8-1 lead en route to an 11-3 Tiger win to advance to the NCAA Championship Game once again.

Kathleen Miller against UVa in the Final

"It was a bang-bang play," said Miller, who finished the game with two goals and one assist, of her goal to start the second half. "I actually thought it was kind of a bizarre goal. I didn't think I was going to go to goal, I thought I was going to take it behind the goal. But their goalie stepped out a little bit and I had a small pocket of space to shoot so I went for it."

And it seemed that small pocket of space was exactly what Princeton needed to jump-start its offense. Vanderbilt entered the game with the same game-plan that allowed it to reach the Final Four, controlling possession for long periods, and employing a defensive style that featured little pressure outside of the eight meter arc, forcing Princeton to work patiently for scoring opportunities. Each team took only seven shots in the first half - the second-lowest scoring first half in NCAA Tournament history.

But after Miller's goal, the Tigers potent offense got rolling and Princeton began to control the pace. Princeton won 8 out of 12 second half draws and outshot Vanderbilt 22-5 over the final 30 minutes. Princeton Coach Chris Sailer said that the difference for her team in the second half was noticeable.

Vanderbilt's Kate Hickman

"We were seeing each other so much better in the second half than in the first half," Sailer said. "Vanderbilt played a great first half, but we're the kind of team that wears other teams down and I think that we had many more opportunities in the second half as a result. Kathleen's goal was the spark, and after that we relaxed a bit an played our game. Once we got in the groove, we were tough to stop,"

Clearly, time of possession was a huge factor in this game as Vanderbilt seemed to control the pace in the first half, even outscooping Princeton 10-9. But in the second half, Princeton controlled more draws, outscooped the Commodores 19-13 and forced Vanderbilt to play defense for long periods of time. According to Vanderbilt Coach Cathy Swezey, it was time of possession that allowed Princeton to go on their run.

"It all came down to possession in the second half," Swezey said. "They played more aggressively and won more draws. In the post-season, it is so hard to win if you don't have time of possession. They had the ball more, then we had to rush our offense. Our defense tired a bit and started missing some slides inside and giving them better looks. Princeton is undefeated for a reason, and you can't give them the types of opportunities they had in the second half and expect to win."

Bridget Morris and Kim Gianis cover Elizabeth Pillion

Commodores' defender Bridget Morris agreed, saying, "Princeton has a great attack and we were able to keep the ball away from them in the first half, but it is really hard to play defense for long periods of time like we did in the second half. We got tired when Princeton went on their run."

Kate Hickman led Vanderbilt (12-6) with two goals while Lauren Peck added one for the Commodores. Michelle Allen had two assists for Vanderbilt and Bastinelli made eight saves.

For Princeton (19-0), Theresa Sherry had three goals and Elizabeth Pillion scored twice. The Tigers' 11 goals were scored by seven different players.

Swezey was quick to point out that entering the game, Vanderbilt was not ready to simply lament the fact that they had advanced to their first Final Four.

"We were definitely not just happy to get to the Final Four, we were in it to win it," said Swezey, who will graduate nine seniors from this year's team. "I am very proud of this team and I think we learned a lot this season. I only hope that the attitude that allowed us to get this far will carry over to our younger players."

Virginia 12 - Georgetown 9

There is a saying in sports that the very best become just that when the game is on the line. Virginia junior Amy Appelt had established herself as the best offensive player in the NCAA. She is not just a scorer, she is a clutch scorer, and her performance in Virginia's 12-9 win over Georgetown in the second NCAA semifinal is living proof to what those who have seen Appelt play already know - there is nobody better than the Virginia attacker.

Lauryn Bernier

The Cavaliers turned a 6-4 halftime advantage into an 8-4 lead with 18:12 left in the game after Appelt scored for the first time, and seemed to have Virginia cruising to its second consecutive NCAA Final berth. However, out of nowhere, Georgetown scored four straight goals over a six-minute span to tie the score, with Hoya attacker Coco Stanwick scoring two of those goals. When Allison Chambers scored on a free position shot with 9:54 left to play to tie the score, everything seemed to be going Georgetown's way.

However, that's when Appelt rose to the occasion and carried her team to another championship opportunity. 38 seconds after the Hoyas tied the score, Appelt got the ball, drove down the middle, and fired a riser past Hoya goalie Sarah Robinson to give Virginia the lead. On the ensuing draw, Virginia's Tyler Leachman grabbed the ball and raced downfield to score her third of the game. Virginia had a 10-8 lead, but the fireworks had only just begun.

Kim Connors and Jess Wasilewski cover Allison Chambers

Appelt sealed the win for Virginia with a spectacular goal with six minutes left to play. After making a strong move to the goal, Appelt was surrounded by three Hoya defenders, who knocked Appelt to the ground. As she was falling, Appelt fired a low shot past Robinson for a spectacular goal and an 11-8 lead. After Georgetown midfielder Lauryn Bernier scored on a free position shot to make it 11-9, Virginia stalled the rest of the way. With Robinson out of the goal to double-team the ball, Appelt found herself wide open on the crease and converted a feed from Caitlin Banks with 16 seconds left in the game to preserve the Virginia victory.

Appelt led Virginia (18-3) with four goals and two assists and Banks added two goals and an assist for the Cavaliers. For Georgetown (13-5), Stanwick had three goals and an assist, and Bernier added two goals and an assist.

May 26, 2004

All Photos by John Strohsacker

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