NORFOLK, Va. -- It's anyone's national championship, and that's not just rhetoric.
The 2012 NCAA field hockey final four that starts Friday -- featuring Maryland, North Carolina, Syracuse and Princeton -- sizes up as a confounding puzzle for predicting a clear favorite.
Two-time defending champion Maryland would normally be the heavy, but the Terrapins dropped an uncharacteristic five games this season, including two to North Carolina and one to Princeton.
The Tar Heels, the tournament's top seed, haven't lost in 20 games and are powered by diminutive senior midfielder Kelsey Kolojejchick. But when they did lose, it was Syracuse that beat them.
The Big East champion Orange scored a victory over Princeton, too. As for the Tigers, fueled by NCAA points leader Kathleen Sharkey, they are in their sixth final four. Coach Kristen Holmes-Winn touts this team as her best ever.
So whose trophy will it be to lift come Sunday?
"That's what's so cool about this final four," Holmes-Winn said. "It could be anyone. Everything every team has done since the spring and summer is for this moment."
No. 1 North Carolina (22-1) meets Syracuse (19-2) at 2 p.m. Friday followed by No. 2 Princeton (19-1) versus Maryland (18-5) at 4:30 p.m. The semifinal winners square off in Sunday's 1 p.m. national championship. All games will be played at Old Dominion University's L.R. Hill Sports Complex.
Five storylines to keep in mind:
1. Gee, you look familiar
Both semifinals are rematches of regular-season games. Syracuse defeated North Carolina 1-0 in overtime on Sept. 1. Freshman Emma Russell scored the lone goal for the Orange, who handed the Tar Heels their first shutout since 2009.
Syracuse coach Ange Bradley called it a monumental moment for her program, noting, "You look at a program like Carolina, and they're a legacy. They've been to more final fours than my freshmen have been alive. To have a team of that caliber on our home turf is an honor, and that win in overtime really set up that, 'We can do this. We're good.'"
North Carolina played without forward Charlotte Craddock. The sophomore from Wolverhampton, England, who was the youngest player in the Beijing Olympics, sat out North Carolina's first six games due to an NCAA eligibility issue. Despite the missed time, the sophomore is UNC's leading scorer with 22 goals.
"She truly is such a handful; it's difficult to stop her," said UNC coach Karen Shelton. "She can get her shot off very quickly. She's got the skills and the power. Her open-field play is terrific. She's one of the best players I've ever had."
The second semi is a rematch of Oct. 2, when Princeton defeated Maryland 3-2. Rallying from a 2-1 halftime deficit, Sydney Kirby followed through on a deflected shot in the 50th minute to earn the win for the Tigers. Earlier, NCAA goals leader Sharkey (35 goals, 9 assists) knotted the game at 2 after a penalty corner.
"Maryland needs to slow the Princeton Tigers down," said Terps coach Missy Meharg. "They're so fast, maybe the fastest counterattack team to play in the NCAAs. And you've got to stop Sharkey."
2. It's always Maryland or North Carolina
These teams have traded championships for the past seven years. The last team to win a national title other than these two ACC stalwarts? Wake Forest, which won three straight from 2002 to '04. (The last non-ACC team to win the title? Michigan in 2001.) Maryland has won five of the past seven titles (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011), all under Meharg. North Carolina, which won three consecutive championships starting in 1995, won titles in 1989, 2007 and 2009 and was NCAA runner-up the past two years.
Shelton doesn't consider her team the heavy favorite but does concede that the firepower of these Tar Heels is unmatched. North Carolina's 106 goals on the season are four more than her undefeated team amassed in 2007.
"Yes, we're better offensively, but we're a little weaker defensively than we've been in the last few years," she said. "Our teams are historically known for being very disciplined defensively. This year we're giving up more goals, but we're scoring a lot more."
3. How good is this Maryland bunch?
Only one team has won the national championship with as many as five losses: Michigan in 2001. Five losses are the most by a Maryland team since 2004, but overlooking the Terrapins would be dangerous.
Consider three Terps -- Maxine Fluharty, Katie Gerzabek and Ali McEvoy -- missed significant time leading the U.S. junior national team to the bronze in the Junior Pan Am Games. Freshman Sarah Sprink missed four games playing for the German U-21 team in the EuroHockey Junior Championships. Given the absences, developing consistency and cohesion didn't happen overnight.
But this team, particularly these seniors, understands the significance of this moment.
"There is relentless leadership in the senior class," Meharg said. "There are eight seniors in our class, and they all understand every aspect of being a student-athlete. ... They know what it feels like to be there, and they want to be there. To have something different would be a season that wouldn't reflect what our tradition is about."
4. Or is it the year of the Tiger?
Princeton has the best scoring margin in the country, and this team has scored more goals (10) than any other team in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers boast four players -- Sharkey, Michelle Cesan and Julia and Katie Reinprecht -- who took the 2011 season off to train with the U.S. national team. As good as the four elite players are, not having them in the lineup for a season elevated the level of the entire team, producing a carryover effect for this season. In addition to their typical dominance of the Ivy League -- Princeton outscored conference opponents 45-1 -- these Tigers have the win over Maryland, two over Virginia and defeats of Penn State and UConn.
"A year ago we took our four All-Americans out of the mix, and we were still able to keep the standard of excellence and go to the tournament," Holmes-Winn said. "That's the difference in our team. That group had to build their leadership skills by carrying games on their back, without relying on those four players who were on the national team. And those four players added a level of professionalism to the talent they already have."
5. Star power
In addition to Sharkey (Princeton) and Craddock (UNC), two of the best to play the sport, don't overlook NCAA assist leader Kolojejchick, on track to become North Carolina's first four-time All-American. North Carolina's three-time ACC defensive player of the year, Caitlin Van Sickle, controls the back. Maryland senior defender Megan Frazer, clutch in the Terrapins' past two national titles, stars for the Irish senior national team. Syracuse is in the final four for the second time in school history behind keeper Leann Stiver, with a 1.11 goals-against average and all-Big East back Iona Holloway. The balanced Orange have three scorers in double figures in Kelsey Millman, Gillian Pinder and Lauren Brooks.