There's an award handed out annually within the North Carolina athletic department. The "Iron Ram" honor is bestowed upon the Tar Heels teams that perform at the highest level in a variety of physical tests, including strength and agility.

One team has won the women's title five years running. The soccer team, winner of 21 of the 31 national titles won in the sport?


Maybe the field hockey team? That program has six national championships of its own.

Strike two.

North Carolina's arguably most fit and toughest women's team is lacrosse. The Tar Heels (17-3), who ousted two-time and defending national champion Northwestern in convincing fashion Friday night, will take on unbeaten Maryland (22-0) in an all-Atlantic Coast Conference matchup for the national championship Sunday at 8 p.m. at Villanova Stadium.

And as coach Jenny Levy puts it, outperforming a few proven dynasties on campus is "a big deal."

"We keep winning," Levy said of the award, "and I said to [the team], 'Don't you guys get it? You're tough. Let's go, let's use it on the field to not just play tough but to play smart and poised as well.' "

Of Sunday's final, Levy said: "I'm sure we'll be the underdog again. That's OK by us."

Maryland survived an 11-10 thriller against No. 3 Syracuse in Friday's semifinals. The Terrapins have already beaten the Tar Heels twice this year - 14-13 in early April and 12-8 in the ACC tournament final nearly a month ago.

"Carolina knows us well," said Maryland coach Cathy Reese. "We know them well."

"They're fast, they have many offensive weapons and they're just a great overall team," Terrapins midfielder Katie Schwarzmann said. "I think we're going to have to come out and put our best foot forward to be successful."

While the Terps needed midfielder Brooke Griffin's goal in the waning minutes Friday to advance, North Carolina cruised past perennial power Northwestern, 11-4, to make its second national championship game appearance. Tar Heels cocaptain Kara Cannizzaro scored four straight goals over a five-minute span in the second half. The senior said her team's familiarity with Maryland - winner of 10 national titles - will be an advantage.

"The losses definitely hurt, but they help us get to where we are now," said Cannizzaro. "We've appreciated the losses, learned from them, and I think we're ready for the championship game."

Women's Division I Final

North Carolina vs. Maryland

Sunday at 8 p.m., at Villanova Stadium

Records: North Carolina 17-3; Maryland 22-0


Who's hot: If two is better than one, then having a pair of Tewaaraton Award finalists bodes well for Maryland. Seniors Alex Aust and Katie Schwarzmann each contributed four points in the Terrapins' semifinal victory over Syracuse, with Aust scoring two goals and Schwarzmann delivering a team-high three assists. North Carolina's stars shined in its semifinal win as well. Leading scorer Kara Cannizzaro tallied four second-half goals against Northwestern, and Abbey Friend added three goals on three shots.

The goalkeepers: Freshman Megan Ward didn't look like a first-year keeper against Northwestern on Friday, turning away seven shots while limiting the Wildcats to their lowest goal total of the year. Maryland senior Kasey Howard made just three saves against the Orange, but stopped nine shots against North Carolina in a 12-8 win in the ACC tournament final April 28.

Intangibles: North Carolina ran effective double-teams in handling Northwestern, keeping the Wildcats' leading scorer, Erin Fitzgerald, off the scoreboard and limiting open looks at the cage. It could be dangerous to implement that strategy against Maryland, though, as the Terps have eight players with at least 23 goals this year.

- Mike Still