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Lacrosse Championships

The NCAA men’s lacrosse championships start today. I’m ready. A week ago I printed the 16-team draw and pinned it to the wall above my desk. In an hour, the Duke-Hopkins game will be on ESPN. I’ll be watching.

I should provide some background, about the tournament and about my interest. The tournament is set up with a 16-team single-elimination draw. Eight teams are seeded. In the opening round, each of the seeded team hosts one of the unseeded teams at home. If all goes to plan, the eight seeded teams win and move on to the quarterfinals a week later, where they face off in the traditional fashion — #1 versus #8, #2 versus #7, etc. The quarterfinal round is played at neutral sites, two games at one of the sites and two at another. Neutral in principle. In practice, the sites –which are selected long before the tournament draw is established — are the stadiums of traditional lacrosse powers, so it is entirely possible that one of the quarter-finalists finds itself playing at home. The tournament is timed so that the semi-finals and finals are held a week later on the Saturday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend. Since 2003, the championships have rotated among NFL football stadiums in the northeast. This year, they return in two weeks to the Ravens’ stadium in Baltimore.

The most fascinating aspect of the tournament, for me, is the fact that the same seven schools dominate year after year. The only schools ever to have won are Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Virginia, North Carolina, Cornell, and Maryland. This is in order of number of championships, from 10 for Syracuse and 9 for Hopkins down to 3 for Cornell and 2 for Maryland. If you count the number of appearances in the final, Hopkins leads with 18 to Syracuse’s 16, with UNC having the fewest final appearances, 5. Only five other schools have made the final game: Duke and Navy twice, Massachusetts, Towson, and Loyola each once.

Duke is an interesting story. In recent years, it has become one of the sport’s powers. It lost to Hopkins by just a single goal in both the 2005 and 2007 finals. It was ranked #1 regularly in those years. You will recall that in the year between those finals appearances, Duke’s season ended abruptly in the wake of the arrest of three of its players, when the president decided to fire the coach and end the team’s season.

This year, the traditional powers continue to dominate. Six of them are among the eight seeded teams in the draw. Among the super seven, only Hopkins is not among the seeds, though it did make the draw. The remaining two seeds are Duke — in effect the eighth power — and surprising Stony Brook. In order, the seeds are: Virginia, Syracuse, Maryland, UNC, Duke, Princeton, Cornell, Stony Brook.

The eight unseeded teams are Mount St. Mary’s, Denver, Hopkins, Delaware, Hofstra, Notre Dame, Loyola, and Army. Several of these have great lacrosse traditions in their own right — Hofstra (ranked #1 all season a few years back but upset early in the tournament), Delaware (a semi-finalist three years ago), Loyola (a one-time runner-up), Army. Notre Dame has come on strong in recent years. Denver, a newcomer, hired away long-time Princeton coach Bill Tierney in the off-season in a quest to move into the top ranks of the sport. (See, for instance, this recent article in the NYT.)

One more point about this year’s tournament. I mentioned the fact that the quarter-finals are played at two neutral sites, each hosting two of the four games. This year’s sites are Princeton and Stony Brook. If Princeton wins its first-round game tomorrow against Notre Dame, it will get to play its quarter-final game at home. Likewise, if Stony Brook beats Denver today, it will play at home next week.

We have a tradition of spending Memorial Day weekend watching the semi-finals and finals on ESPN. We would watch more, but lacrosse coverage is usually on ESPN’s college network, ESPNU, which we don’t get, so we wait patiently for the last weekend. Today, however, as I noted at the beginning, one of the first-round games is on ESPN, the Duke-Hopkins match-up, a rematch of two recent championship games, but with Duke heavily favored this time.

I don’t really know how our tradition started. I grew up, of course, in the heart of lacrosse country: Long Island. But our high school did not have a lacrosse team at the time, so I didn’t grow up playing or watching or having friends who played. I knew the game existed. I knew that just three school districts down Northern Boulevard was one of the traditional powers, Manhasset High School. In the 1950s, they had a player who is still spoken of as the greatest ever. He went on to star at Syracuse, and maybe he would have dominated in the pros if there were such a thing at the time. But there wasn’t, so he went pro instead in his other sport, football, a sport in which he also happened to be just maybe the best ever. Jim Brown.

One of my best friends in college was a defenseman. He lived above me in our freshman dorm, as did an attackman. I watched several of their games over the years. Cornell was the dominant team in the league at the time, but we were pretty good. It was many years, though, before I watched lacrosse again. I would read about the championships to the extent that they were covered, but I don’t think they were on TV until some time in the 1990s, or at least I didn’t notice until then. There was a stretch in the 90s when Princeton and Syracuse alternated as champions, starting in 1992 with an overtime victory by Princeton over Syracuse for Princeton’s first championship. Somewhere in there is when I started watching, though more by happenstance than planning. If the championship game was held on Memorial Day in those years, I failed to figure that out.

Also, in those years, our daughter Jessica was playing lacrosse for her school in Maine. One time, when we were visiting, we went back and forth between two fields, watching her game and a men’s game that was being played concurrently. That’s the first time Gail saw the sport and she fell in love.

Somehow, the tradition was established. Three years ago we were in Boston on Memorial Day weekend for the wedding of our friends Gerry and Margie. That Saturday afternoon they were having a day-before-the-wedding open house and we had time to kill before it started. We walked around Back Bay, went into stores, took a walk through the Boston Public Library, returned to our hotel, and caught part of the semi-finals: the end of the Hopkins-Delaware game and the start of Duke-Cornell. The only problem was, we had the wrong time for the open house, based on an initial save-the-date mailing, having failed to take into account the updated information of the official mailing. There we were watching lacrosse in our room while the party was underway 10 miles west. We were a little puzzled, when we arrived, by the line of parked cars way down the street and the paucity of food. People were already leaving.

Oh well. At least we caught some of that year’s lacrosse. We would miss Monday’s Duke-Hopkins final, thanks to a post-wedding brunch and a drive out to Acton to see Katie and Micah and their boys.

But now I get to see Duke-Hopkins after all. The game is about to start. Gotta go.

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