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The Lacrosse Front

Denver vs. Johns Hopkins, May 21, 2011

This is the time of year when I write a post (or more) about the NCAA men’s lacrosse championships. I let last weekend’s action go by without a post. Time to catch up.

First, my traditional stage setting. Until recently, seven schools dominated the sport: Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, North Carolina, Princeton, Syracuse, and Virginia. They were the only schools to win the championship. But more than that, they accounted for almost every championship game appearance, the only interlopers until 2005 being Maryland schools, once each: Loyola, Towson, and Navy. And the super seven accounted for almost all semi-final appearances as well.

But the game is changing. It is a growing sport at the high school level across the country. As a result, there is a larger pool of talented players, and more schools are competitive. As one example of the sport’s move westward, Notre Dame was a quarterfinalist in 1995 and 2000 and a semi-finalist in 2001. More recently, it has joined the super seven as a power, making the quarterfinals in 2008, then going undefeated in 2009 and being ranked #2 but being upset in the first round of the tournament. As for their performance last year and this year, more in a moment.

The school that has been on the verge of breaking into the elite throughout the last decade is Duke. They were runner-up to Hopkins in 2005, losing by a single goal. 2006? Well, you know. There was that scandal that dominated the national news, and the program was shut down in mid-season. In 2007, they returned to the championship game, losing once again to Hopkins by a single goal. Another one-goal loss to Hopkins in the 2008 semi-final and a blowout loss to Syracuse in the 2009 semi-final added to their frustration. But last year, they upset #1 ranked Virginia by a goal in the semi-final, landing in the championship game opposite Notre Dame.

If you’re following, you understand that this means the two teams who had been knocking at the door had simultaneously arrived in last year’s championship game. One of them would break through. After 60 minutes of regulation play, they were tied 5-5. Finally, Duke scored, winning their first championship and joining the super seven as a member of the new elite eight.

Then there’s Denver. Bill Tierney, the long-time Princeton coach, shocked the lacrosse world by uprooting and moving to Denver before last season. At Princeton, he had won national championships in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2001, the team finishing as runner-up in 2000 and 2002. This year, in only his second season at Denver, they were one of the top teams in the country. Might they be knocking at the door next?

Well, there you have it. The setup. Let’s turn to this year’s tournament. The NCAA invites 16 teams, 8 of which are seeded 1 through 8. In the first round, the 8 seeds play at home, each hosting one of the unseeded teams. That took place last weekend. The quarterfinal games are played at two neutral sites, two games at one site and two at another. Then the semi-finals and finals are held on Memorial Day weekend, in recent years at some NFL football stadium — the home of the Eagles, the Ravens, or the Patriots.

Of the elite eight, only Princeton didn’t qualify for the tournament. It was an off year for them. Joining the other seven elite programs were Notre Dame and Denver. These were the top 9 teams, but only 8 could be seeded and thereby get to host their first-round game. Maryland had won the ACC tournament, beating North Carolina and Duke. Yet, they were the odd team out, not being given a seed. The seeds in order, 1 through 8, were Syracuse, Cornell, Hopkins, ND, Duke, Denver, Virginia, and UNC.

Last Saturday, Maryland wasted no time showing they should have been seeded, beating host UNC handily. The other seven seeds all won, Virginia having the toughest time, eking out an overtime win over surprising Bucknell. That set up this weekend’s quarterfinals. Yesterday, at Hofstra’s stadium on Long Island, Cornell (seeded 2) would play Virginia (7) and Hopkins (3) would play Denver (6). Today, at the Patriots’ stadium in Foxborough, Syracuse (1) would play Maryland and Notre Dame (4) would play Duke (5) in a rematch of last year’s championship game.

I watched parts of all four games. In yesterday’s opening game, Cornell opened a 4-1 lead, but Virginia came back with 10 consecutive goals to take a 10-4 halftime lead. Cornell fought back, outscoring Virginia 3-1 in the third quarter before succumbing 13-9. The second game was stunning, as Denver flew to a 6-1 lead early in the second quarter with 6 straight goals. Hopkins settled down and closed to within a goal at 8-7 midway through the third quarter, but Denver responded with a 5-goal run to make the score 13-7, finally winning 14-9. This was a landmark in lacrosse history, a team from the mountain west making the semi-finals, and doing so by beating the team with the greatest tradition in the game. Unbelievable.

Today, Syracuse and Maryland opened the action at Foxborough with a hard fought defensive struggle. Syracuse started the scoring with a goal late in the first period and another late in the second. But Maryland, held scoreless for the first 26 minutes of the game, finally got two goals of its own in the final four minutes of the first half. They followed with 2 more in the first half of the third quarter to open a 4-2 lead. Syracuse closed to 4-3 late in the third period and then Maryland scored a shocking goal with 1 second left in the period to lead 5-3. Syracuse fought back, shutting out Maryland in the fourth quarter and getting the tying goal with 1:03 left in regulation. They had the momentum and looked poised to win, as would befit their #1 seed. Alas, Maryland controlled the ball throughout the first overtime period, scoring the winning goal three and a half minutes in.

The last quarterfinal was Duke vs. Notre Dame. Another low scoring game, tied 4-4 through three periods, at which point Duke started to take control, scoring 3 goals to open up a 7-4 lead. ND got a goal with 16 seconds left, by which time the result was determined.

Great weekend. Four great games. And all four top seeds lost. Next week, Virginia will take on Denver in one semi-final, with Maryland and Duke in the other. Two schools from the old super seven, one from the new elite eight, and one taking center stage far earlier than anyone would have dreamed. After what Denver did to Hopkins yesterday, no one will be counting them out.

I wouldn’t dream of predicting the results. I know only that we’re in for three exciting games. I suggest you watch.

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