SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- For the first time in three years, there's not a clear-cut favorite to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I lacrosse title. Move over Syracuse, and make room for North Carolina.
"They can talk about parity and this being a wide-open tournament, but, right now, North Carolina is unbeaten, and Syracuse has tradition and the home-field advantage on their side," said Maryland coach Dick Edell. "They're both playing at another level. If we get by Towson, we're going to have to reach deep, deep down inside to win in the championship game."
No. 1 North Carolina (14-0) will meet No. 5 Syracuse (12-2) in a noon semifinal game today at the Carrier Dome, as the Orangemen try to become the first team to win four consecutive Division I titles. No. 7 Maryland (10-4) will play No. 11 Towson State (11-3) in the other semifinal, either 45 minutes after the first game ends or at 3 p.m.
The North Carolina-Syracuse game is considered by some to be the unofficial national championship game, with the winner having an easy time with either Towson or Maryland in the final, which is noon Monday.
North Carolina beat Syracuse, 10-3, in the Orangemen's second game of the season, but Syracuse then went on to win 11 of its next 12 games, including the past 10 in a row.
So, who's going to win semifinal Game 1? Will it be unbeaten North Carolina, with its relentless wave of midfielders and ever changing defenses?
Or will it be Syracuse, which likes to run, gun and shoot behind the back and owns a 32-1 record in the Carrier Dome the past three years?
Edell, whose team lost twice this season to North Carolina, said: "Until someone beats them, the best team is North Carolina. They're excellent."
Johns Hopkins coach Tony Seaman said: "I like Syracuse.
They're at home now, and the Carrier Dome is a unique place to play. Heck, when we played Syracuse in the quarterfinals, it was the first time other people cheered for Johns Hopkins besides our alumni. Nobody wanted Syracuse to go back home."
The game will feature two of the country's best attackmen in North Carolina's Dennis Goldstein (39, 24) and Syracuse's Tom Marechek (50, 21) and two excellent defenses. Syracuse, led by All-American Pat McCabe, who probably will cover Goldstein, has allowed 130 goals this season, and North Carolina, featuring defender Graham Harden, 89.
Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., though, did leave a word of warning.
"I think it's going to be an excellent game," said Simmons, the only coach to win four Division I lacrosse titles. "North Carolina has played well all season and deserves its No. 1 ranking. We went through a little transition period at the beginning of the season, losing a lot of key people.
"A lot of people thought we deserved to go through a low period since we had won three consecutive championships. But we didn't want their sympathy. The way I look at it, we're like a butterfly. We went through a metamorphosis, but we're the same creature we've always been."
Maryland and Towson players say their chances are just as good to win a national championship, even though a number of players on both teams are making their first Final Four appearances. Towson had not won a Division I playoff game until this season.
Towson State coach Carl Runk, asked about playing Syracuse before 20,000 people at the Carrier Dome, said, "We would go straight for the jugular."
The Towson-Maryland series is one of the most physical in college lacrosse, and today's game should be no different. The Terps beat Towson, 17-16, earlier in the season, when the Tigers were without two of their best players in attackman Glenn Smith and midfielder Lindsay Dixon.
"One third of their attack was missing, and so was one third of their extra-man offense," Edell said. "So we know right off the bat we're playing against a better team."
Runk said: "Maryland is a changed team, a brand-new one. They've made more progress than we have. I saw them against Franklin and Marshall in their opener, and they weren't real impressive. Now, they're a Final Four team."
Towson and Maryland will have their all-time goal leaders on the field in Smith (150) and Terps attackman Rob Wurzburger (133).
But, in the first game, midfield play was a turning point. Maryland went to a spread offense and drew Towson's defenders out to midfield. Then the Terps either drove and shot or passed off.
Edell did not say he would try the ploy again.
There will be some other key options in the game. Towson has one of the best defenders in the game in Steve Kisslinger, but will he play man-to-man or be more of a rover? Also, how much will Runk use him on faceoffs? Maryland's Brian Burlace is considered one of the top two -- along with Syracuse's Pat McCabe -- defenders in the game. Will Edell use him to cover Smith or Rob Shek, Towson's outstanding midfielder?
"It's going to be a great game," said Edell, a former All-America midfielder and one-time assistant to Runk at Towson. "In a
Maryland-Towson game, no one ever knows what's going to happen."
(at Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.)
4 North Carolina vs. Syracuse, noon (WITH 1230 AM)
Towson State vs. Maryland, 3 p.m. (WITH 1230 AM, WCVT 89.7 FM)
Semifinal winners, noon (WITH, 1230 AM)