Give Hopkins the edge, upstart Navy a chance

College Lacrosse

May 25, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

PRINCETON, Johns Hopkins and Syracuse have combined for 58 final four appearances, but there are still enough underlying themes to make the NCAA tournament interesting this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium.

Of course, the lacrosse critics will say it's the usual faces plus Navy. But aren't the Los Angeles Lakers back in the NBA Western Conference finals again? Aren't we all just waiting for the New York Yankees to pull away again in the second half of the baseball season? Haven't the New England Patriots won two of the past three Super Bowls?

There is nothing wrong with excellence.

In the final four field, you have the upstart in Navy (14-2), which will be the sentimental favorite. There is Syracuse (13-2), the team everyone loves to hate, making a 22nd straight appearance.

Few expected Princeton (11-3) to make it this far, not with as many as six freshmen rotating in and out of the lineup. And then there is Hopkins (13-1). As far as the rest of the lacrosse world is concerned, it's the Blue Jays' tournament to lose.

"There is one team, and then there is the rest," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "Hopkins is the best team by far. Why? They have more offense than anybody else."

Virginia coach Dom Starsia faced Hopkins and Syracuse during the regular season and scrimmaged Navy during the fall and preseason. He likes the Blue Jays, too.

"It's wonderful for the game to see Navy get in," Starsia said. "Georgetown had a real chance, and it would have been nice to see another new partner instead of one of the traditional favorites. I think we've got three against one. There hasn't been a great team all season, and I don't know if there is one, but Hopkins is head and shoulders above the field."

Hopkins has its weaknesses, especially on the defensive end. But there aren't a lot of chances to exploit the Blue Jays because they dominate faceoffs and are so efficient on offense.

Using Kyle Harrison, Greg Peyser and Lou Braun, the Blue Jays have won 185 of 304 faceoffs. If you don't have the ball, you can't score. Hopkins has made some of the game's best attackmen, such as Syracuse's Michael Powell, disappear. Princeton will meet Navy in the first game Saturday morning at 11:30 followed by Hopkins vs. Syracuse at 2 p.m.

"I think their goalie is still untested, and Hopkins is not as athletic on defense as they could be," Starsia said. "Syracuse's first group on offense is as talented as anybody's, but Syracuse hasn't faced off well in the last two years.

"In the first game [a 17-5 Hopkins win], people were saying, `Where was Michael Powell? Where was Michael Powell?' but he never touched the ball. People said Maryland got blown out [14-10], but they never had the ball. Hopkins is a tough team to slow down because they dominate on faceoffs and you can't take away their strength."

Another strength is shooting. Attackmen Conor Ford and Kyle Barrie and midfielder Kevin Boland can score from anywhere on the field. Name a shot, and they all possess it. When one is cold, the others get hot. When one is on, the others feed him the ball.

"It's hard to eliminate one," Starsia said. "It becomes a game of pick your poison."

Of the three remaining teams, Navy has the best shot to upset Hopkins. The two teams played April 24, with Hopkins pulling out a 10-9 victory in overtime.

The Midshipmen, though, walked away with a lot of confidence and a swagger. They have what is necessary to pull the upset. Navy's Chris Pieczonka has won 138 of 209 faceoffs, and the Mids have controlled 233 of 360.

They have a goalkeeper who can dominate in Matt Russell, who has a save percentage of .603. Hot goalies can carry a tournament team, the way Virginia's Tillman Johnson shut down Hopkins in the championship game a year ago.

But is Russell in that class?

"Before the tournament last season, I knew Tillman was capable of dominating like that because I had seen him do it before," Starsia said. "With the kid Russell, we've seen him play like that at times, and he gave Navy a spark this season. Against Princeton, I don't think he'll see the kind of shot barrage that Hopkins had on Tillman last year.

"That game is going to probably be 7-6, with a critical save or clear coming at the right time making the difference," Starsia said. "But can Russell handle all of those shots in a 45-minute game? I don't know if he can."


Navy has already proved it has the athletes to score with Hopkins. The Mids will be the crowd favorite because of the emotions of the war and because they are the big underdogs in a final four of heavy hitters.

Not many people are giving Princeton a chance because the Tigers are young, but you can't count out Bill Tierney, the best coach in the game. The Orange has tremendous athletes and great tradition. When May rolls around, Syracuse believes it is invincible.

But at this tournament, Princeton and Syracuse could find themselves sitting in the stands Monday watching Hopkins win its first national championship since 1987 over a stubborn and talented Navy team.

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