4 teams, 1 common goal

Semifinals: Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Navy and Princeton have one thing in mind this weekend in Baltimore: winning a national championship.

May 29, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

What will it be?

Another display of Syracuse's mastery in May, or the year the streak without a national title is stopped at Johns Hopkins?

Will Princeton reign in a year of rebuilding, or will sentimental favorite Navy have its Cinderella season culminate in celebration?

An anticipated record-breaking lacrosse crowd this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium will soon find out.

Another NCAA Division I men's lacrosse season will end here Monday, with the crowning of a national champion.

As of noon yesterday, more than 41,000 tickets were sold for today's semifinals, the start of the weekend's festivities, which include tomorrow's Division II and Division III finals and Monday's Division I final, but first things first.

Second-seeded Navy (14-2) will face sixth-seeded Princeton (11-3) today in the first Division I semifinal at 11:30 a.m.

Tigers coach Bill Tierney joked that he and his close friend, Midshipmen coach Richie Meade, were presiding over the JV game, setting the stage for the 2 p.m. varsity contest between top-seeded Johns Hopkins (13-1) and No. 4 Syracuse (13-2) in a rematch from last year's final four.

Viewed as the most storied lacrosse program in the country, Johns Hopkins hasn't won a title since 1987. Syracuse has won seven, including six since the Blue Jays' previous crown.

"I don't know if I feel any pressure to win the title other than the pressure from our own coaching staff," said Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala, who was a sophomore defenseman on the 1987 Hopkins team. "Is this year any different than ones in the past? No, not at all. I think any of the four teams is truly capable of winning this."

That wasn't being said about two months ago -- at least not about Princeton or Navy.

Tierney was fielding the youngest team of his 17-year tenure at the Ivy League school. In just its second game, Princeton, starting two freshmen and three sophomores and getting minutes from five other first- or second-year players, was outclassed, 14-5, at Hopkins.

But the Tigers regrouped, benefited from the quick maturation of their youngsters, and punched their ticket to the final four behind star senior attackman Ryan Boyle, whose two late goals and overtime assist ended Maryland's season last Saturday.

Navy wasn't on anybody's radar -- not after going 6-7 the year before, not after sludging through 14 one-goal losses over the previous five seasons. And an early three-goal home loss to Ohio State did little to suggest that this season was going to feature anything but inconsistency from the Mids.

But after that loss to the Buckeyes, the Mids, sparked by powerful attackman Ian Dingman and charismatic goalie Matt Russell, have won 13 of 14 games to reach their first final four trip since 1981.

Navy and Princeton haven't played since 1990, but the two coaching staffs are very close -- Meade and Tierney are longtime friends who grew up on Long Island, N.Y. -- and often compare notes, strategies and scouting reports.

"Billy has the ability to impose his will on the other team," Meade said. "If you look over the last several years, Billy has beaten teams that are better than him in situations like this on a fairly consistent basis. ... Playing Princeton at this time of year is a huge challenge for us."

No matter where they are in the rankings, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins are seemingly always on a collision course, often in the NCAA tournament.

"I don't know that I've ever thought of a final four without [Syracuse]," Pietramala said.

Syracuse is in its 22nd straight final four, the Jays in their 25th overall, including their fifth in the past six seasons. The two teams have played each other 10 times in the NCAA tournament, with the latest being the Blue Jays' 19-8 thumping of the Orange in last year's semifinals.

Carrying the No. 1 ranking for much of the season, Hopkins backed up last year's win over the Orange with a 17-5 victory at Homewood Field on March 20.

"It's going to be a different lacrosse game than the one early on this year, that much I'll promise you," said Syracuse senior attackman Michael Powell, the Orange's all-time leading scorer. "If that means taking the air out of the ball, that's what we're going to do. If that means running and gunning, I'll be more than happy to do that."

At a news conference yesterday, Powell backed up his statements earlier this week, maintaining that this weekend could mark the end of his celebrated lacrosse career. Consider that another subplot to this weekend.

"It's the nature of playing at Hopkins. You're always in the spotlight a little bit," said Hopkins junior midfielder Matt Rewkowski, a transfer from Duke. "We'd like to think we have a good amount of experience, and we won't be mesmerized by the atmosphere. Guys have been joking around with me that this is my first [final four]. From everything I expect, this should be pretty nuts."

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