PHILADELPHIA -- The Johns Hopkins Blue Jays have planned to be here since the first practice of the preseason. Six weeks ago, the Maryland Terrapins were so young and inconsistent, they weren't sure if they were playoff material.
Today, in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament semifinals at Lincoln Financial Field, both teams are 60 victorious minutes away from playing on Memorial Day for the national championship.
Hopkins, the only unbeaten team left in Division I, will try to overcome the postseason demons that have hounded it since its last title year in 1987.
This is the fourth straight final four trip and the 11th overall for the Blue Jays since then, and Hopkins will have to beat fourth-seeded Virginia to get to its second final since 1989. Two years ago, the Cavaliers beat the Blue Jays for the title at M&T Bank Stadium.
Third-seeded Maryland, with lots of youth and hustle and heart -- and a hot goalie in sophomore Harry Alford -- was once a 5-5 team in search of a winning formula.
Six consecutive victories later, Maryland is the tournament's most intriguing survivor and will take aim at second-seeded Duke in today's all-ACC semifinal.
"I think for the senior class, we're really not taking anything for granted anymore. There's like a different aura in the air right now," said Hopkins senior midfielder Kyle Harrison, the leader of the Blue Jays and the favorite to be recognized as the game's premier player.
"Everybody is extremely focused, as loose as we are. Everybody knows exactly what we have to do and how hard we have to play to come out with a victory on Saturday."
Harrison heads a senior class that has produced a 53-6 record and a school-record 36-game winning streak at home.
Now the Blue Jays must get past a Virginia team that has had their number in recent years. Virginia, led by junior attackman Matt Ward and midfielders Kyle Dixon and Matt Poskay, has a 4-2 record against the Blue Jays under Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala.
For the Cavaliers, who dropped a 9-7 decision at Homewood Field on March 26, beating a deep Hopkins team on which freshmen Kevin Huntley (attack) and Paul Rabil (midfield) have emerged could come down to tempo and how well Virginia chooses its shots against a disciplined Hopkins defense.
The Blue Jays have held 10 opponents to three goals or fewer in the first half and have allowed an average of 6.7 goals. Virginia loves to run. Hopkins can do it, as well, although the Blue Jays typically have settled for a slower pace, often because their opponent prefers to hold the ball.
In the first meeting between the teams, Hopkins sophomore goalie Jesse Schwartzman had 20 saves. Virginia coach Dom Starsia pointed to the Hopkins defensive scheme, noting how the Blue Jays funnel shots to the outside and test an opponent's patience on offense.
"I don't think anyone has quite gotten to Schwartzman this year," Starsia said. "I think we can be more efficient on offense than we were the last time around. We may have made Jesse's life a little too easy that day."
Duke, back in the final four for the first time since 1997 and in the tournament after back-to-back misses, has made life tough on most opponents with the nation's top-rated offense, led by sophomore attackman Matt Danowski and freshman attackman Zack Greer.
But the Blue Devils hardly scare Maryland, which dropped a 10-8 decision in College Park in early March, but outplayed Duke thoroughly while winning the ACC tournament title game, 9-5, on May 1.
Everything has clicked lately for the Terps, especially their shooting. Maryland was having trouble, hitting 25 percent of its shots by midseason. In their past three games, the Terps are shooting 43.6 percent.
And it's not just All-America attackman Joe Walters. Freshman attackman Max Ritz has scored nine goals during the winning streak. Senior midfielder Andrew Schwartzman has nine goals and eight assists during the run. And a defense dominated by underclassmen such as sophomore defenseman Steve Whittenberg and Ray Megill has been steady.
"Before the beginning of the season, we kind of accepted us as being young kids being thrown to the lions. Now you see these guys kind of taking control of what's around them," said Alford, the Most Valuable Player of the ACC tournament.
Maryland coach Dave Cottle, who has watched the Terps find different ways to win throughout the streak, wondered what's in store today.
"It's the scary part of coaching these guys right now. You have no idea what you're getting," Cottle said. "It's a very loose group. I don't think they know any better."
Maryland (11-5) vs. Duke (16-2), 11:30 a.m.
Johns Hopkins (14-0) vs. Virginia (11-3), 2 p.m. (approximate time)
Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
TV: Both games on ESPN2
Today's NCAA men's games
Division I semifinals
No. 2 Duke (16-2) vs. No. 3 Maryland (11-5)
Time: 11:30 a.m.
Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia