Thinking about the winner? Prevailing thought is Duke

ON LACROSSE

May 26, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

Cornell is trying to re-establish itself as a serious contender. Delaware is Cinderella and will become the fan favorite on college lacrosse's biggest stage. There's really not a big party if Johns Hopkins isn't invited, and the Blue Jays are back again, trying to win another national championship.

But the biggest story in lacrosse the past two seasons has been about Duke, and one of the closing chapters will be written Monday when the Blue Devils beat Hopkins in the national championship game. This should be one of the best final four tournaments in recent years because there are so many story lines, but it's hard to pick anyone other than top-seeded Duke.

The Blue Devils have a good defense and a great offense. They have a goalie who has had a good year, and they get outstanding leadership from their seniors. This team is on a mission after its season was canceled last year because of an alleged rape that later was proved to have never taken place. The Blue Devils are obsessed with winning the 2007 title.

But above all of those things, Duke has attackmen Zack Greer and Matt Danowski, who are currently playing at a higher level than anyone else in the college game. In a quarterfinal win against North Carolina on Sunday, they combined for 20 points.

It's absurd and almost downright illegal for a tandem to play so well.

Who's going to stop them? Nobody.

This isn't a slam-dunk for Duke. Cornell is well-balanced, and Hopkins has won seven straight mainly because of its defense. Delaware is the heavy underdog, but the Blue Hens have some outstanding midfielders in Jordan Hall and Dan Deckelbaum, and they can run with any team.

But they can't shut down Hopkins' offense. The Blue Jays have too much firepower with midfielders Paul Rabil and Stephen Peyser, and attackmen Jake Byrne and Kevin Huntley. They have too much for Delaware goalie Tommy Scherr, who hasn't seen this type of shooting accuracy in the Colonial Athletic Association. He might get overwhelmed.

The initial thoughts were that Hopkins might blow Delaware out early and get a nice rest for Cornell or Duke in the championship game. But the Blue Jays don't blow out anybody. And if Delaware can score early, gain confidence and hang around until the fourth quarter, Hopkins is in trouble because the Blue Hens have the nation's best faceoff specialist in Alex Smith. But in the end, Hopkins will prevail, setting half the stage for the big game.

The Duke-Cornell semifinal is much sexier, especially because Cornell was ranked No. 1 most of the season. The Big Red had the nation's highest scoring offense during the regular season (averaging 14.36 goals) led by senior attackmen Eric Pittard and David Mitchell, and junior midfielder John Glynn.

Duke, however, plays pretty good defense. Defensemen such as seniors Nick O'Hara, Casey Carroll and Tony McDevitt complement goalie Dan Loftus and often get overlooked because of Duke's prolific offense, but the Blue Devils can match up with Cornell. On the other end of the field, Cornell can't match up with Duke. Goalie Matt McMonagle should keep the Big Red in the game because he is the best in America, but Greer and Danowski can make great goalies look average at times. Because of their relentless style, they wear down goalies and destroy a team's will to play against them.

So, it will be Hopkins versus Duke on Monday. When I saw the matchups, I thought Cornell might take more out of Duke than Delaware out of Hopkins, and that hasn't changed. The Big Red has a strong work ethic, it's going to be hot today and Cornell's game with Duke is the second game of the afternoon. But it won't be a significant difference because Cornell isn't very physical, certainly no Maryland or Georgetown.

But with a one-day turnaround, you always take the team with the best athletes, and that's Duke. Even with Danowski and Greer, you're starting to see other players emerge such as midfielders Brad Ross and Ned Crotty. Plus, competition is often about head games, and Duke has a clear advantage. A year ago, the Blue Devils were more concerned about whether they were going to have a program again, much less about playing in the championship game. They were laughed at and ridiculed daily, and they became a symbol of what supposedly was wrong with lacrosse, played mostly by affluent white athletes.

And now, Duke gets a chance at redemption. It will be a sold-out crowd there Monday, and a lot of those fans will be cheering for Duke. The interesting thing is that so many people who have hated the school because of its arrogance and pompous attitude will be rooting for it now.

And somewhere during that game there will be a three- or four-minute window in which a team can take control of the game, and Duke will grab it, led by Danowski or Greer.

It almost seems like it's destiny for this team to win, but that would cheapen the accomplishment. Duke also has a really good lacrosse team.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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