Four story lines extending in four distinct directions

Ncaa Lacrosse Final Four

May 26, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

How unusual is this final four of the 37th NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament? Besides bringing an expected record crowd to M&T Bank Stadium, the event is brimming with juicy plot lines.

For starters, it features a repeat of sorts. For the second straight year, an unseeded school has butted in to make its debut, seemingly out of nowhere. Last year, it was Massachusetts. This time, it's the Delaware Blue Hens, who last month were adrift with a 6-5 record but have gotten healthy, tweaked their personnel and regrouped with a furious run.

Delaware got into the tournament by winning its conference title to earn an automatic bid. But the Blue Hens were just getting warmed up for their shocking first-round blitz of defending national champion Virginia. All they have to do today to stay alive is get past Johns Hopkins, which is in its 87th tournament game and 27th final four. Delaware is 3-3 in the NCAAs.

In some ways, top-seeded Duke owns this weekend. The Blue Devils were a national story a year ago for the wrong reasons, after rape allegations ended their season and national title hopes and ran off their coach.

And here they are, with the nation's ultimate one-two punch in attackmen Matt Danowski and Zack Greer, the calming, hard-nosed coach in John Danowski - Matt's father - and a major chip on their shoulders.

The same could be said for fourth-seeded Cornell - Duke's opponent in today's marquee game. How often does an undefeated team take a back seat to anyone at a final four? And the Big Red, with the nation's top-scoring offense and an expected first-team All-America goalie in Matt McMonagle, are one of two teams that have beaten Duke (the other being Loyola).

Then, there's the local guy, a team named Hopkins, the last of the bluebloods still standing. Princeton, Maryland and Virginia have been long gone from the party. Syracuse didn't even make it there.

Like Delaware, which had issues at midseason, the Blue Jays had to rebound from a three-game losing streak in March and April. Now, the team that wouldn't leave will try to kick out the newcomer.

"I think a lot of our team likes the fact that we're kind of an underdog in this tournament," Hopkins senior defenseman Eric Zerrlaut said. "Everyone wants to watch the Duke-Cornell game. Everyone wants to see the Cinderella team. Where are we? Oh, well."

Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala seconded Zerrlaut's theory.

"You either love us or hate us," Pietramala said. "[Delaware] is still Cinderella, and they play hard and aggressive, and they're good. Cornell is still the only undefeated team, and everybody wants to see Duke win it.

"We're just Johns Hopkins. We lost three in a row this year. No one thought we were going to get there. We are an afterthought right now, and that's great."

Not to Delaware. The Blue Hens have the ingredients - a peerless faceoff man in Alex Smith, a big, strong, left-handed midfield led by seniors Jordan Hall and Dan Deckelbaum, a hot goalie in Tommy Scherr, a hot scorer in Canadian freshman attackman Curtis Dickson - to send Hopkins home.

But Delaware is trying to prepare for multiple forces. Hopkins presents a much-improved defense, an extremely balanced offense, more skill and depth at midfield than any team the Blue Hens have faced, and the experience to handle the loud, raucous atmosphere that awaits them.

The crowd that nearly packs the house today will probably surpass the combined attendance at every Delaware game this year.

"I feel like I should wear blinders," Deckelbaum said.

"I've never seen a team more focused than we were going in against Virginia," added Bob Shillinglaw, Delaware's 29th-year coach. "That's what it's going to take again."

Since losing to Cornell, 7-6, on March 20, Duke has reeled off 11 straight victories.

But the Big Red, whose main scoring threats - attackmen Eric Pittard and David Mitchell and midfielders Max Seibald and John Glynn - rival Duke's, have won all kinds of games. Low-scoring, high-scoring, the occasional close one, such as last week's 12-11 overtime win over Albany, and often a blowout.

Cornell, in its first final four since 1988 and pursuing its first unbeaten year since it won its last title in 1977, has the experience and poise to win it all.

"I'm not sure it's going to be that kind of game again," said Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni, alluding to the 7-6 contest dominated by the goalies. "Duke has hit their stride. [Greer and Danowski] are two of the best to have played the game in a long time. When you play Duke, you're going to need a great game from your goalie."

As for Duke, the Blue Devils just want to get it on, finish their business, and make things right on the field.

"Any player in any sport, they just want to go out on top," Duke senior defenseman Casey Carroll said. "I don't think that changes just because of all of the stuff we've been through off the field."

"Anytime you make it to the final four, your goal is to win the whole thing," senior midfielder Ed Douglas said. "Coach [Danowski] has done a good job helping us recognize how special this weekend is, and emphasizing how we should enjoy this weekend, regardless of what happens. But we certainly came here with a plan."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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