Long Roads Cross

Duke, Hopkins overcame a lot on way to final

NCAA Lacrosse championship

May 28, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

TODAY AT M&T BANK STADIUM, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

JOHNS HOPKINS VS. DUKE

The third-seeded Blue Jays will need to stay close for three quarters to have a chance to upend the top-seeded Blue Devils, who must recover from an exhausting semifinal win. SCOUTING REPORT, PG 8C

Ever since it reassembled last fall and began to put its bruised program back together, the Duke men's lacrosse team has been building to this day. And with its two dynamic offensive forces leading the way, the Blue Devils shook off a pair of early-season losses and have made every subsequent opponent pay.

Two months ago, Johns Hopkins had started to dig itself out of a hole for the second straight year, after a rare three-game losing streak had cast doubts on whether the Blue Jays would even make their 36th consecutive NCAA tournament.

Yet, here they are - the two schools that played the last game in 2005, meeting at M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day, with another Division I championship on the line.

Here is No. 1 seed Duke, led by the incomparable attack duo of Matt Danowski and Zack Greer, determined to make up for the missed opportunity in 2006, when a disastrous team party led to three players being falsely accused of rape and a season was prematurely shut down.

And here is No. 3 seed Hopkins, playing in a strange, yet familiar place. The Blue Jays, who are appearing in their 17th NCAA title game, are back in it two years after beating Duke in the big game in Philadelphia.

This time, playing about four miles from its Homewood campus, Hopkins feels like the backup story of the day. And the Blue Jays don't mind. For the first time in 20 tournament games, Hopkins is the lower-seeded team.

"We certainly know we're playing everybody's favorite, the best team in the country in Duke," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to work hard and sustain what we've had going the last few weeks and stick around and find a way to earn a win against this team. They're terrific."

The Blue Devils (17-2) won their 12th straight by hanging on for a 12-11 semifinal win over previously unbeaten Cornell on Saturday, and the image of Greer, the Canadian junior finisher extraordinaire, already is burned in the minds of the Blue Jays.

In Duke's 11-9 victory at Homewood on April 7 - Hopkins' last loss before it began its current eight-game winning streak - Greer conducted a clinic on the crease with six goals. He also made life miserable for senior defenseman Eric Zerrlaut, who got benched in the second half.

"You think you've got him, and then the ball is in the back of the net," Zerrlaut said.

Danowski, the senior destined to win the Tewaaraton Trophy as the nation's premier player, is the straw that stirs the Duke offense, which is averaging 16.3 goals per game in the tournament. He is the fifth player in NCAA history with 40 goals and 50 assists in the same season.

Greer (67 goals) and Danowski are the second pair of teammates to each top the 90-point mark in the same season. Obviously, containing them is paramount in the Blue Jays' game plan. But Hopkins also had better not ignore midfielders Ned Crotty and Brad Ross, who each scored two goals against Cornell and are playing with tremendous confidence.

"Brad scored twice with his left hand. I'm not sure Brad could hold a stick in his left hand in September," first-year Duke coach John Danowski said. "Matt and Zack's growth, especially over the second half of the season, was primarily directed by the impact of the rest of the team. You need the [other] guys to make plays."

Duke makes them in transition as well as anyone, with defensive midfielders such as Nick O'Hara and Michael Ward always in the attack mode. And All-America senior goalie Dan Loftus, who survived Saturday after cramping severely during Cornell's fourth-quarter comeback, has saved 62.4 percent of the shots he has faced.

Hopkins counters with senior goalie Jesse Schwartzman, whose established reputation as a big-game keeper has not waned in his final tournament. And Schwartzman's strong play near the end of his up-and-down season in some ways sums up the way the Blue Jays are performing and how quietly confident they are feeling.

The Blue Jays have confronted their flaws. Their defense, faceoff and ground-ball play have improved significantly since that 4-4 start. Junior midfielder Stephen Peyser has been a catalyst in the faceoff circle and as a dodging complement to junior midfielder Paul Rabil, the team's best player.

Except for Saturday's 8-3 semifinal victory over Delaware, when their starting attack went into hiding with no points and too many turnovers and dropped passes, Hopkins' scoring balance has been remarkable during its winning streak.

And Hopkins thinks it can stay close enough to Duke to allow its depth possibly to overtake the Blue Devils in what should be a tight game. The Blue Devils, who don't rely on their bench much, clearly were gassed after their near collapse against Cornell.

"The fact that we could rotate guys in and give some of our key players a break was a good advantage [against Delaware] for us," senior long-stick midfielder Brendan Skakandi said. "I think it definitely will play a key role in the game, if it turns out to be hot and muggy like it was [Saturday]."

Pietramala is just enjoying being in this position. He's here with a team that doesn't remind many people of that senior-laden collection of players who never lost in 2005, after getting embarrassed by Syracuse in the previous final four.

"This is a different team in terms of talent," he said. "There are some intangible qualities that remind me of that [2005] team. This group has developed great leadership. This group has been humbled. This group will not quit."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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