The national championship in Division I men's college lacrosse will rest on the shoulders of Duke goalies Mike Rock and Dan Wigrizer this weekend. If they play well, the fifth-seeded Blue Devils will win the title. If not, it will probably go to No. 1 Virginia, the Blue Devils' opponent in the semifinals Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Sorry to put such a burden on Wigrizer and Rock, but Duke (14-3) is playing at such a high level offensively, averaging nearly 18 goals in each of its last three games. The Blue Devils also have a strong midfield with long poles like C.J. Costabile and Tom Montelli gobbling up ground balls and igniting the transition game.
Of the four teams playing this weekend, a field that also includes Notre Dame and Cornell, Duke is playing the best.
"Duke's attack has been the most explosive in the nation for the past six seasons," said Paul Carcaterra, ESPN's college lacrosse analyst. "Its defense is so multi-dimensional. Duke's goalie, whether it is Wigrizer the freshman or Rock the junior will have to step up. That has been the one question mark during their recent run.
"In the ACC Final loss to UVa., Wigrizer saved only 26 percent of the shots on goal by the Cavs," said Carcaterra. "I can't see a win with their goalie saving less than 40 percent. Typically, you ask your goalies to save at least fifty percent, but the offense they have can compensate for this deficiency."
In its quarterfinal beat-down of North Carolina Saturday, Blue Devils' attackmen Ned Crotty, Zach Howell and Max Quinzani left North Carolina with no answer. Virginia (16-1), though, has some outstanding firepower of its own in attackmen Chris Bocklet, Steele Stanwick and midfielders Shamel Bratton and Brian Carroll.
Wigrizer has a .520 save percentage, and Rock is at .444. They have to play better than they have all season. The teams split in two games played earlier this season.
"Virginia is Virginia and their parts are great," said Towson coach Tony Seaman. "Duke is playing better than anybody. They are getting up and down the field both offensively and defensively, and their only question mark is saving the ball."
The winner of the Duke-Virginia game will probably win the championship. There has been some concern about Virginia's psyche after Cavaliers player George Huguely was charged in the recent death of Virginia female player Yeardley Love. There was speculation the recent events slowed the Cavaliers down last week when they barely slipped by Stony Brook, 10-9, in the quarterfinals.
But Seaman disagrees. Towson played Stony Brook earlier this season, and Seaman expected Stony Brook's game with Virginia would be close. The Cavaliers, though, are back to normal.
"I think they have gotten through the worst part," Seaman said. "When the whistle blows, they are back out there playing their type of game again.
Virginia coach Dom Starsia agrees with Seaman.
"We are resilient, and I like our energy going into this game," Starsia said. "I have been really pleased with our preparation. I'm thankful that we beat them once this year because if we hadn't, that's all we would be talking about right now. But since we beat them once, we know what we're capable of."
A lot of lacrosse fans consider the Cornell (12-5) vs. Notre Dame (9-6) matchup to be the junior varsity game. It certainly has more of a blue-collar tone. The Fighting Irish are unseeded, but they play excellent defense with Mike Creighton, Kevin Ridgway and Kevin Randall and big body goalie Scott Rodgers.
"Notre Dame's defense is stingy," said Carcaterra. "This unit is for real. Defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne does an amazing job with this unit. Their first two playoff opponents, Princeton and Maryland, both averaged over 10 goals a game, and Notre Dame held them to five goals each."
Rodgers has been sensational with a save percentage of .586. But just as importantly, he is the vocal leader that gets his defense in position to play. At 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds, he fills a goal.
Before the Terps played Notre Dame, they practiced putting football shoulder pads on a goalie.
"With Notre Dame, everything starts on defense," Starsia said. "They need to keep the score down, and Rodgers needs to play well for them to have success. I hate big-body goalies. Cornell, though, does a lot of their shooting up close, and that nullifies a big goalie."
Cornell just outworks most teams, and the Big Red also has possibly the most complete attackman in lacrosse in Rob Pannell. He is just as dynamic a feeder as scorer, and opposing defenses have had problems devising game plans to shut him down.
Starsia gives a slight edge to Cornell.
"Notre Dame has played well, but it's like, wow, we're surprised to be here," said Starsia. "Cornell is playing with an edge, with such great confidence. There is great value in experience, and they were here last year. They won't be intimidated by the setting."
It really doesn't matter. If it goes as expected, the winner of Virginia-Duke wins the title, and if the Blue Devils' goalies play well, Duke takes home the trophy.
"It's interesting because in both games, you have two evenly matched tams," Seaman said. "If it was turned around any other way, I couldn't see Notre Dame or Cornell winning. I think the Virginia-Duke game will be the championship game."