Duke's Sam Payton dives and tries to check the ball from… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Scott Rodgers knows there are still doubters who think his unseeded Notre Dame men's lacrosse team will be outmatched by No. 5 seed Duke in the NCAA tournament final at M&T Bank Stadium on Monday.
John Danowski would beg to differ.
"We feel like we have an opportunity to do something that not many teams can do," said Rodgers, the physically imposing goalkeeper for the Fighting Irish. "A lot of people feel like we don't deserve to be here, so we might as well focus."
That's not the approach the Blue Devils are taking, especially in light of their 11-7 loss to Notre Dame on Feb. 20 in Durham, N.C. In fact, Danowski, Duke's coach, went as far as to declare the Fighting Irish the favorite.
"We are playing an opponent who has beaten us and beaten us soundly at home, an opponent that has two [Atlantic Coast Conference] wins under their belt, Maryland and Duke," Danowski said. "We are extremely aware of the challenge. By any stretch, we kind of look at it as we really are the major underdogs coming in. They've earned the right, they're playing great, and they've got a tremendous resume in our conference. I think they are the only team in the country to have any win over an ACC team. So we're going to have our work cut out for us."
Lou Holtz impressions aside, both schools have an opportunity to capture the first national title in each program's history — which hasn't happened in this sport since Princeton won the first of six in 1992.
In fact, since that Princeton victory, only the Tigers, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Virginia have taken the trophy home. While some might call that boring, Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan called it inspiring.
"You have the same thing in every sport," he said. "Kind of the same question is: Are the Yankees good for baseball? You can argue both sides of that, but obviously there's somebody to shoot at. And in our sport, there have been four or five programs that you look at and go, 'If you're going to get to the final four, you're going to have to go through one of those guys.' That's just the way it's going to be. I think that's less true now — more than it's ever been. I think you're going to see that 15 years from now, it's going to be even less so. But I guess that remains to be seen."
Both Duke and Notre Dame underwent makeovers during the course of the season.
The Blue Devils (15-4) were ranked No. 1 in many preseason polls but dropped three of their first five games. Senior faceoff specialist Sam Payton said the team might have been guilty of buying into the preseason hype.
"I don't think we had the experience of having a loss and having to work hard to where we are now," said Payton, who has won 132 of 229 faceoffs (.576). "I think our mind-set is just different knowing that we've worked very, very hard to get here whereas in that point in the season, we hadn't accomplished much."
The Fighting Irish (10-6) opened the season with three consecutive wins but fell into a 2-5 lull that included setbacks against Drexel, Fairfield and Rutgers.
There were several observers who thought Notre Dame's 7-6 regular-season record would keep the team out of the NCAA tournament, but the Fighting Irish grabbed one of the last at-large bids because of earlier victories over the Blue Devils and Loyola.
"I guess we don't really worry about other schools," junior defenseman Kevin Ridgway said. "We just worry about ourselves. As Coach [Corrigan] said, if we were in the tournament, we deserved it. If we weren't in the tournament, we deserved it. It's not really [about] trying to prove anything to anyone else. It's just kind of going with what we've got."
Monday's championship final pits two teams with opposing philosophies. Duke averages 13.8 goals per game — the second-best mark in Division I — and will take advantage of transition and unsettled situations to attack opponents.
"They're going to be a challenge," Ridgway said. "They're a veteran team, they've got great players, very dynamic. We're just going to have to try and stick to what we do in the tournament, and hopefully, it'll work out for us."
Notre Dame boasts the second-toughest defense in the country, surrendering just 7.6 goals per game. The unit has allowed just 17 goals in three tournament games.
"The one thing you can't do is force the issue," Blue Devils junior attackman Zach Howell said. "When you start forcing the issue, then you take low-percentage shots, and when you take low-percentage shots against a physically defensive goalie, then things will usually shoot out the other end. Fast-break opportunities for the other teams are just extended possessions that our defense has to handle. So I think that presents a challenge certainly. We have to bear down and execute our game plan and not rush things."