Virginia vs Denver (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
There are only two things that can beat Denver: the humidity and the Pioneers themselves.
History shows that experience matters. Only Princeton in 1992 was able to capture gold in its first championship weekend appearance. The coach: Bill Tierney. After building a dynasty in New Jersey, he is back in the final four with Denver, and people are comparing the Pioneers to that Princeton team of 1992, when the Tigers came from nowhere to win the NCAA title. But the Tigers were more battle-tested than this Denver group, and it showed when Andy Moe popped the overtime faceoff forward and scored, knocking Syracuse off its throne and shifting the balance of power in Division I lacrosse. Tierney won five more titles before embarking westward after the 2009 season.
Tierney knows there is no E-ZPass to dynasty status. This Pioneer team has players from 17 states and two provinces in Canada. Nobody on the roster is from New York, except the head coach. The Pioneers have more offensive talent then Princeton did in 1992. But freshman goalie Jamie Faus isn't Scott Bacigalupo and Denver doesn't have a defender as talented as David Morrow. What they do have are slick Canadian goal scorers.
And while the thin air is a huge advantage in Denver, the humid Mid-Atlantic air will slow the Pioneers.
Virginia is making its fourth straight appearance in championship weekend. The Wahoos have endured a tumultuous season fraught with a key injury to top defender Matt Lovejoy, and the defection of the Bratton twins, Shamel and Rhamel.
Along the way, Dom Starsia has become the winningest coach in Division I history, and his squad has a renewed chemistry behind strong leadership from Bray Malphrus and John Haldy. Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet now do the heavy lifting, and the veteran coach mixes defenses, using man-to-man and zone. "This isn't your typical Virginia team," Starsia said. "We've come to terms with who we are and have played to our potential during the last three weeks."
Maryland vs. Duke (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2)
If Maryland fans make M&T Bank Stadium a sea of red, that might carry the Terps to their first title since 1975. I'm talking about 20,000 screaming, cheering fans supporting this team.
Last week, the Terrapins played at a snail's pace. Maryland was warned for stalling 11 times in its upset of Syracuse. Since the 1980s, no team has stalled its way to a title. It'll be easier for Duke to chase ballcarriers on Saturday than on Monday when the gas tanks are running on empty.
Duke coach John Danowski must weigh defensive risk with reward. "Do we chase and press on the perimeter, or play it straight up? That's the quandary," he said.
Duke has earned its fifth consecutive semifinal appearance. An early-season loss to Penn was the wakeup call. "We only scored three goals against Penn," Danowski said. "I was getting close to pushing the panic button."
He didn't. What he did do was make some lineup changes and hammered his team in practice on a daily basis. "I had forgotten how to coach a young team," he said.
What surprises me most is the rapid ascension of the Blue Devils' talented freshmen. Defenders Chris Hipps and Luke Duprey are still pups but refining their game each week. Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh (Boys' Latin) are the ideal righty-lefty combo with quickness and brains. Duke may be a year away, and will be even better in 2012, especially if Princeton's Jack McBride ends up in Durham for his fifth year.
I've covered enough of these games to understand that Xs and Os rarely make the difference.
More important is that a team stays true to its personality and focuses on the next minute, never glancing up at the finish line. Let's hope for riveting action and exciting games, as a celebration of the best lacrosse has to offer.
Quint Kessenich covers college sports for the ESPN networks and writes weekly during the spring for The Baltimore Sun and Insidelacrosse.