May 10, 2013

Knocking on the Door

Why the time has come for these eight perennial NCAA tournament bridesmaids

Portions of this article appear in the May issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your monthly subscription.


by Matt DaSilva | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Forty-two years ago, Cornell defeated Maryland 12-6 in the first-ever NCAA men's lacrosse championship game. Canadian-born Al Rimmer scored six goals in the final and ensured sweet redemption for the Big Red, who in 1970 went undefeated but finished fifth in the national championship race as voted by the USILA.

That's how national championships were decided before the NCAA adopted college lacrosse — by a panel of voters. Johns Hopkins, Navy and Virginia were crowned tri-champs in 1970. Could you imagine such subjectivity today?

Cornell went on to win two more NCAA titles in the 1970s, while Maryland took home the hardware in 1973 and 1975. They were dueling dynasties.

But after beating Navy in the 1975 NCAA final, Maryland has advanced to the championship game seven times (including the last two years) and made the final four an additional nine times with no titles to show for it. All told, the Terps are nine-time NCAA tournament runners up.

Cornell, which defeated Johns Hopkins in the 1977 NCAA final to seal its second consecutive undefeated championship season, has since played in four championship games (including the ill-fated Foxborough Flip final of 2009) and three additional semifinals without winning it all.

The pain will continue for someone Sunday, when Cornell visits sixth-seeded Maryland for a first-round NCAA tournament game with a final four feel.

And they're not the only ones knocking on the door. Will destiny answer?

MEN'S TEAMS

Maryland

Decibel level: 100
National champion: 1973, 1975
Runner-up: 1971, 1974, 1976, 1979, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2011, 2012
Semifinalist: 1972, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2003, 2005, 2006

Why now?

During their decades-long NCAA championship drought, the Terps have been derailed by dynasties — like Johns Hopkins (1970s and early '80s), Syracuse (late '80s) and Princeton ('90s) — and upstaged by upstarts like Loyola last year, UMass in 2006 and Towson in 1991.

But you can't deny their consistency. Maryland is the only major college lacrosse team to have never finished with a losing record.

Before his first season at the helm in 2011, Terps coach John Tillman acknowledged the clamoring for a title. Asked when someone last mentioned 1975, he joked, "I think at the coffee shop this morning. We hear that a lot, no doubt about it."

Will May 27, 2013, be the day the drought ends? Back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances, coupled with a blazing start to the 2013 season during which they averaged 15 goals per game, had provided cause for optimism in College Park.

But then Maryland stumbled down the stretch. Their scoring has come down to earth (11.85 goals per game). Their shooting percentage slumped to 33.9 percent. A season-ending 18-6 win over Colgate saved them from perhaps being on the road for the first round.

With versatile midfielders who thrive in fast-paced play, one of the most disruptive players in the country (Jesse Bernhardt), strength up the middle at goalie (Niko Amato) and two-deep excellence on faceoffs (Charlie Raffa and Curtis Holmes), the Terps' time has come.

Cornell

Decibel level: 90
National champion: 1971, 1976, 1977
Runner-up: 1978, 1987, 1988, 2009
Semifinalist: 1974, 1975, 1982, 2007, 2010

Why now?

The Red Mamba.

That's what they call Rob Pannell, a play on Kobe Bryant's "Black Mamba" moniker. It's appropriate. Pannell is the best playmaker in the country.

The last time Cornell played in the NCAA championship game, Pannell was the baby-faced freshman. The Big Red were Max Seibald's team. They were 4.5 seconds away from winning it all when Syracuse tied it on Kenny Nims' goal, courtesy of a desperation flip pass from Matt Abbott. Cody Jamieson won it for the Orange in overtime.

The agony of that loss still resides with Pannell.

"I have no use to watch that game. I lived it," he told Lacrosse Magazine last summer. "Watching it again would be too painful."

After breaking his foot in what was supposed to be his last ride in 2012, Pannell received a rare Ivy League eligibility waiver and got a second chance at a senior season. He has made the most of it, surpassing legends Eamon McEneaney and Mike French to become Cornell's all-time leading scorer.

But both McEneaney and French have something that has eluded Pannell individually and Cornell as a team since 1977—NCAA championships. We know it. He knows it.

Notre Dame

Decibel level: 50
Runner-up: 2010
Semifinalist: 2001, 2012

Why now?

When the Fighting Irish upset Johns Hopkins in the 2001 NCAA quarterfinals, they became the first non-East Coast team to make it to the final four. It took nine years to get back there, and Notre Dame proved it was more than a novelty act.

Led by the heroics of goalie Scott Rodgers, the unseeded Irish took down Princeton, Maryland and Cornell en route to the championship game in 2010. That journey ended abruptly when Duke's CJ Costabile took the opening faceoff and scored just five seconds into overtime to beat Notre Dame 6-5.

Last year, the Irish lost to eventual national champ Loyola in the semifinals.

With the emergence of freshman sensation Matt Kavanagh, Jim Marlatt's evolution into an elite midfielder, the reliability of senior goalie John Kemp and a defensive system that continues to succeed even with the new NCAA rules, all signs point to a return trip to the final four in 2013.

Stevenson

Decibel level: 40
Semifinalist: 2012, 2010, 2009

Why now?

Neither Salisbury nor Gettysburg, the South Region obstacles that have kept the Mustangs out of championship weekend, had the same swagger in 2013. The Sea Gulls backed into the playoffs after losing to St. Mary's in the CAC final and the Bullets are gone.

While Stevenson suffered one-goal setbacks against Tufts and Roanoke and survived a scare from Widener in the MAC-Commonwealth final, the Mustangs appeared to be in good form Wednesday, dismantling Christopher Newport 18-6 in an NCAA Division III tournament first-round game.

Stevenson meets Washington College on Saturday.

WOMEN'S TEAMS

North Carolina

Decibel level: 80
Runner-up: 2009
Semifinalist: 1997, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2011

Why now?

The Tar Heels made lacrosse history in 1997 when they made the NCAA final four, in just their second year of existence—a feat only recently replicated by Florida.

A 10-8 loss to Loyola in the national semifinals, however, started a trend of so-close finishes for North Carolina. Most recently, the Tar Heels have been bounced three times by Northwestern—including a 21-7 loss in the 2009 NCAA championship game—and twice by Syracuse.

But no team has given Northwestern, the seven-time NCAA champ, greater fits than North Carolina. An 11-8 win over the Wildcats on Feb. 22 keyed an 11-game winning streak that also included hard-fought victories over Penn, Virginia, Georgetown,  Cornell and Duke. The Tar Heels' three losses came against Maryland (twice) and Florida.

If defense wins championships, North Carolina overdue. The Tar Heels have had a top-10 defense the last three years and currently rank 12th nationally. Three former North Carolina players are now defenders on the U.S. World Cup team.

"Carolina does a great job of teaching defensive fundamentals," Team USA coach Ricky Fried said.

Tewaaraton Award finalist Kara Cannizzaro is the complete package for this year's North Carolina outfit. Will she be the new Miss May?

Duke

Decibel level: 75
Semifinalist: 1999, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011

Why now?

Whereas injuries and inconsistent goalie play have plagued the Blue Devils in recent years, they surfaced from the regular season relatively unscathed and found their goalie of the present and future in freshman Kelsea Duryea. The 2011 U.S. U19 team member replaced Kaitlin Gaiss in the second half of a 15-6 loss Feb. 23 to Maryland, making eight saves, and then solidified the starting role with big performances against Vanderbilt, Georgetown and Virginia.

Then came a skid in which Duke lost four of five and got bounced by Virginia in the ACC tournament's first-round. The Blue Devils got well in an 18-9 win over Boston University in their regular season finale last week.

Duke, whose dubious 0-6 record in NCAA semifinals includes coughing up a nine-goal lead against Virginia in 2007, has the balance on offense and talent on defense to break through its glass ceiling.

Syracuse

Decibel level: 45
Runner-up: 2012
Semifinalist: 2008, 2010

Why now?

As if Tewaaraton Award finalist Alyssa Murray did not make the Orange offense dangerous enough, freshman Kayla Treanor has added another scoring threat to coach Gary Gait's arsenal -- a much-needed one after 2012 IWLCA Attacker of the Year Michelle Tumolo went down with an ACL injury.

Treanor has been on fire since then, averaging nearly six points per game over the last six games. Just like that, the Murray-Treanor tandem looks every bit as formidable as the Murray-Tumolo tandem.

Syracuse is the hottest team in the country this side of Maryland and is fueled by the reminder of its first NCAA championship game appearance, an 8-6 loss to Northwestern in the 2012 final.

Cortland

Decibel level: 60
Runner-up: 1984 (USWLA)
Semifinalist: 1983 (USWLA), 2006, 2011, 2012

Why now?

The NCAA did not start sanctioning Division III women's lacrosse tournaments until 1985. In the two previous seasons, the Red Dragons were on the precipice of their first national championship.

After a lull in the 1990s, Cortland enjoyed a revival under Cynthia Wetmore, who guided the Red Dragons to eight straight NCAA tournament appearances. That streak has extended to 14 under Kathy Taylor, with losses to the eventual national champion in the last two NCAA semifinals.

Cortland has two of the best players in Division III in Maria Di Fato (52 goals, 34 caused turnovers) and Erica Geremia (56 goals, 63 assists).


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