Blogs and Commentary

June 7, 2010

Lambrecht: Drama, Hardship and Newness Mark NCAAs

by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Lambrecht Archive

Did the 2010 season culminate with the greatest NCAA Division I tournament in the 40-year history of the event? It’s tough to make that case, but I’ll settle for calling it one of the more memorable in the past 20 years, and certainly the most interesting tournament since the event expanded to 16 teams in 2003.

If you were bored silly by Duke’s 6-5, overtime victory over Notre Dame in Monday’s championship game because it marked the lowest-scoring final in tournament history, you failed to appreciate the final twist that made this postseason special. For starters, not since 1973 had the tournament witnessed two schools playing for the first title in their respective histories.

And if you thought high-powered, fifth-seeded Duke was going to engage in a track meet and shootout with unseeded Notre Dame, you were either not paying attention or just living in the land of false hope. Notre Dame, feeding off a rock-solid defense and a wall in the cage known as senior goalie Scott Rodgers, had one chance to win -- by draining the clock and testing Duke’s patience with extended offensive possessions and by relying heavily on its incredible, man-to-man alignment.

The Irish offered the perfect, 180-degree counterpart to the run-and-gun Blue Devils, who survived their predictable track meet with top seed Virginia in a 14-13, semifinal victory that featured more goals than Notre Dame allowed in its four tournament games (23) combined. If the poor-shooting Irish had  managed to put considerably more than 10 of their 31 shots on cage against Duke, we’re likely talking about the first unseeded team ever to win the Division I event.

Beyond that ever-intriguing title matchup, this tournament had everything going for it in terms of storylines, starting with the tragedy that stunned and eventually wore down Virginia.

The Cavaliers may have been the most balanced, talented team in the field, but once teammate George Huguely was charged with first-degree murder in the death of women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love on May 3, Virginia was dealing with far more than a bunch of opponents on the field -- grief, media scrutiny of the program and the season-long hardship carried by coach Dom Starsia, who lost his father to a battle with cancer on May 7.

“We weren’t quite as sharp the last two weeks [including a 10-9, quarterfinals win against Stony Brook] as I’d hoped we’d be. I think the teams we played had something to do with that,” Starsia said. “But it would be impossible to imagine that [off-the-field issues] didn’t extract some level of energy or emotional reserve, didn’t take some kind of toll.”
Said one coach who preferred to remain anonymous: “I am shocked that [Virginia] functioned as well as they did.”

The Cavaliers went down valiantly, after answering a 7-0 Duke run by erasing a four-goal deficit and drawing even at 13-13 with 1:21 left, only to fall on a Max Quinzani goal with 12 seconds left in their season.

That headline stood out among some other wild moments. How about unseeded Army’s first-round knockout of second-seeded and two-time defending champion Syracuse, which lost only its second playoff game ever at the Carrier Dome? And Notre Dame’s back-to-back upsets of sixth-seeded Princeton and third-seeded Maryland -- that cost coach Dave Cottle his job after nine seasons in College Park -- propelling the Irish into their second final four.

Then there was seventh-seeded Cornell, decimated by graduation after last year’s heart-breaking loss to Syracuse in the title game, rallying to make its third final four in four seasons.

The surprising field at M&T Bank Stadium last weekend might have knocked off attendance by 10 to 15 percent, maybe more. But to the serious lacrosse fan, it marked a refreshing blast of air.

Since 1992, every title had been won by Syracuse, Princeton, Johns Hopkins or Virginia. Three of those schools were gone after the tournament’s first round. And for the first time in tournament history, three of the field’s top four seeds did not make it to the semifinals.

That left, Duke, the land’s best program with no trophy since 2005, to fill the void. And after firing their way into the final by averaging 16.3 goals in their previous three postseason wins, it was fitting that the Blue Devils wrapped up the most interesting tournament in years truly by grinding their way to a title.

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