FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For the men’s college lacrosse world, it’s a gathering of almost festival-like proportions. Not necessarily for the combatants, however.
“For us, we don’t see that aspect of it because we’re so ingrained in game preparation and the event and experience,” Duke coach John Danowski said. “So we don’t really see the outside. We hear it’s terrific.”
It should be in all regards, because not only does the 2012 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championships feature what are expected to be five outstanding matchups, the weather should be ideal, the competition is in Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, and there’s the LaXperience fan fest and a youth clinic.
“We hear it’s very family oriented and people come from all over,” Danowski said.
“People might not be as interested in the individual teams as much as enjoying the games.”
Those games start Saturday with the Division I semifinals, pitting top-seeded Loyola (Md.) (16-1) against fourth-seeded Notre Dame (13-2), followed by unseeded Maryland (11-5) facing third-seeded Duke (15-4).
“It’s the grand stage,” Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. “It’s a great experience for the kids. Having had the opportunity to play in one of these back in 1990 (as a goalie for Loyola) on a college campus, now that it’s in a professional venue it’s definitely a weekend event. You pull your car up on a Friday as a spectator and you’re guaranteed three days of just terrific lacrosse. And the thing that’s impressive to me is the amount of youth getting exposed to the sport.”
Among the four Division I teams, each of their respective stories are intriguing. Loyola wasn’t even ranked to start the season. Notre Dame rebounded from a Big East-semifinals defeat. Maryland, which lost in last year’s title match to Virginia, is not even seeded. And Duke, after losing to Maryland 10-7 on March 3, was 3-3 and playing for its life.
Sunday features two championship matches. The Division II final pits Limestone (17-1) against Dowling (12-2), followed by the Division III battle between unbeatens Cortland (21-0) and Salisbury (22-0). The DII and DIII games will be streamed live at NCAA.com.
In their regular-season ACC rematch, Duke beat Maryland 6-5.
“They’re tough. They play great defense and they love beating Duke and (in that first game) we hadn’t figured it out yet offensively,” Duke senior Robert Rotanz said. “We came out a little shaky and guys were a little nervous and they took advantage of us and beat us pretty good.
“We played them again and beat them. It was a very competitive game and I think we’ve gotten better since then. But they’ve gotten better and are playing great. It’s just going to be a battle. Two ACC teams that love to beat each other.”
“The first match was tough. It was so early in the year, they were getting settled, we were getting settled, “ Maryland coach John Tillman. “It’s funny, because we came out of the gates maybe a little stronger than we thought. We always expect to win but we came out a little stronger than we thought and they came out a little slower. Yet they’ve gotten hotter. After that they just caught fire and for us, we’ve been kind of finding our way. “
Maryland lost its next game after beating Duke and has gone 8-5. Duke, rather, responded with 10 consecutive victories.
“We’re kind of where everybody thought we’d be in the beginning,” Tillman said.
“We’re the unseeded team finding our way, they’re more the known with a lot of the parts back, a lot of the experienced players are back.
We’re the underdog. They’re such a good team and have a lot of All-Americans and we are what we are, but we’re excited to be here and why not us?”
Duke is in the semifinals for the sixth consecutive time and won it all in 2010, so it’s not likely Maryland or anyone else is taking the Blue Devils lightly, despite what Danowski might say.
“We’ve lost to all three programs and that’s the beauty of where we’re sitting right now,” Danowski said. “We’re certainly the underdog by far going into this and it’s great to measure how far we’ve come.”
This will be the first meeting between Loyola and Notre Dame in more than two years. Loyola took a bus to New Haven, Conn., and practiced at Yale before heading here. It’s been a long trip in more ways than one, considering the Greyhounds were not even ranked in the preseason, something that wasn’t lost on the Loyola program.
How did they Loyola, which failed to make the NCAA Tournament last year, make such a climb?
“You play good lacrosse week in and week out,” Toomey said. “Really that’s it. A lot of people have asked if we took it as a slight. We ran 22 sprints at one point in the beginning of the year and we said the name of every team that was ranked ahead of us when we did the sprints. But then it just came down to understanding matchups and understanding that we might have something special and taking the attitude to have a great week of practice and just worry about the next opponent.”
It obviously worked because Loyola won its next 12 games before its only loss, 10-9 in overtime to Johns Hopkins.
Toomey admitted the he and his coaches figured the Greyhounds were at least a top-15 team to start the year.
“That’s where this program is used to being and obviously we’re having a magical year,” he said. “Injury free, a lot of cohesion as a unit and that’s what it takes.”
Notre Dame had travel delays Thursday but was still able to arrive at Gillette Stadium in time for the dinner honoring the teams. The Fighting Irish are making their second appearance in the semifinals in three years. In 2010 they lost to Duke in the national-championship game 6-5 in overtime.Notre Dame ranks first nationally in defense, allowing just 6.27 goals per game.
“They’re awesome,” Loyola defender Joe Fletcher said. “Watching them on film, the way they slide and move and cover is amazing. They’re a very good team.”