Intense matchups slated for weekend
Also: Alabama hosts No. 1 OU; Arizona opens league play
Just as college sports fans are preparing for March Madness, another type of madness will ensue on Saturday -- Mile High Madness -- when four of the nation’s top men’s lacrosse teams descend upon Sports Authority Field at Mile High for the Whitman’s Sampler Mile High Classic in Denver, Colo.
The second annual event features defending NCAA champion Loyola (Md.) and Air Force in the first game of the doubleheader at 4 p.m., followed by a top-five battle between two of the top programs in the western part of the country -- No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 5 Denver -- at 6:30 p.m.
“You’ve got two top-five teams in Notre Dame and Denver, and if you would have said that five years ago people would have laughed,” Denver head coach Bill Tierney said. “It’s a huge game. Our rivalry is huge. The importance of this game couldn’t be highlighted anymore. It’s pretty amazing that it is coming together on March 16 like this when it was scheduled a year ago.”
The two teams have met every year beginning in 1998 when both were members of the Great Western Lacrosse League until 2009. In 2010, Denver moved to the ECAC and Notre Dame started playing lacrosse in the Big East, but the two squads continued the series as non-conference foes. Notre Dame leads the series 12-3 since Denver became a Division I member in 1998, but the last two games have been decided by one point, including the Irish’s 10-9 triple-overtime victory in South Bend last season. Denver’s last win against Notre Dame was a 9-8 triumph in 2008.
“When we look at our schedule and the big picture, we have some very important games,” Tierney said. “When you look at Notre Dame and all of the success they’ve had, and we’re trying to be one of those top teams also, it heightens the awareness of the rivalry, which has gotten pretty intense over the years.”
Denver (5-1) will be the fifth consecutive ranked opponent the Irish have faced this season, and the Pioneers are on a four-game winning streak since falling to Penn State 15-12 on Feb. 17. The Pioneers boast the seventh-best scoring offense in the nation with 13.33 goals per game, and rank second in shot percentage at a 40.2 clip. Sophomore midfielder Wes Berg is Denver’s leading scorer, and ranks sixth in the nation with 3.0 goals per game.
The Irish (3-1) are coming off a one-point loss to Hofstra on March 9, and escaped with overtime victories in their two previous contests against Penn State and North Carolina. Notre Dame enters the game with the 10th-ranked scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 7.75 goals per game, and is the second-best Division I squad in man-down defense (.875). Senior goalkeeper John Kemp is ninth nationally with a 7.42 goals against average.
Tierney, who is in his fourth season at Denver, is encouraged at the growth of the sport in the western half of the country after spending 22 years as the head coach for Princeton, where he won six NCAA championships. Last year’s Mile High Classic that featured Denver vs. Duke and Virginia vs. Penn drew 12,282 fans to Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
“I was at Princeton for a long time, and we always had a Colorado kid,” Tierney said. “The lacrosse here has been good. What I’ve been amazed at is the spirit of lacrosse [over the last few years]. There are overwhelming numbers. It’s not like you come out here now and you have to show a kid in 10th grade what end of the lacrosse stick to hold. They’ve been playing since they were five or six years old, just like they are back in Baltimore. The passion for the sport in our city and state is growing.”
The Notre Dame-Denver contest will be broadcast live on ESPN3.
• The women’s gymnastics regular season will conclude with a bang on Friday when two-time defending NCAA champion Alabama hosts No. 1 Oklahoma as both teams prepare to make a splash in the postseason. The meet will be held at Coleman Coliseum at 8:30 p.m.
The Crimson Tide is coming off a season-best 197.725 in a victory against LSU last week. Alabama’s mark was the highest road score in the nation this season and the second-highest score in the nation behind the Sooners’ 197.875 last week.
“We’ve been in these tight competitions all season,” Alabama co-head coach Sarah Patterson said. “I think our schedule is one of the most difficult in the country, but to have a team like OU coming in who is 19-0 and having their best season ever, makes a great competition for us leading into championship season.”
In the last three meets, the Tide has scored their highest three team marks of the season, tying Arkansas on Feb. 22, and defeating UCLA and LSU. Alabama continues to climb despite the absence of Marissa Gutierrez to injury. She is expected to return for Southeastern Conference championships next weekend.
“We’ve gotten better as a team because people have stepped in and our scores have still gone up,” Patterson said. “When we do get 100 percent health, we will be right on our game.”
Oklahoma is the first team to visit Tuscaloosa ranked No. 1 since Georgia in 2008. The Tide’s last victory against a No. 1 team at home came against Georgia in 2002. Friday’s meet is Alabama’s seventh against a ranked opponent. It is the third consecutive time Alabama and Oklahoma have met during the regular season while both teams were ranked in the top five. The Tide was 9-0 last year before visiting Norman and suffering their first loss of the season to the Sooners.
“It helps us that we’ve seen most of the best teams in the country,” Patterson said. “When you get into championship season, you’re not looking over your shoulder because you haven’t seen these teams or seen what they are capable of.”
• Some of the best Division I softball teams in the nation will converge upon Southern California when Cal State Fullerton hosts the 33rd annual Judi Garman Classic, named after the former Titan Hall of Fame softball coach, beginning Wednesday. The tournament field is highlighted by No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Arizona State, as well as No. 9 Texas, No. 14 Arizona, No. 15 Michigan and No. 18 Washington. The host Titans will take on both of the top-two teams in the nation, tangling with the Sun Devils on Thursday and the Sooners on Saturday.
• The defending NCAA champion Arizona baseball team will open Pac-12 play with a tough test as the Wildcats welcome No. 4 Oregon State to Hi Corbett Field beginning Friday. The Beavers are 16-1 and boast one of the top pitching staffs in the nation, entering the series with a 1.46 ERA. The No. 21 Wildcats (15-5) will counter with a very productive offense that is batting .328 and scoring in eight runs per game.
Southeastern Conference action will also get underway as two of the top teams in the league meet at Dudy Noble Field as No. 3 LSU (16-1) visits No. 10 Mississippi State (18-2) for a three-game series starting Friday. The Tigers are riding an 11-game winning streak entering the series, and are led by Mason Katz, who is batting .355 with 27 RBI on the season. The Bulldogs offer a balanced attack, hitting .324 as a team, while the pitching staff has compiled a 1.84 ERA.
• The Williams women’s basketball team will be making its’ first appearance in the NCAA Division III semifinals in the 39-year history of the program. The Ephs have set a school record for wins with 26 this season, and are led by senior Claire Baecher who was named the NESCAC Player of the Year after contributing 14.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, along with a school single-season record 87 blocks. However, there is a huge challenge waiting for the Ephs (26-5) in the semifinals against undefeated DePauw (32-0) in Holland, Mich., on Friday at 7:30 p.m. DePauw is making its’ third national semifinal appearance, and won the 2007 NCAA title. The Tigers have won their four NCAA tournament games by an average of 23.8 points.
• In the Division III Men’s Basketball Championship Round of 16, there will be a clash of wills as St. Thomas (Minn.) hosts Calvin on Saturday at 8 p.m. The Tommies lead the nation in field goal percentage at a 52.7 percent clip, but the Knights will counter with the second-best field goal percentage defense in Division III at 36.4. Calvin also ranks sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 57.3 points per game, but the Tommies top Division III with a 22.1 scoring margin. After finishing the season 13-13 last year, Calvin is riding a six-game winning streak and has won 20 of its last 21 games. The Tommies are 16-0 at home this season and have held their last 21 opponents under 70 points.
• Two first-timers will collide in the NCAA Division III Men’s Hockey Championship semifinals on Friday as Utica and UW-Eau Claire square off in Lake Placid, N.Y., at 7:30 p.m. The Pioneers earned their first NCAA tournament appearance as an at-large team after winning a share of the ECAC Men’s West regular season title, while the Blugolds claimed an at-large berth for their second NCAA championship appearance, and first trip since 1989. It will be the first meeting between the two programs. Norwich and Oswego State will meet in the first semifinal at 4 p.m., and have a combined four NCAA titles between them.
• The Gustavus Adolphus women’s hockey team is the only squad in the NCAA Division III semifinals to have not won a national title. The Gusties will face off against Elmira in Superior, Wis., on Friday at 8 p.m., following a Plattsburgh State-Middlebury tussle at 4:30 p.m. Elmira won the first two NCAA-sponsored championships in 2002 and 2003, while Middlebury followed with three in a row (2004-06). Plattsburgh took the next two in 2007 and 2008, but none of the trio has won since the Cardinals claimed back-to-back titles. The Gusties best finish was in 2010 when they lost in the finals to Amherst. Gustavus (27-0-2) and Plattsburgh (26-0-2) are the only remaining unbeatens in the field.
• The No. 1 Minnesota women’s hockey team opens the 2013 NCAA championship against a team it has face five times this season as No. 7 North Dakota visits Ridder Arena for a quarterfinal game in Minneapolis on Saturday at 5 p.m. The unbeaten Gophers (38-0-0) have defeated UND (26-11-1) all five times, including a 2-0 victory in the title game of the WCHA Final Face-Off last weekend. Will the sixth time be the charm?
“We were prepared for this about two months ago,” Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. “As a staff, we were preparing to play either North Dakota or Wisconsin in this first game, so it is no surprise to us. We know them, and they know us. This will be the sixth time we have met this year, and there is a whole lot on the line to get to the Frozen Four.”
North Dakota is one of three teams to hold a lead against Minnesota this season. The defending NCAA champions are looking for win number six against UND, and hoping to stretch their NCAA-record 46-game winning streak.
• The Manchester baseball team is off to an explosive start, and takes an 8-0 record and No. 21 ranking into a three-game series at Heidelberg on Saturday. The Spartans cracked the NCBWA/D3baseball.com Division III Top 25 this week on the merits of their unbeaten record. Manchester is batting .361 as a team, and has scored 10 or more runs in six of its eight games this season. Junior infielder Jordan Nieman is hitting .378 with 22 RBI in eight contests.
• In Division II baseball, two nationally opponents will open Lone Star Conference play as No. 17 Texas A&M-Kingville travels to No. 12 Angelo State for a three-game series beginning Friday. TAMUK is the lone squad in the league with an ERA under 3.00 (2.65), led by senior right-hander Zachery Pettiford, who owns a 2-1 record and sparkling 0.29 ERA in five starts.
• The top-two teams in men’s gymnastics will clash in State College on Saturday when No. 1 Penn State hosts No. 2 Michigan at 7 p.m., in a warm-up for Big Ten championships in two weeks. The Nittany Lions enter the meet ranked No. 1 in the country on four events -- in pommel horse, still rings, vault, and high bar -- while the squad is No. 2 on parallel bars behind the Wolverines. Michigan ranks in the top two on four events -- No. 1 on floor and parallel bars, while the team is No. 2 on still rings and vault in team rankings. U-M is also No. 5 on pommel horse and No. 8 on high bar.
Follow Amy Farnum on Twitter: @NCAA_Amy