Feb. 27, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

Dom Starsia calls it a potential crisis.

He’s been talking about it – the wildfire growth of high school lacrosse compared to the creeping flame of D-I lacrosse – for years, and, over time, others have joined the conversation. Some have echoed Starsia. Some have rallied against the idea, citing that D-I lacrosse is far from total parity, that the trickle-down-talent effect hasn’t quite trickled all the way down. But whatever the side of the argument

“At the D-I level, the top level, there may even be a crisis afoot,” he said in late January, citing the need for D-III to keep growing. “We don’t see growth at the D-I level, so where are these kids gonna play?”

As lacrosse expands, quickly becoming America’s fastest growing sport at the high school level, Division I is shackled, by a host of factors that include investment, Title IX (with women outnumbering men in most schools, adding a full roster of men’s lacrosse players would mean adding a proportionate amount of female athletes), to its current roster of 59 teams. Players who once would have started at schools like Virginia have to either resign themselves to being buried on the bench or, in most cases, going elsewhere.

“There’s a real pressure to increase the size of your roster,” Starsia said, “which I don’t know is necessarily healthy. There are many players out there and kids who are throwing themselves at you, it’s so hard to say no to a boy who looks like he can play.”

But for all the potential problems down the line, it’s important to grip the immediate reality that never before has D-I lacrosse burst so much with talent, ability and physics-twisting athleticism. And when Starsia’s second-ranked (or, depending on your poll, first-ranked) Virginia team meets with No. 1 Syracuse (or, again, depending on the poll, No. 2) on Friday night at the Carrier Dome, two of the nation’s top examples of the game of lacrosse meet.

“I don’t feel a squeeze to it [the growth],” Desko said. “Some of it’s self-imposed. So what you’re seeing is that it’s the fastest growing sport in America at the high school level, and there are a lot more athletes than there were even a few years ago. But I think you’re seeing more quality in programs as far as the kind of athletes they’re bringing in.”

And the kind of athletes being brought in doesn’t get much better than at these two schools. Every year, All-Americans leave – last year, Virginia lost Ben Rubeor and Syracuse lost Mike Leveille, the Tewaaraton Trophy recipient, both the hearts of both teams’ offenses. And every year, players step in.

This year, it’s no different.

Both of the teams are undefeated, with Syracuse at 2-0 and Virginia at 4-0. They’re both among the nation’s leaders in goals per game (19.5 for Syracuse, 13.25 for Virginia). They’re both led by two of the top coaches in the game, in Starsia (sixth among active coaches in winning percentage at .728 and third in wins, at 289) and Syracuse’s John Desko (second in winning percentage, at .750), two of four active coaches to win at least three NCAA titles. They’re both very, very good.

And they have a history, a 24-game lineage that’s locked at 12-12 – a history that’s only gotten better lately. Ever since the team began playing annually, according to a Syracuse release, both teams have scored 292 goals – meaning that over the last 21 games, each team has scored an average of 13.9 goals.

And the last time these met might have been the best battle yet.

Last May, in front of a national audience, the Orange and Cavaliers went at it in the national semifinals at Gillette Stadium. Featuring two of the best attackmen in the country in Virginia’s Ben Rubeor and Syracuse’s Mike Leveille, the 2008 Tewaaraton Trophy and Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award winner, Virginia was an artificial blade of grass away from sending Syracuse back home. In double-overtime, a point-blank shot by Rubeor clanged off the post and went wide. A possession later, Leveille scored from the slot to send Syracuse to a 12-11 win.

Two days later, the Orange won the national championship.

Both Rubeor and Leveille graduated, but both teams returned the bulk of their talent. The Orange brought back eight of their top 11 scorers and put eight players on the Inside Lacrosse preseason All-American list, tops of all schools in D-I. The Cavs brought back 30 letterwinners and seven starters from the youngest of the four national semifinal teams from a year ago.

But in terms of raw power, the Orange seem to have the edge. Virginia can score – the 20-10 win over Stony Brook, behind Garrett Billings’ school-record-tying eight goals, testifies to that. But 10-goal games against Mount St. Mary’s and D-I newcomer Bryant demand the question of whether the Cavaliers will be able to break through a Syracuse defense that’s allowed only 4.5 goals per game this year and 7.62 last year.

What Else To Watch

Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Md. | TV: ESPNU

No. 6 Johns Hopkins vs. No. 9 Princeton – Saturday, 12 p.m. ET
No. 10 Duke vs. No. 11 Maryland – Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

On any other weekend, the doubleheader in Charm City would have led this story. Rarely in any season does any one regular-season venue enjoy such a level of assembled talent, featuring four teams in the top 11 and four teams that have legitimate shots at winning a national championship this year.

The opener pits two unbeatens against each other, as Johns Hopkins – a team that Dave Hopkins coach Pietramala said, jokingly, is “flying under the radar” – takes on a Princeton team that took a tough 14-9 loss to the Blue Jays last year that was farther apart than the final score made it seem.

However, the nightcap might actually be the more intriguing matchup. Both teams were ranked in the top 5 last week, with Duke at No. 5 and Maryland at No. 3. But costly losses – Duke’s upset at the hands of unranked Harvard and Maryland’s loss to No. 11 Georgetown sent both teams reeling.

Now, the optimism of the early season bruised by the reality of a lacrosse world drenched in talent, both of these teams need a win to get back on the right track. And it won’t be easy for either team. For Duke, the Blue Devils have to stop a Maryland team that looks like it rolled out of a Mack Truck plant – the Terps’ starting defense is all at least 6-4, 230, with attackers that feature Will Yeatman (6-6, 260) and a midfield trio at 6-2, 200 on average.

For Maryland, the Terps have to stop a Duke offense that, if it’s less than it was last year with Matt Danowski and Zack Greer, is still among the best in the nation.

But this game is about rebounding. Both teams have enough talent to win a title this year. But, with the talent rising everywhere in D-I lacrosse, ability doesn’t mean anything without the willingness, in 40-degree weather and in front of a national audience, to scrap.