May 8, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

The celebration lasted a little over a bus ride and an afternoon.

Riding back from Towson, situated just north of Baltimore, to campus just outside of Philadelphia last Saturday, the Villanova bus hummed with laughter and screams and the collective joy of a program reversed.

A year prior, the Wildcats had gone 5-10 in a CAA that trudged over them. Minutes prior, they’d just claimed the first CAA title in program history after a run that saw them drop No. 9 Hofstra in the first round and then Towson just three days later to become the first No. 4 seed to win the conference title and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Around 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 8, the Wildcats found out they’d be playing Virginia – the Virginia team that defended its No. 1 spot like Bunker Hill for most of the season, a Virginia team that scored eight goals in the fourth quarter against Dartmouth to erase a 6-5 deficit – in the first round of the Tournament.

“It’s been a blur,” said Villanova head coach Michael Corrado, now in his third year as head coach and 14th overall as a coach at ‘Nova. “It happened so fast. … You step back and you’re like ‘that’s pretty awesome.’ Probably once this whole thing ends I’ll be able to enjoy it more. But we had a great time on the bus, and then Sunday you find out you’re playing Virginia and you’re like ‘uh oh – time to start preparing’.”

So it is that the most successful team in the history of Villanova men’s lacrosse now meets one of the most successful programs in the history of collegiate lacrosse on Sunday (5 p.m., ESPNU). A game that at first seems lopsided – the top-seeded team in the tournament against a team, in Villanova, that wouldn’t have had a chance at the Tournament if not for some early-May magic – it may turn out to be one of the best matchups of a first round jammed with them.

Virginia’s top spot was riddled with adversity, even before the Cavs lost twice to Duke in the final three weeks of the regular season. In the three wins prior to the first Duke loss on April 11, the Cavs won each game by one, including a seven-overtime win over Maryland that looked to have ended with a Maryland win in the first OT, but was called back due to an inadvertent whistle. In the one win between the two Duke losses (with the second coming in the first round of the ACC Tournament), the Cavaliers fell behind Dartmouth, 6-5, going into the fourth quarter.

Then the No. 1 team in the country showed up again. Eight goals later, the Cavs had won, 13-6. But the point is, one of the teams most capable of dismantling a defense all year long has also been outscored, 66-71 in its six games, the final loss coming as a 16-5 drubbing by the Blue Devils.

But the Cavs are still the third-best offense in the country, scoring 12.73 goals per game, taking on the nation’s fourth-best defense, with Villanova giving up just 7.00 goals per game. Of course, Virginia’s 12.73 comes against the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse – seven of the Cavs’ opponents this year have been ranked, and six of them are still alive in the Tournament.

Villanova’s 7.00, on the other hand, came against a schedule speckled with only two ranked opponents – Notre Dame and Hofstra (whom the Wildcats played twice, splitting the series), both of whom find themselves playing this weekend, too. But, take note: against Notre Dame, a team that’s scoring almost 12 goals a game, the Wildcats held the Irish to just nine, in a 9-7 loss.

So the process against Virginia will be the same one used all season long, the same one that made the Wildcats the top defense in the CAA and held every team but one (Robert Morris, in Villanova’s 16-11 win on April 18) to 10 goals or fewer – just, better.

“We’re gonna have to go out and play well, limit turnovers, limit them in transition with the ball,” Corrado said. “Once they get running, off a save or intercepted pass or ground ball, they’re gone. We’ve got to try to reduce the amount of times those things happen. …Hopefully we can slow it down.”

Of course, they’ll be trying to slow things down against a Virginia team highlighted by a Tewaaraton Trophy finalist who’s posted 51 points on the season, in Danny Glading (24 goals, 27 assists) and his attack counterpart Garrett Billings, who’s picked up 49 points on 32 goals and 17 assists, not to mention waves of midfielders that excel in transition. The fact that the Cavs lead the nation in assists per game attests to the style of play that brings everybody into striking range.

But the Wildcats do have the personnel to compete – Brian Karalunas, the Wildcats’ longstickman, was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year. Goalie Andrew DiLoreto was named the Most Outstanding Player of the CAA Tournament and is third in the country in goals-against average and 17th in save percentage.

Most importantly, this is a Villanova team packed with 13 seniors. Seniors who came in under longtime ‘Nova coach Randy Marks, then compiled a 17-27 record in three seasons. Seniors who now aren’t willing to give up the feeling of that bus ride back from Towson.

“I couldn’t be happier [for these guys],” Corrado said. “Last year, we were 5-10, and I challenged them as a group and said ‘You’re better than that.’ They took it to heart.”

Weekend Breakdown

For quick podcast breakdowns of each first-round matchup, check out our interactive bracket. For quick written breakdowns of each first-round matchup, check out the text about 2 centimeters below.

Brown vs. Johns Hopkins – Saturday, 12 p.m. on ESPNU/ESPN2
It’s an unusual spot for Hopkins, the owners of a record 38-year streak of appearances in the Tournament, to be seeded so low. Early in the season, coach Dave Pietramala predicted that the team would have to search to find an identity, and it seemed to struggle for a bulk of the season, losing three straight in the middle of the year – although those losses came to Syracuse, Virginia and North Carolina (the latter in OT). But the Blue Jays are hot now, having win six in a row, much like they surged into the Tournament last year after a rough patch. The Jays are scoring 11.77 goals per game, eighth in the country, thanks to a spread-out style. Defensively, however, they’re not even ranked in the top-30 in goals allowed, a big deviation for the usual defensive behemoths.

Brown, who came just a win away (although that win had to come against Princeton, once the No. 1 team in the country) from taking the Ivy League title, had a spectacular year, picking up 12 wins, just one shy of a program record. The Bears dropped Cornell to get a chance at the Ivy title and picked up wins over UMass and Denver. Offensively, they’re 13th in the country at 10.67 goals per game, while defensively, the Bears are giving up just 8.00 goals a game.

EMO – Hopkins is third in the country with a man-up, but Brown’s killing 75 percent of man-down situations.

Goalies – Brown’s Jordan Burke is a finalist for the Tewaaraton Trophy, leading the Ivy League in saves per game (12.57), and can steal a game anytime he plays. Hopkins’ goalie Mike Gvozden can be incredible, as he was in the Tournament last year, but is prone to streaks.

Players to Watch:
Hopkins – Kyle Wharton, 40 points on the season along with Chris Boland and Michael Kimmel, who both have 39

Brown – Andrew Feinberg has 56 points with 40 goals; Senior Reade Seligmann drives the offense

UMBC (12-3) @ North Carolina (11-5) – Saturday, 2:30 p.m. on ESPNU
A week removed from a stinging loss to Duke in the ACC Championship, North Carolina comes into the Tournament after one of the best regular seasons in its history. It posts 12.44 goals a game, fourth in the country, and has given up 8.63 goals a game. The loss to Duke in a grinding ACC finale shouldn’t detract from the season that the boys in Chapel Hill had.

UMBC hit a bump late in the season, with a loss to America East bottom-dweller Hartford and then an almost-loss (but eventual double-overtime win) over Binghamton in the semifinals of the conference tournament. But the Retrievers came back after the grind against Binghamton to hammer Stony Brook in the conference finals. The sixth-ranked offense in the country at 12.00 goals a game, UMBC is only allowing 7.73 goals per game, although those stats came against America East opponents, versus UNC’s run of ACC rivals. But this is a team that isn’t accustomed to losing, and a team returning to the Tournament after being knocked out by Virginia, 10-9, last year.

Level of competition – UNC is used to playing against a stacked ACC, a conference that sent all four of its conference tournament teams to the NCAA Tournament. Only one team, the winners, went to the Tournament from the AE conference playoffs.

Face-Offs – North Carolina’s Shane Walterhoefer has been a maniac on face-offs this year, and the Tar Heels have won 62.3 percent of their draws.

Special Teams – UMBC is tops in the country in man-up offense, at 51.9 percent. If the Retrievers are going to win this one, they’ll have to draw penalties from the UNC defense.

Players to Watch:
North Carolina – Billy Bitter has 60 points on the season, with 38 goals and 22 assists; Bart Wagner has 33 assists and Sean Delaney has 32.

UMBC – Alex Hopmann leads the way with 33 goals, while Peet Poillon leads the team with 44 points. Defensively, the Retrievers look to first-team America East defender Kevin Goedecke and goalie Jeremy Blevins (7.53 goals per game)

Hofstra (11-3) @ Cornell (10-3) – Saturday, 5 p.m. on ESPNU

Cornell won the Ivy League title by virtue of a tie-breaking win over Princeton, which came when the Tigers were the No. 1 team in the country, but fell to Brown in the second-last week of the season, setting up a precarious position for the Big Red. But after Princeton downed Brown, the Bears got the auto bid. Making its sixth straight appearance in the tournament under coach Jeff Tambroni, Cornell is 5-0 this year at home and is the No. 2 scoring offense in the country, the No. 5 team in face-off percentage and No. 10 in ground balls.

Hofstra has had a banner year, posting an 11-3 record including victories over Tourney-bound teams like Princeton, Massachusetts, Villanova and Brown to make it to the program’s second-straight NCAA Tournament. The Pride fell to Villanova in the first round of the CAA Tournament, but were No. 9 at that time and had beaten the Wildcats, 10-3, only four days prior. This is a good, balanced team that can scrap as hard as Cornell – and will need to.

Man-Up: Hofstra is No. 13 in the country on the EMO. The Pride will need to get Cornell to take penalties, but anytime you’re playing a team that works as hard as the Big Red, it’s a tough task to find them out of position.

Players to Watch:
Cornell – Max Siebald is a Tewaaraton Trophy finalist at midfield – he has 32 points on the year and can do pretty much everything on the field. Otherwise, Rob Panell (51 points on 18g and 33a) and Ryan Hurley (44 points on 36g and 8a) drive the offense while John Glynn is a monster at ground balls.

Hofstra – Jay Card has 33 goals and Michael Colleluori has 21 assists to lead an offense that might not have the firepower of Cornell, but it does move the ball around very well. In goal, Andrew Gvozen, brother of Hopkins’ goalie Michael, has gotten better every game. His save percentage is .555, and if he can perform in the Tournament like his brother has, it could be a great run for Hofstra.

Navy (11-4) @ Duke (13-3) – Saturday, 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU

In a matchup that looks to be one of the most exciting in the first weekend of the Tournament, one of the nation’s hottest teams (Duke) takes on one of the nation’s most miserly defenses, in Navy – a team that’s also pretty hot at this point, after claiming the Patriot League title with a triple-overtime win over Colgate in the semis and then a win over host Bucknell in the championship game. It’d be simple to say it’s a great offense (Duke is No. 7 in the country at 11.88 goals per game) against a great defense (Navy’s No. 5 at 7.27 allowed), but the Blue Devils can also smother on defense, and both of these teams are on fire, coming off conference tourney runs.

Duke has only gotten better as the year’s progressed, going from an early-season loss to then-unranked Harvard and then Maryland the next week in the Face-Off Classic to seven straight wins to close the regular season, including two over No. 1 Virginia (the only two losses the Cavs have taken this year) and an ACC title in the mix.

Man-Up: Duke’s fifth in the country on the EMO – against an offense that’s lethal at even strength, the Middies need to stay out of the box.

Navy defense: We’ve made the same bad joke all year long about our military academies being good at defense, but Navy is very, very good. A solid scheme and hard workers, the Mids have held Maryland to four goals, North Carolina to nine, Ohio State to six and allowed more than 10 goals only once this year.

Players to Watch:

Duke – Ned Crotty, the Tewaaraton Trophy finalist leads the nation in points. Playing mostly from behind the net on the attack, his vision is virtually unparalleled. Max Quinzani is the big goal-scorer, while CJ Constabile was outstanding in the ACC Tournament, beating UNC’s Shane Walterhoefer at the X in the championship

Navy – Brendan Connors and Tim Paul both have 31 points to lead a team with five players with 20 points or more. Otherwise, watch the whole defense. With Duke able to score from anywhere, the entire Navy unit needs to mark up, constantly.