By Kevin Scheitrum

It's the middle of February, snow's sitting on Dixieland, and the world of D-I lacrosse is wide open.

Or, we'd like to think so. As lacrosse has flooded across the country, rushing in from the coasts and seeping into formerly untouchable markets, the amount of quality players making their way to Division I programs has never been greater or more compressed. Down the line, this surge will inevitably create a leveling affect, effectively toppling dynasties and bringing up programs that long languished in the shadows of giants.

But not yet.

Certainly, so much can happen between now and Memorial Day. But only so much. Every season sees a few teams make unexpected, even unprecedented, runs. But the talent located in the nation's top clubs - Duke beat the U.S. National Team - means that, even in the case of injury, there's an overwhelmingly good chance that we'll see more than one or two of these teams in the final weekend. And as the season's set to explode this weekend, we take a look at the country's elite teams.

Coach: John Danowski, Fourth season at Duke (51-9, 270-148 overall)
2009 Record: 15-4-0 (2-1-0 ACC), Lost to Syracuse in national semifinals
Big Losses: A Brad Ross; D Ryan McFadyen; G Rob Schroeder

Key Returns/Additions: Tewaaraton Finalist Ned Crotty (23g, 55a) returns at midfield, off a season in which he finished third in the country in points per game (4.11) and tops in assists (55). And, when the 2010 season's over, Crotty has a spot on the U.S. National Team for July's FIL World Championships. So, he's got a lot ahead in '10.

Max Quinzani | Photo Courtesy of Duke

Attacker Max Quinzani's also back, fresh off a season in which he scored 46 goals, good enough for 13th in the country. On defense, junior Mike Manley and senior Parker McKee both come into the season as Preseason First Team All-Americans.
Offensive Outlook: The tandem of Crotty and Quinzani may finish the year as one of the greatest pairings in the country, possibly men's lacrosse history. They won't make anybody forget the combo of Matt Danowski and Zack Greer from 2008, but when the embers cool, they could stand right alongside that record-setting duo. Crotty distributes, Quinzani finishes.
Defensive Breakdown: The departure of Schroeder leaves a hole in net, but John Danowski's four-man competition, led early on by junior Sean Brady but also including talented freshman Dan Wigrizer, should present some quality options. But with this defense, led by McKee and Manley, playing in front of him, whichever goalie wins the spot will have some time to adjust to the role. Otherwise, Tom Montelli's made big strides in the offseason, and should find himself in the mix on D.
Other Players to Watch: Sr. F/O Specialist Sam Payton, Soph. LS MF C.J. Constabile.
Numbers Game: 0 - The number of national titles in Duke men's lacrosse history, despite an active streak of three straight trips to the final weekend.
Circle Your Calendar: Mar. 6, Face-Off Classic vs. Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium - Last year, the Terps downed the Blue Devils, 11-8, in front of a national audience. Expect the Blue Devils to seek revenge in front of what promises to be an even bigger crowd.
Before The Face-Off: The Blue Devils enter the year sitting atop one poll, and with good reason: 17 seniors or first-year grad students dot the roster. And for a team that's still in search of an elusive first national championship after habitually falling just shy, the moment to strike or fall back looks like it's here. Duke's a constellation of stars - the Devils landed eight players on Preseason All-America teams, the most of any team - but stars that take their cues from Crotty, as good an example of a do-everything player as the country has right now. There's a reason why ESPNU's virtually following around the Dukies this year, and it's the same reason you should, too - if your eyes can keep up. There may be a few murmurs of concern about Duke starting too slowly - the Devils trailed Bucknell, 3-0, before they got going, after falling behind the US National Team, 5-0 - but clearly, any team that can shred a deficit like Duke should be considered very, very dangerous.

Coach: Dave Pietramala, 10th season at JHU (106-30)
2009 Record: 10-6 (lost to Virginia in national quarterfinals)
Big Losses: D Michael Evans, MF Austin Walker, MF Brian Christopher; MF Mark Goodrich suffered season-ending injury in preseason
Key Returns/Additions: Sr. Attacker Kyle Wharton, who rang up 34 goals and 11 assists from the left side of the attack last year en route to an Honorable Mention All-American nod; Sr. Attacker Steven Boyle, now in his fourth year as a starter, put up 21 goals and 17 assists and is as balanced of an attacker as they come.

Michael Kimmel | Photo Courtesy of Johns Hopkins

Sr. MF Michael Kimmel, whose 25 assists and 45 points led the team last year, runs the middle as well as any midfielder in D-I. Sr. Defender Matt Drenan, now in his fourth year. In addition, Hopkins brought in the nation's top recruiting class.
Offensive Outlook: With three attackers back, the front line looks complete. Hopkins could score in bushels last year, but struggled with consistency - it'll be interesting to see how the trio near the net plays off each other's skills. As for the midfield beyond Kimmel, Goodrich's injury looks to have opened the door for a possible two-freshman starting first line, with John Greeley and Zach Palmer impressing in the fall season.
Defensive Breakdown: Hopkins fell far from its reputation as a defensive monster last year, and it'll fall on Drenan and Sr. co-captain Sam DeVore's shoulders this year to return the Blue Jays to the level that Pietramala - and the rest of the country - expects. Add bruising freshman Tucker Durkin and the core is there. Not that the core wasn't there last year, but with an offseason to figure out what went wrong, this unit should bounce back. Sr. Michael Gvozden backs the team in net, as one of the nation's most intriguing goalies. As brilliant as any when he's on and prone to easy goals when he's not, the senior will be looking to cement his legacy as a Blue Jay great (he's ninth in saves in Hopkins history) with one final big year.
Players to Watch: GK Steven Burke - If the streaky Gvozden starts to falter in net, look for Burke to take up goalkeeping responsibilities; A Tom Duerr - The co-captain is coming off a year cut short by injury. Look for him to make a mark.
Numbers Game: 52.8 - Hopkins' face-off percentage last year. The team's worked on its X game in the offseason, looking to hit the 58-60 percent range, as a way of keeping the ball in the hands of its uber-experienced midfield and attack.
Circle Your Calendar: April 17, vs. Maryland @ M&T Bank Stadium - Bitter rivals at the site of the national championship game, starting a stretch of four games to close the regular season in which Hopkins plays Chesapeake Bay opponents, starting with the Terps, then finishing with Navy, Towson and Loyola (Md.).
Before The Face-Off: Pietramala was hesitant in the early part of last year to call 2009 a rebuilding year but, unfortunately for Hopkins, that's what it was. The defense didn't work, the offense sputtered too frequently. But with an attack that returns three starters, Kimmel running the show at midfield and a swarm of top recruits, consider this team rebuilt. Memorial Day Weekend doesn't seem quite complete without JHops, and with the finals taking place just across town this year, a team that works in the same city as Under Armour has to -- wait for it...protect its house.

Coach: Dave Cottle, Ninth season at Maryland (87-48, 268-111 overall)
2009 Record: 10-7-0 (2-1-0 ACC), Lost to Syracuse in national quarterfinals
Big Losses: MF Dan Groot; MF Jeremy Sieverts; A/MF Jeff Reynolds; D Mike Griswold.
Key Returns/Additions: Junior attackman Grant Catalino, off a season in which he led the team in goals (25) and assists (22), along with classmate and fellow attacker Ryan Young, who finished the year with 19 goals and 21 assists.

Grant Catalino | Photo Courtesy of Maryland

Junior Max Schmidt, the team's reigning Defensive Player of the Year and USILA Third-Team All-American, pairs with namesake Brett Schmidt, the team's strongest pound-for-pound player, to anchor the defense. Team captain and longstick middie Brian Farrell, back from a medical redshirt after missing most of last year with broken ribs, to provide a linchpin.
Offensive Outlook: Five attackers with experience return to the swarm this year, led by Catalino and Young, while Will Yeatman, after a year in which he was able to concentrate purely on lacrosse for the first time in his life (after playing football at Notre Dame and transferring just before last lax season) and spend time at the US National Team tryouts, could surprise a lot of people. As usual, the Terps combine raw mass (Yeatman's 6-6, 260; Catalino's 6-5, 240) and speed to do the job. But after Yeatman, a locomotive running on pure potential last year, worked on his skills in the offseason, we might see the nation's most potent trio dissecting defenses in College Park this year. Then throw in guys like Joe Cummings and Travis Reed, and depth looks like it only presents a problem for opponents. For the Terps, it's just a matter of who's going to be running the show in the midfield, where Maryland has their least amount of experience, although sophomore Jake Bernhardt has impressed and Farrell, now healthy, should shine at LSM. It's the third spot that's up for grabs. Offensive middie might pose a problem, after SSM dynamo Jeremy Sieverts finished up his eligibility.
Defensive Breakdown: The biggest question mark comes in the mending fibers of senior goalie and captain Brian Phipps' knee, which ripped its ACL in Maryland's quarterfinal loss last year. But the talk around College Park has the 2010 Preseason All-American honorable mention in net when the Terps head to Bellarmine on Feb. 20, if all goes well. "It's a good thing he only has to move left and right and not run forward," said Maryland SID Patrick Fischer. The Schmidts look solid on the back line, and provide a size-speed combo that should torment offenses.
Other Players to Watch: Senior midfielder Adam Sear just earned a spot on the Australian National Team. Look for him to take a step up this year and secure his spot as the third middie. Junior attackman Travis Reed's been battling an injury, but he possesses a lethal lefty shot. RS-freshman attacker Owen Blye hits the field for the first time, a year removed from entering Maryland as the No. 8 attackman in the country.
Numbers Game: 281 - Days between Phipps' ACL tear and the Terps' season-opener against Bellarmine this year.
Circle Your Calendar: Feb. 27, at Georgetown - Last year, the Hoyas stumbled through the year and fell short of the Tournament. The longtime rivals will do battle in D.C. in just the season's second game. As Fischer said, "We don't like them, and they don't like us."
Before The Face-Off: Maryland's season was a strange thing last year: the Terps only went 10-7, and never really seemed to find their stride. Yet there they were, battling Syracuse to within a goal at 4-3 before Phipps tore his ACL and the Orange surged ahead to an 11-6 win and a national championship a week later. But this time around, a team that hasn't won a national title since 1975 but has historically hovered around the title (seven national runners-up trophies) has a chance to play in a national tournament just down the road in Baltimore. More, the Terps had to play at Ludwig Field last year, with Byrd Stadium undergoing construction. They're back in the big place this year. Maryland's big, it's fast, sure, but the Terps also looked a little loose at times last year, unable to find the net and a little overmatched, skill-wise. If Cottle's offseason conditioning and training has its intended effect, this team could dominate.

Coach: Joe Breschi, Second season at North Carolina (12-6; 104-69 overall)
2009 Record: 12-6, lost to Duke in national quarterfinals
Big Losses: MF Ben Hunt (2nd Team All-American); GK Grant Zimmerman (four-year starter); Face-Off Specialist Shane Walterhoefer (.629 face-off percentage in '09); Sr. MF Sean Burke (injury - out for season)
Key Returns/Additions: Jr. A Billy Bitter, after a First-Team All-America selection in 2009; Sr. MF Sean Delaney and Jr. D Ryan Flanagan were both Third-Team All-Americans in 2009.
Offensive Outlook: Through two games so far, it's been all Delaney and Thomas Wood offensively for the Tar Heels, with Bitter going with his usual style of being everywhere at once, scooping up ground balls and channeling the offense.

Billy Bitter | Photo Courtesy of North Carolina

As far the midfield goals, last year, the Tar Heels rotated out their middies to specialize mainly in offense and defense - expect more two-way middies this year, and from here on out. It'll provide a more free-flowing look, but might be an adjustment for a bit, especially for the trio of formerly defensive short-stick middies Tyler Morton, Chris Lang and Chris Hunt.
Defensive Breakdown: For the first time since 2005, somebody not named Zimmerman's going to be manning the pipes on the regular for the Tar Heels. Early on, his replacement has been Chris Madalon, who's performed beautifully, with only nine goals allowed through two contests. In front of him roam Flanagan, who's caused eight turnovers in two games, and Charlie McCormas, whose skills in riding and finding ground balls will help a quick team in transition. For Madalon, save percentage will be hard to come by in a conference known for offense, but it'll be essential to allow a still-developing team to surge into mid-season with confidence.
Players to Watch: RS-Jr. MF Michael Burns, who slips into the No. 1 face-off specialist position after Walterhoefer graduated. Sr. A Gavin Petracca, a Four-Year Starter; Soph. MF Jimmy Dunster
Numbers Game: 8 - The number of recruits in Breschi's active recruiting class (debuting in 2011) ranked in the Top-40 in Inside Lacrosse.
Circle Your Calendar: Mar. 10, at Duke - Duke ended North Carolina's season last year. It doesn't matter if this is the calligraphy club - anytime one team or the other gets the upper hand in this Tobacco Road rivalry, expect revenge from the other one.
Before The Face-Off: Breschi's first year back in Chapel Hill injected a steady flow of energy into the program. And he'll be dealing with a UNC team that looks in many ways as talented than the one he drove to the national quarters last year. There are still a few holes, but if the Tar Heels find a reliable netminder and someone who can earn them possession anywhere close to where Walterhoefer did, then - what do you know - we've got another contender in the ACC. Most important for the Tar Heels, though, is a strong start. A few early losses last year slowed down the Heels' momentum going into the second half of the year (when the ACC games started), and they'll need all the confidence they can get heading into the thick of their schedule this time around.

Coach: John Desko, 12th season (134-42)
2009 Record:16-2 (Won the National Championship)
Big Losses: A Kenny Nims, MF Matt Abbott, D Sid Smith, MF Dan Hardy, MF Scott Kahoe, MF Pat Perritt.
Key Returns/Additions: Jr. A Stephen Keogh, who led the nation in goals last year (49); Sr. A Cody Jamieson; Jr. LSM Joel White, a First-Team Preseason All-American; Freshmen JoJo Marasco (rated No. 2 attack recruit by Inside Lacrosse, but switching to midfield to fill holes) Ned Parker, Christian Pagli and transfer Joe Giarusso.
Offensive Outlook: Jamieson's season was cut short last year due to eligibility issues, but it was cut short in the right direction: he wasn't able to start the year, but he was able to finish. And finish he did, notching nine goals and 12 points in six games and scored the goal that won the national title for the Orange in OT against Cornell.

Cody Jamieson | NCAA Photos

Give him a full season to work with Keogh and Chris Daniello, who scored 21 goals last year in a breakout season, and we could witness a wonder. Questions arise, however, in the midfield, where graduation stripped the team of experience. Junior Josh Amidon returns as the only player to have seen significant time in the MF last year, registering 14 goals and nine assists. From there, it's a battle between upwards of 10 Orange for the remaining spots, including juniors Jovan Miller (Preseason Honorable Mention All-American), Jeff Gilbert, Jeremy Thompson and senior Max Bartig.
Defensive Breakdown: Two core members of the defense return this year, with Preseason All-Americans John Lade and Matt Tierney having started every game last year. It'll be close to impossible to beat the Orange in transition this year, with a defensive midfield anchored by junior co-captain White, a Preseason First-Team All-American. He'll be joined by Tyler Hlawati on the wing, along with sophomores Joe Moore and Gairet Myers, with Kevin Drew running the show at shortstick defensive middie. And of course, everything funnels toward junior John Galloway in net, the Orange's all-time leader in goals-against average and the only goalie in NCAA history to win national titles as a freshman and sophomore.
Players to Watch: D Brandon Colin; MF Tim Harder; A Tim Desko, A Ryan Barber.
Numbers Game: 6.5 - The number of goals per game the Orange allowed in the postseason last year, a school record for a team widely known for its offense and less so for its D.
Circle Your Calendar: April 10, Big City Classic vs. Princeton At The Meadowlands - In the first-ever event at The New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (which is pretty cool in itself), the Orange get to play a perennial power looking to climb back into the heights it long enjoyed before a little drop-off. One game later, we get a national championship rematch between Syracuse and Cornell.
Before The Face-Off: The defending national champs lost a ton when people like Kenny Nims, Matt Abbott, Dan Hardy and Sid Smith graduated. A senior class that came in as freshmen drenched in expectations made good on that promise - after a short but dramatic lull - with two straight titles to close their careers in Orange. But teams like Syracuse work like shark teeth: just rows and rows of daggers. When one drops out, another slides into its place, and this year's Orange squad comes into the year with eight Preseason All-Americans and five players who started at least 10 games last year. Yeah, sure, the midfield doesn't have the seasoning it has recently, but when you recruit and train like Desko, a new-look midfield isn't a task: it's an opportunity.

Coach: Dom Starsia, 18th season at Virginia (199-65, 300-111 overall)
2009 Record: 15-3 (2-1-0 ACC), Lost to Cornell in national semifinals
Big Losses: Attackman and Tewaaraton Trophy finalist Danny Glading, LSM Mike Timms, D Matt Kelly, A Garrett Billings, D Chad Gaudet
Key Returns/Additions: Junior MF Shamel Bratton, coming off First Team All-American nod in his second season as a starter, a year in which his 31 goals and 42 points were in the top-6 national for midfielders; Soph. attacker Steele Stanwick, who finished last year 18th in the country in points per game (3.22); Senior defenseman Todd Faiella, a former captain at Brown who once played a game in goal in a pinch, transferred over and looks to slide into the defensive trio.
Offensive Outlook: The departures of Glading and Billings hurt, carrying 70 goals and 122 points in 2009 away into the pros and leaving only one senior, Brian Carroll, left among the three top returning scorers.

Brian Carroll | Photo Courtesy of Virginia

Granted, Carroll accounted for 39 points and the guys ahead of him, Stanwick and Bratton, were good for 100 points and 67 goals. But only one of those three, Stanwick, plays attack, with the other five attackman for UVa compiling just seven goals between them last year (two, Matt Cockerton and Connor English, are freshmen). Luckily, one of the nation's premier midfields, starring Bratton and Carroll, should provide a calming influence...and a steady dose of scoring. Meanwhile, as teams clamp down on Stanwick, like they did in the fall season, look for others to step up as options, most notably sophomore Chris Bocklet, who saw virtually no time last year because of the guys ahead of him, but came to UVA as the fourth-ranked attacker in the country.
Defensive Breakdown: Led by seniors Ken Clausen and Ryan Niziolek, both of whom started all 18 games last year, this is a corps that provides more than enough stops to let its offense get to work. They'll be joined most likely by Matt Lovejoy, who missed all of 2009 while recovering from ankle surgery and then posted a fall season that shot him to first in line for the third spot on D. Faiella, who played everywhere, and with a long and short stick, at Brown, will be looked to for energy and physicality. Everything gets funneled toward junior Adam Ghitelman in net, now in his third year starting (he started the first 10 games of 2009 before giving way to senior Bud Petit) and coming back from a season in which his 8.4 GAA ranked in the nation's top 20.
Players to Watch: As defenses key on Stanwick, watch out for attackman Connor English, who led all of Long Island in scoring at Manhasset H.S. in 2009 and comes into this season as the No. 7 recruit in the country.
Numbers Game: 1-0 - Faiella's record in net at Brown.
Circle Your Calendar: Mar. 13, at Cornell - Cornell's train rolled over Virginia in the national semis last year, dismantling the Cavs, 15-6. Virginia would have to feel better about this if this game were at home, where the Cavs went 9-0-0 last year. But, no. Ithaca. In mid-March. This is about as hostile as hostile gets, and a week after playing Syracuse, we'll see how gritty this team can be. Alternate: April 10 - UNC and Virginia square off at the Big City Classic in the first-ever event at the New Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., home of the New York Giants.
Before The Face-Off: The Cavs will rely on their midfield to carry the early-season load as the rest of the team catches up. Luckily, it's regarded by many as the nation's best, and Starsia's open style allows them more chances to come up on offense or fall back when necessary, so they'll be able to help out where needed. Anyone who watched Virginia take on Johns Hopkins in the Tournament last year saw what Bratton can do, as the then-sophomore put up five goals against a Hopkins team that, even in a down year, prides itself on defense. Watch for a few early bumps from the attack, but with talent like this, it's just a matter of seasoning.

Coming Thursday

Cornell (So close in 2009, but losses have ravaged the roster); Princeton (Stratospheric tradition, but new coach), Notre Dame (Great strides lately, but new, tougher league), Georgetown (Limitless potential, recent underachieving), Hofstra (Big wins last year, but are they there yet?), Bucknell (Much improved offense, but still some holes - huge effort against Duke to open year).