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Roger Moore | | May 24, 2014

Two hard roads to championship weekend

  Both T.J. DiCarlo (left) and Patton Watkins will anchor the goal for their teams on Sunday.

BALTIMORE -- T.J. DiCarlo and Patton Watkins will finish their collegiate lacrosse careers on Sunday. One lost his job as a junior; the other nearly lost his life.

For Watkins, who will play in goal for Tufts when they face off with powerhouse Salisbury for the NCAA Division III Men's Lacrosse Championship at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, an up-and-down career ends on lacrosse's biggest stage. The task is monumental: slow down a Sea Gulls program that is 21-1 this spring, making its 26th consecutive NCAA appearance, and is in search of its eleventh national title. In three NCAA tournament games in 2014, Salisbury has outscored three opponents, 40-19.

Watkins knows the opponent well.

Midway through the 2011 season, he took over in goal for an injured Steven Foglietta. He filled in admirably, leading the Jumbos to the national finals where they faced Salisbury. The result was a 19-7 dismantling, though, the most lopsided outcome in Division finals history.

As a sophomore, Watkins appeared to be headed for goalkeeper greatness. He was 17-3 and Tufts advanced to the NCAA semifinals where they fell to Cortland State.

For whatever reason, things didn't click last season. A freshman, Alex Salazar, started seven games. Still, Tufts pushed to the NCAA quarterfinals where they lost to Rochester Institute 14-5.

The offseason provided a gut-check. Go to work or find someone to blame for the struggles.

"Patton had success early and then maybe had a little bit of a humbling scenario, but everything changed in the fall," Tufts head coach Mike Daly told Lacrosse Magazine's Zac Coyne. "He refocused and, most importantly, he kept working. I'd pull in in the morning and his car would be in the lot and he'd be out on the field getting shots and he'd be bringing teammates along with him.

"In the face of today's society and in the face of coddling parents, of which I am one, instead of saying that it's the coaches fault, or they don't like me or it's everyone in the world's fault but mine, he really took ownership of the situation. In the face of adversity, he kept working. That has been a huge part of our success as a program. I'm really proud of Patton being a reflection of that."

The coaches want their senior goaltender focused for Sunday. So much so, that they made him unavailable for interviews after Saturday morning's early practice.

Sunday marks the third time in five years the two Massachusetts programs meet for the Division III trophy. Six USILA All-Americans will suit up.

Watkins will be ready; he is 19-1 in 2014 and in five of the past seven games has helped Tufts give up less than 10 goals. A 16-save performance against Endicott started the NCAA run; a 20-save effort against previously unbeaten RIT punched the Jumbos' ticket to Sunday.

DiCarlo faced a different, very dangerous kind of adversity on his road to championship weekend -- a drunk driver.

Prior to the 2013 campaign, DiCarlo, from Farmingdale, New York, was sitting in his car when a driver rear-ended his vehicle. Lacrosse was not an immediate concern.

Playing at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, he was Division II's top goalkeeper in 2011, earning the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Award for an 11-3 NCAA tournament team. In 2012, Mercy was 6-7 with DiCarlo still among Division II's elite goalkeepers. The 2013 season, following the accident, at least athletically, was gone. In the classroom, he still graduated at mid-term in the fall.

After extensive rehabilitation, the New Yorker still had one season of lacrosse eligibility. He ended up at LIU Post. A full season away from the cage, however, meant it took time to earn the respect … and trust … of his teammates.

"We've been tight the whole year," said DiCarlo on Saturday morning. "I came in her midway through the year and they accepted me with open arms, they trusted me and I put my trust right back in them; that is a huge part of being on a good team, the characteristics of a good program."

Thoughts of championships and completing his recovery with a national championship were a bit far-fetched after a 9-8 loss to NYIT dropped the Pioneers to 6-5 entering the postseason. But a pair of victories in the East Coast Conference tournament put LIU Post in the NCAA field.

Then, a 14-save effort sparked the Pioneers to an upset win against defending Division II champion Le Moyne in the first round. A round later top-seeded Adelphi fell to Post. The New Yorkers will square off with Limestone at 4 p.m. ET Sunday.

From hours of rehabilitation to the national finals … what a way to finish a long journey.

"My dad always told me growing up that nothing comes easy, you have to work for things," DiCarlo said. "I'll never forget my high-school coach told me that 'the good is never as good as it seems and the bad is never as bad as it seems.' You listen to that and you know that good could always be better and the bad could be a lot worse.

"I was in a situation that was bad, it could have been a lot worse, so I am going to make something positive out of it. I've been able to push myself through; the guys here have really helped me get to where I am."

A conversation with the graduate student pursuing a master's degree in mathematics and health administration includes 'we' this weekend. As one piece to the LIU Post puzzle, the goalie knows his journey has certainly not been a solitary one.

"I came off a serious injury the previous year, and at first I was a little rusty," he said. "But, the coaching staff, every day, I got a phone call from Coach [John] Jez asking if I wanted to come in a little early and work on some stuff? … I always said 'sure, early in the morning, I'll be there.' He'd be sitting there in the racquetball room and we'd train. I got help from Coach Jerry DeLorenzo, helping me change my style of play and making me a better goalkeeper. At Mercy, I took what I learned from my old high-school coach [Bob Hartranft at Farmingdale] ... all of my success starts with him."

Win or lose, Sunday will be special.

"It's my once in a lifetime shot right now," he said. "I'm just taking it all in and I'm so happy to be here with all these guys. We have so many supporters here … it's hard to describe the feeling. You go to bed at night thinking that you are playing in the game, so many things go through your mind.

"It's a really positive way to end this season, playing for a national championship."

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