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Mike Preston | The Baltimore Sun | May 22, 2015

This might be the year the NCAA men's lacrosse title moves out West

  Denver is making its fourth championship weekend appearance in the last five years.

This is the first time the NCAA Division I champion will probably come from the West or Midwest region of the country.

Of the teams that will compete in the final four this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia unseeded Johns Hopkins (11-6) is the hottest with a seven-game winning streak. Maryland (14-3) just had its best offensive showing in weeks, scoring 14 goals in a quarterfinal win against rival North Carolina on Saturday.

But for balance, durability and great coaching, both No. 1 seed Notre Dame (12-2) and fourth-seeded Denver (15-2) are more complete teams than both No. 6 seed Maryland and Hopkins.

And both Notre Dame and Denver are better than they were a year ago when they played in the final four in Baltimore. Denver lost to Duke, 15-12, in the semifinals, and Notre Dame lost to the Blue Devils, 11-9, in the championship game.

But some aren't making Notre Dame and Denver favorites, partially because they play each other in one semifinal. Denver beat Notre Dame, 11-10, in overtime on March 7 during the regular season.

"I think if you were looking at the field from a talent standpoint, you might think Denver and Notre Dame have probably separated themselves slightly from Hopkins and Maryland, but I don't think that's the case at all," said ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra. "You have to look at the Denver-Notre Dame [matchup] and how much effort is going to be exerted in that game and how beat up those teams are going to be and what type of team can play on shorter rest and respond. So I wouldn't count out Hopkins, and I wouldn't count out Maryland and Charlie Raffa with how well they're playing and how hard they're playing.

"If you were to ask me who are the two best end-to-end teams in the tournament, I would probably say Notre Dame and Denver, but I wouldn't say either team is going to win the national title. How are they going to respond with two days of rest? And I look at a team, like Hopkins, and who is hotter than them offensively? If you look at them over the last three weeks, they've been as good as anyone -- if not better. They've been playing with tremendous purpose and they've gelled together. It's not always the best team. It's the team that's clicking, it's the team that is peaking at the right time and is confident."

Those are all valid observations and points, but here is another: No team in this tournament plays better defense than Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are allowing just 9.21 goals per game and have allowed just 16 goals on 33 extra-man situations.

They do a great job of cutting off the adjacent passes and they have perhaps the country's best defenseman in Matt Landis, who banged around the sport's top attackman, Albany's Lyle Thompson, last week in the quarterfinals. Goalie Shane Doss has also played well, with a .550 save percentage.

Notre Dame is just as talented on the other end of the field with attackmen Matt Kavanagh (27 goals, 24 assists), Conor Doyle (30, 2) and midfielder Sergio Perkovic (29-7).

A major key for Notre Dame against Denver is winning faceoffs, because the Pioneers have the best in game in Trevor Baptiste, who has won 285 of 413 this season.

As for Denver, the Pioneers have to be able to clear the ball and contend with Notre Dame's transition game. The Pioneers have the players in place who can hurt Notre Dame's defense, especially if Denver attacks the Fighting Irish from behind goal. Attackmen Wesley Berg (50, 20), Zach Miller (23, 32) and midfielder Erik Adams (33, 9) are excellent outside shooters.

As for the Mid-Atlantic teams, you have to wonder if Johns Hopkins can play good enough defense to win a low scoring game against a strong defensive team, and if Maryland has enough firepower to win against a strong offensive team.

At this point, either Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala or Maryland coach John Tillman need to be coach of the year, because they have squeezed everything possible out of their respective teams.

Near midseason, the Blue Jays just barely had a pulse. But Pietramala and defensive coordinator Bill Dwan not only toughened up the Blue Jays, but improved technique and erased concerns about when and when not to slide.

Goalie Eric Schneider has significantly improved recently, but he is part of the team's gray area going into the semifinal game against Maryland. Which Schneider will show up, the one who played in the past month, or the one who played in the first month? Opposing teams have also picked on the Blue Jays defensive midfielders, and that will happen again this weekend.

As for Maryland, the Terps played well against North Carolina, but the Tar Heels are regular no-shows in the postseason. Maryland usually plays good defense, and this the perfect time for the unit to carry the team.

"They are just so talented and [assistant coach] Bobby Benson does a terrific job with that group," Tillman said of Hopkins. "That roster, top to bottom, is as talented and as deep as any roster in the country, so they really put you under pressure.

"We've got to get that goal total down and offensively we have to be aggressive when we have our opportunities. We're going to have to try to get double digits, which will be a challenge -- their goalie is playing well."

The Terps are no strangers to the final four. They have appeared in four of the past five, and Hopkins will be making its first appearance since 2008. Like Maryland, Denver and Notre Dame seem to show up in the final four almost every year now, but -- particularly for Notre Dame -- this is their best chance.

Lacrosse folks like to brag about the parity in the sport and how it has grown across the country. It has, but many won't believe it until a team outside of the East Coast and as far south as North Carolina wins the championship.
This could be the year.

This article was written by Mike Preston from The Baltimore Sun and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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