This is my 13th NCAA men's lacrosse championship weekend as a commentator.
I played in two finals. The first one I ever saw was as a fan in 1983 at Rutgers Stadium. I was in ninth grade at Lynbrook HS on Long Island. Johns Hopkins lost to Syracuse in one of the craziest finals ever. I was hooked. Four years later on that same field, I shook hands with Cornell's Paul Schimoler and sprinted to my crease for Johns Hopkins. I remember thinking to myself wow time moves fast. Very fast. And it still does.
People often ask me what is my most memorable NCAA game. I don't remember games. But what sticks out are the moments and people. From Brian Dougherty to the "Doc," Rob Schneider. I'll never forget Syracuse's three-goal run before halftime in the 1995 final, or the way the dew on the net burst into the air when Jesse Hubbard's overtime winner hit the goal in 1996. Or the resolve that Tucker Radebaugh and Jay Jalbert showed in 1999 leading Virginia to the title. Or the jubilation of the Orange's Ryan Powell reaching his brother's milestone. Tillman Johnson and Chris Rotelli are etched in my mind. Who could forget Navy in 2004? Kyle Harrison in 2005? Championship Weekend is an opportunity for the past and the present to come together. It's a chance to make new memories.
Duke versus Cornell
After 15 years as an assistant and head coach, Jeff Tambroni guides Cornell into Baltimore. "I remember going to watch these games as a college student and as a kid," said Tambroni. "One of the greatest games I ever saw was back in 1989 when Dave Pietramala was playing Syracuse. I dreamed of someday having an opportunity to be in that arena and in these kinds of games."
It was Pietramala who hired Tambroni as his top assistant when he took the Cornell job in September, 1997. Tambroni had been the offensive coordinator for Dave Cottle in Baltimore at Loyola. He is defined by his enthusiasm, maturity, work ethic and ability to succeed through adversity.
"I spoke with Dave Sunday," said Tambroni. "He's been kind enough and gracious enough to give me some of his time. He has talked to me about what to expect, and what he has done in the past to be successful."
His team is a well-crafted bunch of role players who bring out the best in one another.
"We look for intangibles. Kids with good field sense, selfless individuals that care about the guys around them," said Tambroni. "Give us a lesser athlete who will play for 60 minutes, sprint on and off the sidelines and to the hole, and we will take him over a better athlete every day of the week."
Cornell's challenge is to stop Tewaraaton finalist Matt Danowski and Zack Greer. Greer had seven goals on nine shots against North Carolina. "You have a tandem of Danowski, who handles the ball, and Greer off the ball," said Tambroni. "You definitely want to pay your respects to those guys because they are two of the best but we can't forget about off-the-ball guys like Peter Lamade or Ned Crotty. They have so many other weapons that can hurt you." Against UNC, 14 of Duke's 19 goals were assisted.
Delaware versus Johns Hopkins
As the clock wound down, Delaware coach Bob Shillinglaw was showered with a blue sports drink. He turned and jumped into his players' arms, pumping his fist into the air repeatedly.
The Fightin' Blue Hens continued their march to Baltimore with a 10-6 win over UMBC last Sunday. It wasn't as pretty as their victory in Charlottesville a week earlier. "I had some concerns at halftime," said Shillinglaw. "We weren't panicking. We were on the same wavelength."
Faceoff specialist Alex Smith was dominant winning 12 of 19 draws. When I spoke to Alex after Sunday's victory over UMBC it was interesting to hear him say he had problems hearing the whistle. The quarterfinals were played in front of 10,000 fans. Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium holds seven times that amount and Hopkins should be the "home team" this weekend. Expect Blue Jay supporters and their legendary band to cheer during faceoffs to try to muffle the referee's whistle.
Tommy Scherr was untested on Sunday, making only six saves. UMBC managed only 12 shots on goal. The chemical engineering major was at his peak in the second half versus Virginia. After the Cavaliers scored the first goal of the second half just seconds into the stanza to tie the score at 7-7, Delaware reeled off seven straight goals to take command. UVA did not score again until the final minutes.
Delaware is unseeded. Its motto is "One" -- that's what they yell at the end of team huddles. It's a senior-based team that has won seven in a row after dropping five of six during the middle of the spring. Delaware has some intriguing individual talent with guys like Jordan Hall, Dan Deckelbaum, Rob Smith, Brett Manney and Curtis Dickson.
(Note: It's 6:29 p.m. on Tuesday night. I'm at my computer writing and my cell phone rings. Omen. It's Carl Runk. Serious.)
Others have been down this road. In 1991 Carl Runk led a 12th-seeded Towson squad to the Big Dance. The Tigers beat Virginia, Princeton and Maryland on their way to the national finals. "There was so much excitement along the way. We never had the opportunity to look ahead," said Runk. It was a proud time for the coach and his team.
Runk squared off against Bob Shillinglaw for decades. "I'm tickled for Bob," he said. "He has served in a dual capacity, teaching graduate classes, recruiting, coaching, he really does it all which is such a rarity these days. Back then guys always had to coach another sport or teach classes."
Shillinglaw's biggest challenge is to keep the ball rolling. When a team gets hot the power of momentum can be overwhelming. Look at UMass last year. It used its comeback victory over Hofstra in the quarterfinals to steamroll Maryland in the semifinals. "You struggle like heck and finally get there," said Runk. "The kids are so elated. I know Delaware is going to go out and play loose."
Teams gel at different speeds. Some are ready to play in March like Cornell. Others take a few games under their belts to figure things out like Duke. Johns Hopkins took until late April to really find and recognize its identity. The players realized that they own the team. It's the players' team, not the coaches. They determine the mind-set, the effort level and focus. The coach merely will offer a structure, discipline and guidelines. Coach Dave Pietramala has done his best work this year. After losing defensive ace Matt Drenan to an ACL injury, the Jays have had to be creative on the defensive end. But in simplest terms, Pietramala has taught this team to play hard. Every ground ball. Every possession.
It was apparent that the Blue Jays fought for every inch of space with NHL Game 7 intensity while it seemed that Georgetown brought an MLB regular-season mentality to the party. Maybe they drew inspiration from the old-school cartoon Blue Jay on their new helmets. The artwork was created by Hopkins alum and long time lacrosse supporter Neil Grauer.
The Blue Jays MVP was defender Michael Evans, who shut out Hoya attackman Brendan Cannon. Goalie Jesse Schwartzman is now 7-1 in NCAA playoff games with a .596 save percentage.
Breaking it down
In Saturday's first game (ESPN2, noon) a Delaware upset begins with faceoff man Smith and goaltender Scherr. I believe that Smith must win 75 percent of his draws and that Scherr will need to make 20 saves. The Blue Hens must get this game into double digits.
Game No. 2 is a classic. When I analyze the individual matchups, Duke wins or draws all the individual battles with the exception of midfielder Max Seibald and goalie Matt McMonagle. But even Seibald will be slowed down a bit by injury and by Nick O'Hara. But Cornell isn't a team of individuals. And that is their greatness.
The style advantage for Cornell is that they will be able to manage Matt Danowksi in one-on-one situations (Mitch Belisle), which will allow them to pack the middle, thus limiting Zack Greer's half-field chances while taking advantage of McMonagle's ability to handle outside shots.
If Cornell can weather the inevitable Duke run (lately it's been occurring in the third quarter), it can keep this game in single digits. On the offensive end, the Big Red are opportunistic and can take advantage when chances arise (shoot 33 percent).
Enjoy Baltimore. See you at the games.
Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN.com is working with Inside Lacrosse to provide you with news and analysis. Click here for more coverage.