Memorable season ends with gripping one-goal title game
The championship game gave us two games in one. Unfortunately for Duke, Johns Hopkins won both.
BALTIMORE -- The NCAA championship was two games in one.
In the first half, Duke was sluggish, still shaking off the effects of Saturday's wire-to-wire semifinal matchup against Cornell in 100-degree heat. Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins was brilliant, putting together the Blue Jays' best half of the season. Hopkins won the first nine faceoffs of the game and jumped out to a 10-4 lead by the end of the first half.
At halftime, the game changed.
Having finally worked all of the lactic acid out of their muscles, the Blue Devils scored five unanswered goals to get within one of Hopkins. For as brilliant as the Blue Jays were in the first half, Duke was as good in the second. The frenzied pace of the third quarter threw the Blue Jays off their game, and it wasn't until the fourth quarter that Hopkins was able to regain control of the tempo.
Kevin Huntley scored the game winner with 3:25 remaining in the game. Although Duke had opportunities to score, the Blue Devils hit the pipes twice. The Blue Jays were able to hang on to their one-goal lead thanks to the impassioned play of defenders Michael Evans and Eric Zerrlaut. Blue Jays goalkeeper Jesse Schwartzman was his usual big-game self. Schwartzman finished his collegiate career with a 10-1 postseason record and two national championships. He came up with 15 saves in the tile game, and forced Duke to take good shots to beat him.
In the end, the game came down to fundamentals. Hopkins won control of the ball from the draw (18 faceoffs) and kept Duke's lethal scorers in check -- Zack Greer and Matt Danowski combined to shoot 1-for-14, finishing with one goal and one assist.
Johns Hopkins, which won its ninth NCAA lacrosse title with the 12-11 victory, isn't used to being the underdog. But after a three-game losing streak this season (including a loss to the Blue Devils) -- the Blue Jays' tournament hopes were on the line. The team came together to find a way to win, led by a senior class that boasts a 18-3 record in one-goal games. They're the first four-loss champions since 1972.
Johns Hopkins relied on a total team effort to get to the championship game. While Evans, Zerrlaut and Schwartzman held down the defensive end, Huntley, Jake Byrne and Paul Rabil powered the Blue Jays' offense. Byrne contributed four goals, while Rabil added five assists and one goal in the title game. Coach Dave Pietramala knew before the game his team would need cross-the-board production on offense and defense to best the top-ranked Blue Devils. He got that from his club today.
The Blue Devils ended one of the most scrutinized years any team has ever had to endure. I have nothing but the highest praise for those student-athletes. Having spent a considerable amount of time around the team, I came away extremely impressed with their attitude, focus and perspective. Coach John Danowski deserves a lot of credit for the job he did. Lacrosse was secondary; he spent the season building these young men back up.
Next year, a certain normalcy will return to Duke lacrosse, except for the three players who were accused -- Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans. You can't undo that type of damage quickly. For the others, they'll always be Duke lacrosse players, but they'll also begin to be normal people.
On the field, Duke is waiting for an answer from the NCAA on whether the players on the 2006 roster will be given an extra year of eligibility. If this talented senior class returns for 2008, Duke would begin the season as the No. 2 team in the country. If the request is denied, Matt Danowski would likely be the No. 1 pick in the Major League Lacrosse draft. Those seniors have a big decision to make later this week as the deadline for entering the MLL draft looms.
The No. 1 team in 2008 will be Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays lose few key components from this national title team, but they won't have the benefit of flying under the radar.
Johns Hopkins' improbable run to its ninth title capped a very memorable year in college lacrosse. See you next year, when the championship moves north to Gillette Stadium, in Foxboro, Mass.
Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.