Duke, Notre Dame to clash for first title
BALTIMORE -- Broad-shouldered, baritone-voiced and sporting a buzz cut, Scott Rodgers is not the sort of man you question.
So when the Notre Dame goalie said he absolutely believed that his team -- a pedestrian 7-6 four weeks ago -- could make it to the national championship, you smile, nod your head and agree.
Unless you're his coach.
If you're Kevin Corrigan, with 30 years of lacrosse coaching experience in your rearview mirror and a refreshing kinship with candor, when someone asks if you believed, you grin wickedly and answer truthfully.
"No. Lord know," Corrigan said.
Not even the most ardent Notre Dame lacrosse fan would have imagined this: that the first team from outside the Eastern seaboard to appear in a Division I lacrosse final would be the same team that barely made it into the NCAA tournament.
But the Irish's 12-7 win over Cornell does more than just expand the geographic boundaries of lacrosse.
Notre Dame's win, coupled with Duke's 14-13 victory over top-seeded Virginia, allows lacrosse, long crowing about the growth of its game, to put its trophy where its mouth is.
On Monday the sport will crown its first new champion since 1992, when Princeton (a real outsider to the Northeast country-club image of the sport) won the championship.
It also will mark the first time since 1973 that two teams that have never won before play for the title.
By the way, that 1973 championship game between was only the third NCAA title game played.
And it was between Johns Hopkins and Maryland, not exactly foreigners to the game.
"I hope we win a championship so I can stop getting questions like this," Corrigan joked when asked bout his role in growing the game. "I think when you get down to that final eight, it's really hard to crack that last weekend. I feel like we've been banging on the door for a while now."
The Irish broke it down with a bull leading the charge.
Rodgers, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 254 pounds, but fills up pretty much every inch of cage space, has helped Notre Dame create a defense-first identity. This season the Irish boast the nation's second-best goals-against average (at 7.67), up from last year's 6.19 and Rodgers' ridiculous rookie season of 6.14.
Rodgers is a guy, as Duke coach John Danowski summed up succinctly, "who looks like a wall and plays like a wall."
The wall withstood a 12-shot barrage from Cornell in the first quarter, letting just one goal squirt by.
"I thought it was going to be a long day," Rodgers said of the first-quarter attack.
It was for Cornell.
The Big Red, who pride themselves on their patience, got itchy and antsy. They tried to beat Rodgers high but couldn't. They tried to go low. That didn't work either.
Instead Cornell's slim lead evaporated into a 6-3 deficit at halftime and ultimately the Big Red's hopes of a repeat championship game appearance were dashed thanks to Rodgers.
"You take that many shots in the first quarter and you only have one goal to show for it, you're not going to be feeling very good about yourself," coach Jeff Tambroni said. "We're a team that prides itself on getting off to a fast start."
There is fast, and then there is Duke.
The Blue Devils roll into the national title game averaging 17.5 goals per game in the postseason, the most of anyone in the tournament.
Danowski doesn't complicate his offense too much -- he gets good athletes and lets them do their thing.
Never was that more evident than it was against the Cavaliers.
Virginia took an 8-5 lead into the half, leading Danowski to offer his team "a rash of s---," according to Max Quinzani.
"We had a discussion," Danowski corrected.
The, ahem, pep talk, worked. The Blue Devils responded with seven consecutive goals, holding Virginia scoreless for 15:03. But just when most everyone started to wonder if the emotions of a ravaging month after the death of women's player Yeardley Love were finally wearing on the Cavaliers, UVa rallied, tying the game at 13 with just 1:21 to play.
Duke won the critical faceoff and fed the ball to Ned Crotty.
Crotty played some time-eating cat and mouse with Virginia defender Ken Clausen and goalie Adam Ghitelman before finally rolling from behind the cage and finding Quinzani on a cut.
"We call it eyesies," Crotty said. "We made eyesies."
They bat their lashes a lot. Crotty is the setup man, with 60 assists and Quinzani is the finisher, with 64 goals. They, along with Zach Howell, make up 55 percent of Duke's points this season.
"We give each other leeway, and Coach does too," Quinzani said. "He lets Ned throw across the defense to me. I always tell him, if he throws it, I'll catch it. I can't promise I'll score, but something good will happen."
Though the Blue Devils are as barren in the trophy case as Notre Dame, they have been tantalizingly close. Duke lost in the semifinals in 2008 and 2009 and the championship game in 2005 and 2007.
Now the two teams that opened the season against one another will finish it.
Before the wheels temporarily misaligned themselves for the Irish, Notre Dame opened the season with an 11-7 victory in Durham and remain one of just two teams to hold Duke to under 10 goals this season.
The victory offered temporary false hope to the Irish and fuel for the Devils.
"What got us going? Losing," Danowski said. "Notre Dame beat us and beat us good at our place. That was a gut-check for everybody. Were we paying enough attention to detail? Did we think it was going to come easy? We were learning what it was like to be a Johns Hopkins, or a Notre Dame in football, where everybody brings their A-game every week."
Or maybe Duke in basketball.
There is, of course, a delicious irony in just who lacrosse is relying on to in this nouveau championship: the two biggest lightning rods in college sports.
Critics and haters argue that Duke and Notre Dame are too privileged and too accustomed to the rarefied air.
The real truth is, they win too much.
People don't like that.
They don't like all that tradition. They don't like all that pomp, but they really don't like all that winning.
And as of Monday, they won't like one a little more.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.