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Lacrosse's perennial powers flex their muscles in the semifinals

5/25/2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Lacrosse shares national championship hardware like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Astors once shared money-making recipes.

The last time the sport welcomed a new member to its tony fraternity was 1992.

The beggars at the feast? Princeton, which didn't exactly do a lot to change the sport's image as the ultimate old-boy, blue-blood aristocracy.

But in the past five years, lacrosse has spread its tentacles across the country. Kids are as apt to tote a lacrosse stick as a surfboard on the West Coast and a snowboard in the Rockies.

And this year, to signify that burgeoning growth, lacrosse was supposed to extend membership to a new champion. OK, so the champion was to be Duke, not exactly your blue-collar State U., but still it would extend the number of schools to win a national title in the game to eight, so progress is progress.

That a Blue Devils title would simultaneously bury once and for all the scandal that rocked the sport, decimated a program and exposed a rogue prosecutor was only bonus money.

But a funny thing happened on the way to all this neatly packaged new beginning: Lacrosse went retro.

Johns Hopkins stunned the Blue Devils 10-9 and Syracuse rebounded from a five-goal deficit to beat Virginia 12-11 in double overtime, setting up a national championship game that is akin to UCLA versus Kansas in basketball.

There have been 36 national championship trophies handed out in lacrosse. Hopkins and Syracuse own half of them, nicely splitting the haul 9-9. On Monday (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET), the two schools play the ultimate rubber game.

"We've both done a lot of soul-searching, hit some potholes and overcome them this year," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said of his team and his opponent. "We've got great respect for them and for their tradition; their tradition of championships."

The fact that Hopkins and Syracuse even faced any potholes tells something about the growth of the sport … and the staying power of elite programs. The Blue Jays went 18 years without a national championship, a blip on the radar screen to Cubs fans; an eternity to Johns Hopkins' faithful.

Then the Jays broke through in 2005 for title No. 8 and quickly gobbled up No. 9 last season. But this year has been anything but easy for Hopkins. Pietramala had to replace Jesse Schwartzman, his goaltender and the most outstanding player from those two titles, and his replacement, sophomore Michael Gvozden was yanked midseason as Hopkins went on a five-game skid.

The seniors called a summit, ordering up togetherness on team dinner menus and handing out wordless wristbands in camouflage colors.

"They're army colors because they said we were on a mission," Pietramala said. "And they didn't have words because the guys said we've done enough talking."

The attitude adjustment, paired with a rededication to defense and Gvozden's ability to rediscover his inner surfer dude, worked. Gvozden, who bills himself a "laid-back guy," relaxed and Hopkins soared, winning its final six regular-season games and a first-round tourney matchup with Hofstra.

But this was supposed to be Duke's year. Hopkins' victim in each of those two championship games, the Blue Devils were the one given this season. They were loaded, not just with talent but with five players granted a fifth year of eligibility because of the athletic department's decision to squash the 2006 season amid the rape allegations.

The NCAA, usually lauded for acts of kindness, wasn't exactly greeted with warm fuzzies for its decision, nor were the players who earned the extra time. The Blue Devils already had played seven games before putting the skids on the season and the players who returned were elite, including reigning player of the year Matt Danowski.

Save for an inexplicable hiccup loss to Georgetown, Duke blew through the regular season, beating opponents by 8.3 goals per game, including Hopkins, 17-6.

"It was hard to game plan all week," coach John Danowski admitted. "These are kids. You tell them we need to do this and be careful of that, but they think, 'Coach, we got this. We already beat them by [11].'"

Instead Hopkins controlled the tempo from the outset. The Blue Devils turned in season firsts in this game, but none like they had imagined: their fewest goals in a half (two), the first time they trailed at halftime, their longest in-game goal drought (20:02).

A three-goals-in-45-seconds barrage resuscitated Duke's hopes, but the Blue Jays thwarted every comeback.

The last gasp came at the last second. Down 10-9, Danowski called a timeout with 3.9 seconds to play. The Devils got the ball to the coach's son, the first player to notch 40 goals and 40 assists in three consecutive seasons, but Gvozden stopped Danowski's shot and Duke failed to corral the rebound.

"I told our teammates to remember this feeling," fifth-year senior Dan Loftus said. "We're the first group to go to the Final Four, to play in a championship game. Hopefully we got the machine running, but getting to the Final Four isn't good enough anymore."

Getting to the Final Four was never enough for Syracuse.

Playing for a national championship if not out-and-out winning one was a birthright given to Syracuse lacrosse players with their freshman admission packet. The Gait brothers begat the Powell brothers and together they grew a dynasty that would make John Wooden proud.

The NCAA considered renaming the Final Four the Syracuse Invitational: 2005 marked the first time in 22 years the Orange failed to make it to championship weekend.

The tricky thing about birthrights and silver spoons: some whippersnapper is always angling to yank 'em out, and last year Syracuse was left with its mouth wide open. For the first time since 1982, they played the NCAA tournament without the Orange after a dismal 5-8 season.

If nothing else, though, a 5-8 slap in the face offers clarity. Coach John Desko completely revamped his staff, turning longtime defensive minders into offensive mentors and vice versa.

"It's great for re-evaluating," Desko said. "You stop and think about what you can do differently the next time around."

The lousy finish also served as a motivator, not only all season but game to game, situation to situation. What, after all, is being down in a game compared to being out?

Virginia's 8-3 lead late in the third quarter, an advantage that seemed even bigger than that five-goal differential, seemed insurmountable. The Orange defense, the back upon which Syracuse had rebuilt itself this season, struggled to contain the Cavaliers and freshman goaltender John Galloway admitted afterward, "I wasn't seeing the ball well all game."

But the Orange weren't exactly uptight about their circumstances.

"We haven't quit all year," said Mike Leveille, a Tewaaraton Trophy finalist and a guy whose easygoing personality would seem more well-suited to a good wave in Oahu than the hyperkinetic world of lacrosse. "We just kept thinking, 'We haven't fought this hard all year just to get back here.'"

The comeback was more methodical than overwhelming, but if there was a moment worth pinpointing, the sort of Aha! that told us Syracuse was still in it, it was Matt Abbott's goal with 1:14 left in the third. It made the score only 9-6 and Virginia would answer the goal not long after, but Abbott's 12-yard shot, complete with a windup before lacing the zinger past Virginia goalie Bud Petit, seemed to have a touch of attitude to it.

The real revival began with 6:10 to play, with midfielder Joel White flat on his back, dropped by a vicious crosscheck from Bray Malphrus. The penalty gave Syracuse, down just 11-9, a man advantage and the Orange quickly converted, with Brendan Loftus doing the honors.

Three minutes later, Leveille completed the turnaround, scooping up a Loftus shot that rebounded off the post and zipping it past Petit to tie the game at 11.

"I never felt like the game was slipping away," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "I was just never going to be comfortable till it was over."

Neither overtime period offered much chance to relax. Petit saved the game at least five times, turning away that many point-blank shots from Syracuse and Galloway responded with heroics of his own.

Finally, with 1:43 left in the second OT, Leveille squeezed a worm-burner just out of Petit's reach. As Petit lay prone in the crease, the 48,224 people at Gillette Stadium sat either stupefied or electrified (depending on what brand of orange they were wearing).

"We were frustrated and yeah, embarrassed last year," Abbott said. "We worked hard but we realized we had to work even harder. There aren't just four or five good programs in lacrosse anymore."

Dana O'Neil covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.