Commentary

Big East bragging rights on the line

No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 4 Syracuse square off Saturday night in the Carrier Dome

Originally Published: April 29, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

This is just the kind of game the Big East was hoping to see when the league began sponsorship of men's lacrosse last year. Two of the country's top teams will face off Saturday night with the Big East title and NCAA tournament implications on the line.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ridgway
Lance King/Icon SMIKevin Ridgway leads Notre Dame's lockdown defense.

Top-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame, 10-0, meets No. 4 Syracuse (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET) at the Carrier Dome. The 12-1 Orange's one loss came against Cornell on April 12. The Irish are 5-0 in the Big East and finish league play against Syracuse, which is 4-0 and still must face conference foe St. John's on May 7.

"It's great for lacrosse," Syracuse coach John Desko said of Saturday's showdown. "With Syracuse, which has been the No. 1 team for most of the year, and Notre Dame, which is now the No. 1 team -- to have that kind of battle on national television and have it be for the Big East championship."

Admittedly, the Syracuse program -- which has won 11 NCAA titles -- and its supporters were apprehensive about being part of the Big East rather than remaining an independent. The concern was that it would do much more to benefit the other teams in the conference than it would the Orange.

But Big East membership doesn't prevent Syracuse from still facing fellow powers such as Johns Hopkins and Virginia; in fact, the Orange's schedule is as strong as ever. And the matchups like this weekend's help the sport's overall profile and bring in new fans.

"We think we'll have an outstanding crowd at the Carrier Dome," Desko said. "We've been in a lot of professional arenas this year, and we just feel the Carrier Dome, because of its size and the crowd, is the best of all those venues. So that will all add to the excitement of the game."

Notre Dame made the NCAA championship game for the first time last year, falling 6-5 in overtime to Duke. The Irish lost goalkeeper Scott Rodgers to graduation, but still have the best defense in the country this season, allowing an average of just 5.9 goals per game.

Keeper John Kemp, a sophomore whose older brother, Joey, formerly starred in goal for the Irish, has made a seamless transition in replacing Rodgers.

"You're never sure how it's going to come together," Irish coach Kevin Corrigan said of the team's defense this year. "But we knew we had some guys back, like Kevin Ridgway and Sam Barnes, and some young guys who were working hard to earn their place on the field. They were more the wild card, but they've come through and played very well for the most part.

"John has been terrific. We kind of knew what we had with him, watching him all of last year and how he handled himself. Having had his brother here, it set a high level of comfort that John was going to be good for us."

Syracuse is also very strong defensively, with senior All-American John Galloway in goal. And the Orange, who most recently won the NCAA title in 2008 and '09, are traditionally one of the most dynamic offensive teams each season.

"They are always so good at playing to their strengths," Corrigan said of the Orange, who are led by Stephen Keogh's 26 goals this season. "They have a great sense of awareness about themselves as well as what particular teams are going to give to them. Because of that, they play with a lot of confidence and have a lot of guys who can make plays."

Desko said his group has seen just about every type of defense this year, a good preparation for what they'll face against the Irish.

[+] EnlargeStephen Keogh
Syracuse Athletics Stephen Keogh fuels Syracuse's fast-paced attack.

"Many have chosen to play a slower tempo, maybe concede some things off riding and clearing, and kind of bunker down on defense," Desko said. "We've seen a lot of zone defenses this year. We've just had to play differently; people's game plan has been: 'We know Syracuse likes to push the ball, so let's take that away from them and hopefully frustrate them at the offensive end. Maybe they'll have some turnovers and take some bad shots.'

"We've tried to come up with different ways to score goals. We've tried to ride more. We've tried to push the ball in clearing situations, and to get some goals off of faceoffs. In these kinds of games, we've been able to manufacture some goals in different ways than settled offense. Fortunately, that's been the difference in some of the games we've played."

And that might be the difference Saturday, too.

"I think every goal is going to make a difference," Corrigan said. "I don't think it's going to be a real high-scoring game."

But it will be a very high-profile game. It needs no sales pitch for lacrosse fans, and it's the kind of matchup that even those who don't follow the sport closely should enjoy. You'll see two teams that are very capable of winning the NCAA title on Memorial Day.

"I think these are the games that guys love to play," Corrigan said. "It's a game in which our guys know they're playing one of the best teams in the country."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.