- Quint Kessenich, ESPNU
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Fifty-six schools play Division I men's lacrosse. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, there are roughly 29 teams mathematically in position to win the NCAA championship.
Automatic qualifiers will emerge from seven conferences. Cornell has already won the Ivy AQ and in the next week-and-a-half, six other teams will gain NCAA berths. The America East, Colonial, MAAC and Patriot League award their NCAA berth to the conference tournament winner.
Ohio State (8-4) hosts Notre Dame (9-3) on Saturday for the Great Western Lacrosse League championship and an NCAA bid. Who is ready to play their best game of the year?
In all likelihood, the Buckeyes need the AQ to qualify for the tournament, while even with a loss, Notre Dame's résumé would put it on the bubble. With a win the Irish will be slotted anywhere from No. 9 to No. 12; with a loss they could fall to between Nos. 12-15.
Both squads have gotten hot in April. Ohio State has won four league games in a row while the Fighting Irish have captured six straight overall. Notre Dame's defense has been terrific during the last eight games, allowing just 4.3 goals per game.
"Guys are understanding their roles very well -- and working hard at the little things that it takes to play good team defense," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "All the credit goes to our veteran players, assistant coach Gerry Byrne, and to the terrific goaltending Joey Kemp is giving us."
After a 2-2 start, the Irish have won 7 of 8.
"Part of our overall improvement has been slowing down and being more selective on the offensive end so we reduce the amount of defense we are playing and the easy opportunities others can get against us," Corrigan said. "We don't hold the ball -- but we are trying to play smarter -- a lesson hard earned from early losses to Cornell and UNC."
The keys for Notre Dame are fairly simple.
"We need to do everything well this weekend, but clearing efficiently, playing good team defense and handling their multiple defenses are at the top of the list," said Corrigan.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' transformation began during spring break -- on their pilgrimage to Baltimore. They lost back-to-back games against Towson (8-4) and UMBC (8-4) and returned to the Midwest, where coach Joe Breschi had a heart-to-heart with his squad.
"We sat down as a team and said the playoffs start next week when conference play begins," Breschi said. "We challenged the guys to focus on details, the simple plays and teamwork."
This is the time of year when freshmen are no longer rookies. It's late April, they are ready to contribute and can become playmakers overnight.
"We have also matured as a team, with several freshmen coming up big over the weekend -- James Green, Mario Ventiquattro, Ryan Lowe and Paul Beery," said Breschi, now in his 10th season in Columbus. "They have been taking some of the pressure off Kevin Buchanan and Joel Dalgarno.
The Buckeyes have also received great play from goalie Stefan Schroder (.564 save percentage), a transfer from Onondaga CC, where he helped lead his team win the 2006 JUCO national championship, earning first-team All-American honors as a sophomore.
"Stefan Schroder, our goalie, has been solid in the net during the conference run, with saves, steady clearing and vocal leadership," Breschi said.
The Buckeyes' best player is Buchanan, a junior from Calvert Hall College High School. Other alums include UMBC goalie Jeremy Blevins, Johns Hopkins attackman Kevin Huntley and Towson midfielder Nick Williams.
Buchanan has been rotated to midfield -- a switch that has strengthened the offense. He has 19 goals and 22 assists.
"He's terrific in front of the cage," Breschi said. "Our freshmen have really come along. The emergence of Mario Ventiquattro has been great, teaming up with sophomores Dalgarno and Jeff Ryan."
Ventiquattro completed his first career hat trick at Denver on Sunday (his last goal came with just 11 seconds remaining in overtime). The rookie helped the Buckeyes to league road wins against Air Force (10-6) and Denver (10-9), registering four goals and two assists in the two wins. He was named the GWLL's player of the week.
The Buckeyes are building confidence in Columbus, one win at a time. They have an excellent man-down unit (they rank No. 1 nationally) and have held opponents to just a .145 success rate (8-for-55). The Buckeyes also shoot the ball extremely well -- converting on 34 percent of their shots, compared to 24 percent for their opponents.
With 23 goals, Dalgarno is a solid finisher from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, and among a long list of Canadian imports lighting up the scoreboards this season, including Duke's Zack Greer, Albany's Merrick Thomson, Cornell's David Mitchell, UMBC's Cayle Ratcliffe and Virginia's Garrett Billings.
With a Tournament berth on the line, Midwestern lacrosse fans are sure to be flocking to Columbus for this showdown.
"We have to stay the course," Breschi said. "We haven't achieved our goal yet, but we have an opportunity to play a terrific Notre Dame team this weekend with the conference championship on the line."
Conference tournaments heat up
The Patriot League tournament also begins this weekend in Annapolis, Md. Navy and Army clash again on Friday. The Cadets have dropped five in a row and the Navy seniors are 6-0 against their rivals.
The Mids have some injury issues -- they finished the Johns Hopkins game last Saturday without their best defender, Jordan DiNola, who was injured. The junior is the leader of the team's defensive corps, its top cover guy and the most confident ball handler. Jeff Leone, the Academy's best short-stick midfielder and clearer, was dinged up as well. The absence of those players contributed to errors in the clearing game.
Colgate (9-4) and Bucknell (11-3) will square off for the second consecutive weekend in the other semifinal. Colgate has won five straight overall, including Saturday's 9-7 win over the Bison.
If Navy wins the Patriot League, the conference will not get another team into this year's NCAA Tournament.
The ACC tournament is all about redundancy. Virginia-Maryland and North Carolina-Duke are the semifinal matchups. Duke is the hottest team in the conference -- the Blue Devils have won six games in a row. All four ACC schools should get NCAA invites, and the conference may have two of the top four seeds. These rematches just add confusion to their playoff résumés.
The fans and players would both be better served if there were different matchups. College basketball has the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, which pits hoops teams from each conference against each other. BracketBusters has become a staple of the basketball schedule, allowing mid-majors an opportunity to play on a national stage against a suitable opponent.
How cool would it be if instead of conference tournaments, an ACC-Patriot League Challenge was established? How about a ECAC-CAA Challenge? How does Navy-Virginia sound? Play the game in Washington, D.C., or in Northern Virginia and attract new fans. Fresh matchups would add intrigue to the NCAA selection process and spur fan interest.
One of the 29 teams with the dream of an NCAA title is Syracuse. The Orange were 3-6 on April 10 after falling to Cornell in the Carrier Dome. They've bounced back with consecutive wins and travel to UMass Saturday. If the Orange can beat UMass and then Colgate, a No. 10 slot in the NCAA Tournament could be theirs. Syracuse will have to win eight straight games to capture the gold trophy. That equates to winning a 256-team bracket.
The UMass-SU series is one of the most heated in lacrosse. I witnessed the Minutemen end Syracuse's streak of 22 consecutive trips to championship weekend in May 2005. UMass' playoff hopes are very slim, but the Minutemen have an opportunity to send Syracuse packing for the summer. Saturday will be an emotionally charged day at Garber Field. This is a win-or-go-home game.
Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He will be in Amherst, Mass., on Saturday as UMass hosts Syracuse on ESPNU at 3 p.m. ET. 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.