Role players key in teams' NCAA Tourney run


They are the heart and soul of a lacrosse team. You don't win an NCAA title without the unheralded scrappers. They're the undistinguished, the relative unknowns who set the table for the stars to succeed. Every great team has them.

In the NCAA Tournament, their roles become magnified. Here are some of the unsung heroes I'll be watching this weekend.

Providence vs. No. 1 Duke
Top-seeded Duke (14-2) kicks off the first round Saturday (ESPNU, noon ET), when the Blue Devils host Providence (7-9).

The ACC champs lost 9-8 to Johns Hopkins in the 2005 national finals. Defensive midfielder Michael Ward burst onto the scene that year as a sophomore.

Be sure to watch Ward -- he's dedicated to his craft and is fundamentally sound this year. Once a wild and impatient checker, Ward has been relying on solid footwork and angles this spring. He has really bought in to the principles that coordinator Chris Gabrielli has preached from Day 1.

For Duke and Ward, big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.

Delaware vs. No. 2 Virginia
Virginia hosts Delaware (11-5) on Sunday afternoon (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET). The Blue Hens' best athlete is Brett Manney.

"Brett can defend anyone on the opposing team which gives us the option to switch our poles to others," said Delaware coach Bob Shillinglaw.

Manney's stats are undistinguished, but his contributions are overwhelming. In addition to his regular shift, Manney plays man down, is the designated clearer in specific situations and the man-down clearer.

"He's the most outgoing, personable person I have met in my coaching career," Shillinglaw said. "He steps on the field and gives energy to the defense and entire team with his communication and enthusiasm."

There is nothing obscure about Virginia. The defending champs are 12-3 and fresh after off a two-week break. But the Cavaliers' margin for error is razor-thin this spring, having played six one-goal games.

Long-stick midfielder Mike Timms was a little over shadowed in the ACC by Duke's Nick O'Hara, but watching Timms play is a treat. He's 6-foot-5 with incredible reach and has the nation's best trail check.

"Mike is a real catalyst for us," coach Dom Starsia said. "He has the look in his eye of someone always trying to make a play. He's assertive. He puts the ball on the ground for us, he picks it up, he covers the other team's best middie and he is very good at directing the team defense."

Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins is playing in its 36th straight NCAA Tournament -- the longest streak in any NCAA sport. The Blue Jays welcome Notre Dame to Homewood Field on Saturday night (ESPNU, 7:30 ET).

The Fighting Irish are the winners of eight straight games and sport the nation's second ranked defense. But have you ever heard of Bill Liva?

"He fills in on the first two midfield lines if one of the guys can't go," said Irish coach Kevin Corrigan. "Bill plays on man down. He's the smartest team defensive player in South Bend. He knows everything we do -- it's like having a coach on the field."

Liva's suggestions to the staff are astute and well thought-out. "He's a guy who does things you could have four to five guys doing," Corrigan said. "He's the ultimate 'utility' guy."

Towson vs. No. 4 Cornell
Towson (8-6) travels to Ithaca, N.Y., to take on the undefeated Big Red on Saturday afternoon (ESPNU, 2:30 ET). Cornell (13-0) has been ranked No. 1 for nine straight weeks. It is a team of role players.

Two players, however, stand out: Henry Bartlett on attack, and Ethan Vedder, a converted goalie turned long pole.

"Henry has worked his tail off for four years, without hesitation or complaint, to be in a starter's role this year," said Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni. "He just scores goals -- shoots 57 percent and he never stops working, as a leader and role model for his teammates."

Cornell has held six opponents scoreless for at least one quarter. Vedder has gradually improved his skills and understanding of the defensive end. "He's our best in transition," Tambroni said.

Towson coach Tony Seaman has led three teams to championship weekend -- Penn (1988), Johns Hopkins (four times) and Towson (2001).

Towson's top foot soldier is Matt Latonick. He started alongside Rudy Gay on the high school hard wood. Now he's Towson's best midfield defender. "Matt is fast," Seaman said. "He clears the ball well and triggers our fast breaks."

Latonick has given up very few one-on-one goals this spring. "I put him up for All American," Seaman said. "He's our best player this year."

Loyola vs. No. 5 Albany
The No. 5-seeded Great Danes (14-2) host Loyola (Md.) on Sunday (ESPNU, 2:30 p.m. ET). Albany's headliners are Frank Resetarits and Merrick Thomson, but when you watch the Great Danes on tape, they have a handful of grunts who do the dirty work.

Tyler Endres is Albany's top short-stick defender. At times he's been overshadowed by Jordan Levine and the Ammann twins (Steve and Mike). His impact can be inconspicuous on a box score, but fans watching the Great Danes can't miss Endres.

"Tyler is great in transition and on ground balls," said Albany coach Scott Marr. "He makes the subtle plays."

Endres is successful because he works his butt off in the weight room and understands and relishes his role on the field. "He doesn't worry about if he gets attention or not," Marr said. "He just does what he has to do to help us win."

Loyola (7-5) is dangerous. The Greyhounds have wins over Duke, Syracuse and UMass.

Princeton vs. No. 6 Georgetown

Princeton (10-3) visits the No. 6-seeded Hoyas on Sunday (ESPNU, noon ET) in what will likely be the lowest scoring game of the first round. Georgetown (11-2) held 10 opponents below 10 goals, while the Tigers have the nation's top-rated defense.

Princeton's Chris Peyser operates in obscurity while Dan Cocoziello, Zach Jungers, goalie Alex Hewit and coach Bill Tierney garner the headlines.

It's always difficult to tell whether the Tigers defenders or their zealous slide packages are responsible for winning a matchup. Regardless, Peyser neutralized Hofstra's Tom Dooley and Cornell's David Mitchell during the regular season.

Georgetown has exceptional freshmen in Andrew Brancaccio, Barney Ehrmann, Craig Dowd and Chris Nixon. Rookies have accounted for 38 goals. Nixon is the most unheralded of the group. The rookie does a bit of everything -- he snags ground balls, plays on the wing of faceoffs and is a playmaker.

UMBC vs. No. 7 Maryland

UMBC (10-5) and No. 7 Maryland (10-5) will face off on Sunday night at 7.30 p.m. ET on ESPNU. The Retrievers have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons. Freshman long-stick midfielder Mike Camardo is their under-the-radar star. Camardo got minimal playing time in March, but stepped into a major role when all-leaguer Dan Carmack suffered injuries early in the season.

Throughout April, Carmado drew the top assignment and is the team leader in caused turnovers. He capped the season with a brilliant effort in the America East semifinal win over Binghamton. Coach Don Zimmerman awarded Camardo a game ball for his seven ground ball effort while holding Binghamton's Steve Carlson to one goal. Camardo never seems to tire and he logged tons of minutes in that game.

It's very rare when a freshman can set the emotional tone for a team, but at Maryland, it is happening. The Terps' Bryn Holmes is a throwback from another era. He faces off, plays man-down and plays short stick defensive midfield. He was a two-time national prep wrestling champion who pinned his way through the tournament his senior year. The 165-pounder has the knack for a well-timed hit. And he's a pit bull in cleats.

"Bryn is the toughest kid I have ever coached," said Maryland coach Dave Cottle.

Navy vs. No. 8. North Carolina
Navy (11-3) faces the No. 8 Tar Heels in the first round on Saturday night (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET).

Midshipman Geoff Leone is a defensive midfielder with exceptional feet and body control. He has a jack hammer cross-check hold.

"Geoff is very smart and understands our defense," said Navy assistant coach John Tillman. "He doesn't beat himself and watches hours of film."

Navy has given up double figure scoring only four times in its last 27 games. Leone's most critical role in the NCAA playoffs will be in the clearing game.

North Carolina (9-5) went from 4-10 in 2006 to nine wins and the NCAA playoffs this season. Jack Ryan's career path followed the same trajectory. He wasn't highly recruited and saw limited time as a midfielder as a freshman. Ryan started playing long stick defense late last season. With the graduation of Stephen McElduff, UNC had an opening down low. Ryan filled in perfectly.

He does everything coach John Haus asks him. He's incognito and doesn't have gaudy statistics, but has a positive attitude and has become the glue at that end of the field.

These grunts and grinders might not get their names in box scores or headlines, but their success or failure will define the team's performance this weekend and throughout the tournament.

Much can be accomplished by teamwork when no one is concerned about who gets credit.

Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He will be covering Notre Dame at Johns Hopkins on Saturday, and Princeton-Georgetown and Maryland-UMBC on Sunday. He can be reached at quint@insidelacrosse.com. ESPN.com is working with Inside Lacrosse to provide you with news and analysis. Click here for more coverage.