- Quint Kessenich, ESPNU
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The 2007 lacrosse season is heating up -- the fans can see it and the players can feel it. We're headed toward something special in the NCAA Tournament and on Memorial Day.
Easter weekend promises to be revealing. On Friday night Maryland visits Navy. Saturday's slate is full. Unbeaten Albany is at New York state rival Stony Brook, Bucknell faces Patriot League rival Army and Duke returns to Homewood Field to play Johns Hopkins (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET). Are the Tar Heels for real? North Carolina travels to Virginia, trying to prove its win over Hopkins wasn't a one-hit wonder. Can things get worse for Syracuse? Princeton hosts a sub-.500 Orange squad in New Jersey.
Last week's action was by far the best I've seen this year -- action packed with a playoff feel. The level of play has become crisp -- with sharp passing, precise patterns, accurate shooting, jaw-dropping moves, scrappy ground-ball play and bone-rattling hits.
The Syracuse-Loyola game on Saturday in Baltimore was tremendous. This game had it all. Transitional flow from defense to offense, hits, great goals, passion, a full house of rowdy students in the stands, sun and a tension-filled finish that bordered on being one of the greatest of all time.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Navy and Georgetown stood toe-to-toe for 60 minutes and left their guts on the field. What a great display of lacrosse!
The biggest question this week will be how do teams handle the adversity of a loss (Maryland, Hopkins, Navy) and how others manage success (Georgetown, UNC, Cornell, Albany).
Navy and Maryland meet on Friday night in Navy Marine Corps Stadium, with both teams coming off setbacks in emotionally draining games. Bounce back or take a step back?
On Saturday, a previously unbeaten Navy team gave away three goals on failed clears while Georgetown shot the ball more efficiently. In the end, the Hoyas won the game because they had been in hard-fought games against elite competition. Georgetown has now won four straight games over Navy.
"We need the guys to be fresh and they need to have confidence," said Navy assistant coach John Tillman. "We reviewed things [Monday] and we are not looking back anymore. I told the guys this morning that if we are to be a great team, we have to go through some tough times and adversity."
Maryland represents a test.
"We need to correct the mistakes, learn from the past and live in the now," Tillman said. "If we bounce back, we will have passed the first of our many challenges. I did not think anything would be easy for this team. We can be good, but it won't be easy. The atmosphere Friday night will be outstanding."
Anytime you square off against the Mids, a key will be ground-ball hustle. You must match Navy's swarming attitude. A more subtle key this Friday will be how Maryland shoots against Colin Finnegan, who plays on an unusually high arc. In a low-scoring game, faceoffs become paramount. Navy has two of the best draw men.
"William Wallace [71 percent] and Mikelis Visgauss [52 percent] need to play well at the X, and our wing guys have to play better. Visgauss could be a wild card," Tillman said.
Princeton (5-2) has won four straight, but in key games the Tigers have struggled to score goals. They tallied six against both Virginia and Hopkins and only five when they played Hofstra and Yale. In those four games, the Tigers have shot only 22-for-139 (15.82 percent).
If there ever was a game in which Princeton needs to get healthy on offense, it's Saturday. Syracuse (3-4) has given up double digits in five of seven contests.
Opponents are shooting 30.4 percent against the Orange and have outscored them 20-11 in the third quarter. What has been most surprising to me is how teams are running against the Orange.
Meanwhile, Duke and Hopkins reunite in Baltimore -- they last made acquaintances in the 2005 NCAA final. Duke has been terrific on the road this spring, recording wins at Maryland, North Carolina and Georgetown. Hopkins looks to recalibrate after a loss to North Carolina last week. The loss was the second straight for Hopkins, marking the first two-game losing streak for the Blue Jays in the same season since 2000. The Blue Jays are 28-2 in the month of April under head coach Dave Pietramala and 52-2 in April since the start of the 1997 season.
Duke's top defender, Tony McDevitt, is back in the starting lineup after missing four games with a knee injury. McDevitt adds a certain toughness and may shed his knee brace on Saturday.
The marquee matchup will be between Hopkins midfielder Paul Rabil and Duke defensive midfielder Nick O'Hara. O'Hara might just be the Blue Devils' MVP right now. He's doing everything asked of him and doing it really well. O'Hara, Michael Ward and Ed Douglas form the nation's top defensive midfield trio. I expect a low scoring defensive struggle - which will be decided by specialty situations.
(Editor's note: Read more about the Rabil-O'Hara matchup here.)
Duke's Matt Danowski and Virginia's Ben Rubeor are 1-2 in the race for the Tewaaraton Trophy. Rubeor has been freakish this year, but Danowski's impact is much deeper than goals and assists. Keep in mind what Matt has gone through during this calendar year. He has stepped up as a captain for a Duke team that battles daily distractions. He's handled media pressure that no lacrosse player in the history of the game has gone through. He's playing for a new coach -- who happens to be his father. And his role has evolved; he's being asked to do things offensively that he hasn't done before. Danowski has been amazing to watch.
(Editor's note: Check out the Nike Tewaaraton Tracker here.)
Upset alert! Albany is vulnerable Saturday on Long Island against Stony Brook. This series is heated. The Great Danes are ranked No. 2 in the country and have been focused on improving their clearing and EMO. They've had a tendency to surge early in games and then downshift .
April is also a month when expectations can become a reality.
"April means that teams are starting to feel the pressure of where they are as far as the NCAA playoffs are concerned," said Albany coach Scott Marr. "It gets tougher because more teams are fighting to stay alive and coming after you. A role reversal for us, because we have been fighting for the big win in years past and now we are a big win for someone."
Quint Kessenich played goalie for Johns Hopkins in 1990 and is a lacrosse analyst for ESPNU. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN.com is working with Inside Lacrosse to provide you with news and analysis. Click here for more coverage.