Well, it's finally here.
The 2009 Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic hits the ground running on Saturday at Baltimore's M&T Bank stadium, unofficially kicking off the season as part of a huge weekend that gets rolling with Syracuse and Virginia going toe-to-toe Friday at the Carrier Dome and continuing with the third annual event in Charm City.
This year's edition features four of the top 12 teams in the land, as No. 3 Johns Hopkins and No. 11 Princeton battle at noon, then No. 6 Maryland and No. 12 Duke take their ACC rivalry to the big stage for the first time. In addition to being the unofficial start of spring (forget Punxsutawney Phil, we'll go with Princeton coach Bill Tierney, who says "You know, this is a chance to go out there and put on a good show -- something that's going to help carry you through the rest of your season"), it's also the first in IL's trio of big-time shows in 2009, followed in April by the Big City Classic at Giants Stadium and the Day of Rivals back at M&T.
The Blue Jays and Tigers are old hat at the FOC, having played in both the 2007 and '08 editions of the event. Duke and Maryland, however, are on their maiden voyage. The Blue Devils are certainly familiar with the play in an NFL stadium, having made it to the Final Four in 2007 and again last year. Maryland, on the other hand, hasn't played in an NFL stadium since falling in the 2006 NCAA semifinals to UMass.
What should you expect to see on ESPNU on Saturday afternoon? Read on. (And for more detailed analysis on the game breakdown, check out Quint Kessenich's X's and O's on both games.)
Johns Hopkins versus Princeton
Saturday at noon (ESPNU) -- M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
Princeton is young, but not young enough to have no memories of last year's game against the Blue Jays.
Hopkins, which holds a 54-24 advantage in the all-time series between the venerable schools, ran out to an 8-0 lead and was up 10-1 at the half before the Tigers battled back to make it respectable with a 14-9 final score. "Our guys feel totally embarrassed about last year," Tierney said.
Both squads are drastically different from a year ago, with Princeton riding IL's No. 1 recruiting class for a youthful feel and the Jays needing to replace much of the offense that helped carry them to the NCAA finals. They also had similar opening games, with the Jays rallying from an early deficit to win going away against Siena and the Tigers plotting a similar chart in a win against Canisius.
"There were no surprises from that first game -- it took some time to get comfortable being back on the field, but we got into a rhythm," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "It was exactly what we thought it would be. We thought it would be tight early, then settle into playing how we're capable. After watching Princeton, that's exactly what they did too."
While both squads are traditionally known for their defenses (and gave up a combined nine goals in their openers), there are plenty of threats on attack hitting the turf on Saturday. Princeton got nine of its 14 goals against Canisius out of the attack unit of Jack McBride (4 goals, 1 assist), Chris McBride (2 goals) and Tommy Davis (3 goals), while each of the first line middies -- Mark Kovler, Rich Sgalardi and Scott MacKenzie -- had a goal. Steven Boyle had four goals and two assists against Siena for a Hopkins offense that will be driven more from the attack than last year.
"We're a team that's going to have to have new people step up," Pietramala said. "That was one of the pleasing things we saw [against Siena]. We walked away from that game with seven goals out of our attack and that hasn't been the case in the past."
Kyle Wharton also had a hat-trick out of the attack against the Saints, while the first midfield of Michael Kimmel, Brian Christopher and Mark Bryan made like their Tiger counterparts with a goal apiece.
The defensive experience edge goes to the Jays, with an entire lineup of returning starters in front of junior Michael Gvozden. Princeton had freshmen starting in goal (Tyler Fiorito) and at close defense (Chad Wiedmaier). "A bunch of our guys were playing in games with and against their high school buddies last year at this time," joked Tierney. "We're wierd-young. We've got youth, but we're really experienced at attack and first midfield. We've got youth sprinkled on defense, so you just don't know how it's going to play out."
Neither coach expects the contest to be a high-scoring one and both predict the game will be closer in tone to the FOC '07 double-OT finish than last year's blowout.
"Look at last year as an aberration," Pietramala said. "They played as poor a first half probably as they did all season, then we played probably our worst half in the second. Neither of these teams is likely to do that again; I expect this one to be much more of a one- or two-goal game like two years ago. I have too much respect for their coach and that program to think anything different."
Duke vs. Maryland
Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (ESPNU) -- M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
Both the Terrapins and Blue Devils came into this spring with a lot of buzz -- Maryland for having one of the top groups of talent returning from a year ago and the addition of Will Yeatman, and Duke for how much things have changed with the departure of the core group of last year's NCAA semifinalists.
But last week, both squads stumbled after 2-0 starts, with Maryland dropping to neighbor Georgetown and Harvard stunning Duke in Durham 9-6. The Terps were dealt yet another blow with the news that defenseman/longstick middie Brian Farrell will miss the FOC. So who's going to dust themselves off and get what will surely prove to be a major quality win in the opening of the always tough ACC season?
Interestingly, Duke is probably the best on-paper matchup defensively with Maryland. If coach Dave Cottle goes with a starting line of Grant Catalino, Will Yeatman and Ryan Young -- like he has while lefty sniper Travis Reed works back from shin splints -- Duke can counter that massive line with monsters of its own in Parker McKee and Ryan McFadyen. (As pointed out by Christian Swezey in his FOC Countdown, it's not often you can have the potential for two Division I football players -- Yeatman and McFadyen -- guarding each other in a lacrosse game in an NFL stadium.)
As a result, Blue Devils coach John Danowski is more concerned with slowing down the Terps' midfield, which scored seven of the team's 10 goals against the Hoyas.
"There are always ways to figure out how to neutralize attackmen," Danowski said. "But middies are the key to any game. If they can get their hands free to shoot, you have to slide to them and that's when the attack can get open. And if you let that attack get open, it's gonna be a long day."
Both teams have been good about spreading things around on offense -- with 10 Duke players finding the back of the net in three games -- and a good mix of attack and midfield threats. Maryland has nearly 20 players with goals, but it bears noting that the average ranking of the Blue Devils' first three opponents has been significantly higher than Maryland's. Catalino and Yeatman both have 10 points out of the Maryland attack, with middies Jeff Reynolds, Dan Groot and Jeremy Sieverts combining for 14 goals and six assists.
Duke has Ned Crotty (four goals, eight assists) leading the attack with 12 points, followed by Max Quinzani's four goals and one assist, while midfielders Brad Ross and Steve Schoeffel have six and five goals, respectively. Where the Devils have struggled early in the season has been getting the ball into those offensive specialists' sticks.
"That's what we really have to work on at this point in the season," Danowski said. "We need to do a better job of clearing the ball and facing off."
By his stats, his team possessed the ball in Harvard's box just 12 times in the first three quarters and only 18 times total on Sunday -- compared to the Crimson's 26. The Blue Devils have cleared successfully worse than 75 percent on the year (19-for-23 against Harvard) and have taken fewer than 50 percent of their face-offs.
"You've always got to be getting better at facing off," said Danowski, who will have to try to slow down Maryland's Bryn Holmes (a scorching 81 percent so far) if he wants to keep the ball out of the Terps' dangerous offensive hands. "Wing play is going to be big in this game."
It should be very interesting to see which teams show up to play on Saturday -- the 2-0 starts or the one-game losing streaks. Clearly both Duke and Maryland are still plenty young and both have question marks, but the talent on both teams is unmistakable. Will the Face-Off Classic be where one makes its first step towards the Final Four in Foxborough?
"At this point, we're all still a work in progress," Danowski said. "Teams will have flashes where they play great, but there's still a ton of mistakes -- this part of the season it's still about playing hard and learning from what you do wrong so you get better every game."
For more on the 2009 Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic, check out Inside Lacrosse.