The festivities are set for Saturday's NCAA Division I men's lacrosse semifinals at M&T Bank Stadium. But as far as which of the four teams — No. 5 seed Duke, No. 6 Denver, No. 7 Virginia and unseeded Maryland — is the front-runner to capture the national title, it's anybody's guess.

"It's so even, and I don't remember a final four where anyone can really win," ESPN analyst and former Syracuse All-American midfielder Paul Carcaterra said Thursday. "There was always that team that had a nice run but was never really a threat to win it all, and we have four teams here that, honestly, I'd be lying to you if I told you that I think I know who's going to win this national championship. And it's a great thing because it makes the final four so interesting."

Duke (14-5) is the reigning national champion and boasts the fifth-most prolific offense in Division I after averaging 12.6 goals this season.

But graduation and injuries sapped the Blue Devils of a good amount of talent, and with just two seniors in the starting lineup, expectations aren't that high.

"My other years here, we had expectations of where we wanted to be at the end of the year, and I think this year has been different because we haven't had those expectations," senior attackman Zach Howell said. "We're playing as a team, and we're still not really sure of what we can become this weekend."

Duke's high-octane offense will be countered by Maryland's suffocating defense, which has surrendered just 11 goals in two postseason games and boasts the semifinals' hottest goalkeeper in redshirt freshman Niko Amato.

But history has not been kind to the Terps (12-4), who are 9-10 in the semifinals and just 2-7 in the finals.

"These guys have had so much heartbreak in those quarterfinals, getting there and not getting it done," coach John Tillman said of the program's first final four appearance since 2006. "And you can go one or two ways with it. Sometimes you can succumb to that disappointment and that adversity or you know, [what] we've talked about is, maybe that's the way it has to be for us. Everything has to be hard because our road is going to be hard."

The same could be said for Virginia (11-5), which has endured suspensions, dismissals and unmet expectations. But led by Tewaaraton Award finalist and junior attackman Steele Stanwick, the Cavaliers have weathered the storm and are poised to claim their first NCAA crown since 2006.

"We've kind of gotten through it as best as we can," coach Dom Starsia said. "Throughout this year, this team has had outstanding leadership, and it's been a group that has practiced well. It's a good group to be around."

The newcomer to the party is Denver (15-2). But the Pioneers will lean on the experience of coach Bill Tierney, who helped Princeton capture six national titles, and a carefree attitude that comes with first-time exuberance.

"I think we're all pretty happy with what's happened, but at the same time, I think we're all looking around and saying to ourselves, 'We've made it this far. Why not try to get that championship?'" senior defenseman Jeff Brown said. "That starts Saturday when we play Virginia."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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