Q&A with ESPN's Matt Ward

ESPN analyst Matt Ward provided commentary on No. 14 Princeton’s 11-4 thumping of Penn this past Saturday, and the 2006 Tewaaraton Award winner and former Virginia All-American attackman will do the same thing when No. 1 Virginia visits No. 10 Maryland March 31. Ward discussed whether No. 1 Virginia or No. 2 Johns Hopkins needs to win Saturday, No. 10 Maryland’s chances of beating No. 13 North Carolina, and the one team – or three – that has exceeded his expectations.

Virginia coach Dom Starsia said that perhaps even more significant than the final score of Saturday’s game between the No. 1 Cavaliers and No. 2 Johns Hopkins will be the sense of where these respective programs are. Do you agree?

You always want to go into a game and come out victorious, but I think what we’ve seen in college lacrosse over the last two years is, it’s about assessing where you are during the season, not your win-loss record. I think if you look at what Duke has done over the past five years under coach John Danowski, they kind of roll the ball out at the beginning of the year and see where their athletes are, and at the end of the year, they’re playing their best lacrosse. Virginia at this time last year was reeling. They had just lost to Johns Hopkins and Syracuse. It’s about realizing what you have. Yes, at the end of the day, you want to win, but championships aren’t won in March. They’re won at the end of May, and I think you have to be able to evaluate your team in terms of where you’re succeeding and where you’re struggling. Identifying those situations is definitely more important than wins and losses.

That being said, does one side need this win more than the other?

Johns Hopkins hasn’t had a whole lot of competition at this point in the season. Syracuse is a good team, and Johns Hopkins came out and played great. Syracuse, to me, I’m not sure what they are as a team. So I think this is Hopkins’ first game against a real quality opponent. So they’d like to come out and play great lacrosse, and especially with it being an away game, it’s going to be very difficult for them, but if they can pull it off, this is a team with all kinds of talent and momentum. For me, I think Syracuse did the lacrosse community a disservice by short-sticking some of these Hopkins middies and letting them shoot. If [junior] John Ranagan and [junior] John Greeley and [sophomore] Rob Guida get their shots off and start shooting better, watch out because this will be a loaded team. The defense is always going to play great, but if that midfield is able to gain confidence and momentum, they’re going to be tough to beat.

What did you take from No. 5 Notre Dame’s 10-9 triple overtime win against No. 6 Denver Sunday?

Notre Dame’s defense is unbelievable. They’ve finished in the top five in goals against for the last five years. So it’s not just about the players they have there, but the system that’s put in place. They know who they want to recruit, and they’re going to be able to shut down some of the best offenses in the country. On the other side, Denver is going to be a team that’s going to be there in the spring. I think a lot of this season is unfolding like it did last year where they may not necessarily have the best record, but their offense is special. The defense is getting better, and if that defense starts to click and can hold teams to seven, eight or nine goals, they’re going to be able to outscore people.

With three wins last week, is No. 11 Duke back to its usual spring form?

To be honest, I never really thought that should have even been a question. When you look at Duke, you should just chalk up three losses early in the season against teams that they should beat. My sense of Coach Danowski’s philosophy is, I’m not sure he even game-plans for those games early in the season. He just wants the kids to get out there and play and see who his horses are, and then as the season progresses, he identifies the right players in the right places, and then he starts to put things together. It’s something that has worked for him, and this is the time of the season when they really start to roll. It’s right about when the [Atlantic Coast Conference] season begins to pick up, and they begin playing their best lacrosse. For me, they’re a scary, scary team. I think there’s a reason why many people had them as the preseason No. 1. The midfield is loaded, the attack has some elite dodgers, and their defense is so long and rangy. And they’re always going to win groundballs. That’s what allows a team to excel during the season, having possessions from groundballs. Duke is as good or the best at picking up groundballs with their long sticks. They’ve been phenomenal at it, and they have been for the past decade.

One of the teams Duke beat last week was No. 13 North Carolina, which has three of its last four contests. Should Tar Heels fans be worried?

I would say yes. I think they’re a team that is very talented, but the pieces all seem the same to me. By that, I mean that North Carolina is basically throwing 11 attackmen out on the field throughout the course of the game and trying to get them to gel. I don’t know if that necessarily works when you don’t have a traditional middie out there. Yes, they have [senior] Jimmy Dunster and a couple of freshmen who have been going up and down the field, but the other day, they were trying to initiate all of their offense from the attack on the field, and it doesn’t seem like the pieces are matching up with one another at this point. Does that mean it can’t change? No. they’ve been battling injuries, which have affected one of the top attackman in the country [sophomore Nicky Galasso], and they’re slowly bringing him along, but I guess my concern would be that the toughest part of the schedule is about to hit. If they lose to Virginia and lose to Johns Hopkins, then you have to begin thinking, ‘OK, what is our win-loss record at the end of the year?’ They definitely have the talent. They just have to figure out how to put the right people in the right places and stop turning the ball over carelessly. As a coaching staff, that has to be the most frustrating. They turn the ball over carelessly more than any other team I’ve ever seen, and that’s simply a focus thing on the players’ part. They need to clean that up. And if they do, their offense will be scary.

Can North Carolina beat No. 10 Maryland this Saturday?

I think they can, but I think Maryland is the better team. I think when you look at Maryland, I think they’re one of the frontrunners. They face off very well, and they have a lot of depth in the midfield, and whenever you have that combination, you’re going to be great. It comes down to [North Carolina sophomore R.G.] Keenan and [Maryland junior Curtis] Holmes at the faceoff X. they’re two of the best in the country, and whoever can maintain possessions will certainly have the edge in that game. if I had to pick a team, I’d probably say that Maryland will win that game by two or three goals, but if North Carolina can get things going and Nicky Galasso comes along and [freshman attackmen Joey] Sankey and [Jimmy] Bitter get on the field a bit more, North Carolina can win.

Is there a team that has exceeded your expectations thus far?

I’ll give you three. If you look at Colgate, [junior midfielder] Peter Baum is an absolute stud. He leads the country in scoring. He could run on any midfield and attack line in the country, he’s that good. Loyola is undefeated to this point and – to be honest – really hasn’t been tested. They have three attackmen, great players in the middle of the field and have been fun to watch. And the final team is Lehigh. After an early loss, they’ve run off seven straight wins. Coach [Kevin] Cassese has them buying into his methodology. They play great defense, they face off well, and with that combination, they’re always going to do well.

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