PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Memorial Day is one of America's red, white and blue holidays - except in the lacrosse community, which paints it orange.
While the rest of the nation goes about honoring its fallen war heroes, lacrosse recognizes two elite programs that dominate the NCAA Division I tournament. Syracuse and Princeton have won 11 of the past 13 titles and eight of the past nine. The exception in the shorter stretch came two years ago, when Virginia's tint of the hue ruled.
Defending champion Syracuse and top-ranked Princeton anticipate a rematch of last year's championship game. In today's semifinals (noon, ESPN2) at Rutgers Stadium, John Desko's Orangemen meet Notre Dame and then Bill Tierney's Tigers of the Ivy League take on Towson, the Tigers of the Baltimore Beltway.
Notre Dame is the first Midwest team to get this far, and Towson coach Tony Seaman made this final four distinctive on two other counts. When his Tigers beat host Maryland in the quarterfinals, he made the semifinals of the 31st tournament the first not to include a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference and became the first coach to lead three programs to Division I's championship weekend.
Towson's only previous final four came in 1991, when it was squashed by Syracuse, which is in its 19th straight final four. This is the eighth in 10 years for Princeton.
Hunter Lochte, a sophomore midfielder who typifies Towson's future, wanted to join a building program, not an established one. Growing up in Severna Park, goalie John Horrigan grew accustomed to watching a succession of orange-shaded champions at Byrd Stadium. When asked if the rest of the sport was sick and tired of the dominance of Princeton and Syracuse, faceoff specialist Justin Berry nodded.
"When it starts to be the same teams over and over," Berry said, "friends of mine, and I'm sure people around the country go, 'Oh, man, not again.' "
Syracuse, which with another title would join Johns Hopkins as the only programs to compile 700 wins, and Princeton have created a paradox in Division I. It is the only level in the sport that is shrinking, due to gender equity. Notre Dame goalie Kirk Howell is from the lacrosse hotbed of Nashville, Tenn., but as the game grows and the talent pool expands, why have Syracuse and Princeton become harder to catch?
"If you are set up, winning and getting the best recruits, that's going to perpetuate itself," Seaman said. "When your system's in place like it is at Princeton, you only have to teach seven or eight new kids a year. The Syracuse kids say, 'It's May, this is when we play great.' Is it possible for Duke basketball to keep winning and winning and winning? Those programs keep getting really good recruits, and it's tough to beat that."
The top two rookie attackmen in the nation are Michael Powell, the third brother from his family to star for Syracuse, and Ryan Boyle, a Gilman grad who directs Princeton. They are surrounded by veterans with final four experience, and goalies Rob Mulligan (Syracuse) and Trevor Tierney (Princeton) are not going to shake when they see 25,000 or so in the stands today.
Notre Dame is having an incredible year in athletics, and coach Kevin Corrigan wonders if the Subway Alumni might be able to shout down the horde that follows Syracuse. Princeton had what coach Bill Tierney called "a great road trip, 28 minutes." Towson figures to have the smallest fan contingent as its tries to become the first Maryland state school to win the title since 1987. The Tigers are the lowest seed standing, but a poised, dangerous bunch.
While the Fighting Irish validated themselves in a five-day swing in March, when they won at Virginia and Loyola, it was a season-opening loss at Virginia that opened Seaman's eyes. Even without injured attackman Ryan Obloj, Seaman observed that, "They were better than us today, but not more athletic. The coaches talked, and we said that maybe we need to loosen up a little more on offense."
Princeton goalie Tierney allows five goals a game. Towson has gotten that many in 14 separate quarters.
Family ties and friendships abound.
Syracuse's John Glatzel is touted as the best defenseman in the nation, and his twin brother, Tom, is Notre Dame's top point-getter. Ryan Mollett, a teammate of theirs at Boys' Latin, heads Princeton's close defense. His father, Richard, ran midfield for Towson when it claimed the Division II title in 1974.
Tierney's coaching debut came in 1976 in a Long Island high school game against a team coached by Seaman. His son, Trevor, calls Seaman "Uncle Tony."
There are some traditions, however, that Notre Dame and Towson can do without.
"Everyone is already talking about Syracuse and Princeton in the final, and how great it is that Notre Dame and Towson made it this far," said Berry, the Towson senior, who had his girlfriend bleach his dark hair Tuesday night.
"Let them underestimate us; I really think that's to our advantage. As far as I'm concerned, this is a gold weekend."
At a glance
Where: Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J.
Syracuse (12-2) vs. Notre Dame (14-1), noon
Towson (14-3) vs. Princeton (12-1), 3 p.m.
TV: Both games on ESPN2
Preview: Coaches help break down semifinals.[Page 2c]