Fresh faces, high hopes

The Baltimore Sun

The prospect of an NCAA tournament final has taken a back seat to another type of final for the Colgate and Canisius men's lacrosse teams.

Players of both programs have been wrapping up a week of exams, and after hours of studying, memorizing and writing, the idea of ridding their angst and stress in an NCAA tournament first-round game sounds awfully appetizing.

"It's exam week here at Colgate, so everyone's nerves are already high," said Raiders junior defenseman Andrew Watkins, a Timonium native and Gilman graduate. "Hopefully, that takes a little bit of the nerves off of the game. ... Everybody's excited about the opportunity to play one more week."

This weekend's slate of first-round games is meaningful for all 16 teams involved, but only Colgate and Canisius will be making their first appearances in the NCAA tournament.

Typically, newcomers don't fare well in their debuts, where the bright lights, big crowds and heightened pressure become imposing obstacles. Cornell is the only team to capture a national championship in its first appearance, and that occurred in 1971, the tournament's inaugural year.

The paths for the Raiders and the Griffins aren't accommodating to adding a second team to that history.

Although Colgate and Canisius are the Patriot League and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions, respectively, the Raiders (11-5) travel to South Bend, Ind., to tangle with sixth-seeded Notre Dame (13-2) on Sunday at noon, and the Griffins (10-5) will visit third-seeded Syracuse (12-2) on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

But being an underdog is familiar terrain for both teams.

"We hear all about how Syracuse is 21-1 in home playoff games and all that," Canisius senior midfielder Tom Hensel said. "They're definitely the heavy favorites, but at the same time, we're used to that role. So I don't think we're going to be intimidated at all."

Colgate might be the most dangerous underdog in the 16-team field. The Raiders have won seven straight, including stunning Syracuse in the regular-season finale for both teams Saturday.

Colgate is 2-4 against tournament teams, but coach Jim Nagle green-lighted a nonconference schedule that included top-seeded Duke, Ohio State and Denver to prepare his team.

"The guys are playing confidently, but I don't know that that's going to impact the game," he said. "Bravado doesn't get you very far. We've got to really buckle down and play for four quarters."

After opening the season with losses to Princeton, Colgate (12-11 in overtime) and Cornell, Canisius has won 10 of its past 12 games. Coach Randy Mearns said he and the Griffins players have embraced their underdog status without giving in to that mentality.

"We want to continue to make history," he said. "We're working our tails off this week, and we have a big opportunity and a big challenge ahead of us. We're hoping we're going to be able to rise to that challenge."

That opportunity comes Sunday for Colgate and Canisius. And with finals ending today, some normality will return on both campuses as players can concentrate on practice and look forward to the first-round games.

"Practice is a chance to get away from the books," said sophomore goalkeeper Tim Harrington, a Lutherville native and Loyola graduate. "Once finals wrap up [today], the stress will be gone, and it will be about having fun."

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