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Mike Preston: ACC has turned into a super conference for lacrosse | COMMENTARY

Atlantic Coast Conference men’s lacrosse has become like the National Football League. On any given day, any one team can beat another, and they are crushing each other.

In the latest Inside Lacrosse Magazine poll, Maryland (8-0) of the Big Ten is the top-rated team followed by No. 2 Notre Dame (6-1), No. 3 Virginia (9-3), No. 4 Duke (11-1) and No. 5 North Carolina (8-2), all ACC schools. Syracuse, whose tradition is rivaled only by a few schools like Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and North Carolina, is the not in the top five, but the Orange is No. 9 with a 5-3 record.

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This caliber of play among ACC schools may never be matched again.

“I think every team in that conference has enough to win the national championship and I’ve never seen that before,” said Dave Cottle, who coached at Loyola from 1983 through 2001 and Maryland from 2002 until 2010.

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It’s fun to watch. For years, the ACC was known for its pretty-boy, finesse lacrosse, and a program such as Maryland could only play with the Virginias and North Carolinas because of its physical style and strong work ethic. That’s not the case anymore.

It certainly wasn’t Thursday night, when Duke edged Virginia, 13-12, in overtime or on April 1, when the Blue Devils beat North Carolina, 12-11, in sudden death. In coaching terms, these guys are getting after each other.

“What we learned from the North Carolina and Duke game is that these teams can dig in, get physical and really beat the heck out of each other,” said Mark Dixon, a lacrosse commentator for ESPN and the Big Ten Network. “Oftentimes when you think of the ACC, you think of Ferraris or Porsches, but that Carolina and Duke game was more monster truck. Every inch of field was being tested, every ground ball was being battled for, and every possession took on more and more meaning. You’ve seen a little bit of everything with the conference.”

The ACC has always been the premier league. The Big Ten was highly touted several years ago because of schools joining the conference such as Hopkins, Maryland and Penn State, and other affiliates like Rutgers and Ohio State improving. The Ivy League has always been a good conference based on balanced competition.

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But the ACC has long been the standard, and this year the conference has taken it to a new level because of the coronavirus and transfer portal, which brought in an infusion of new, proven talent. Duke’s leading scorer, attackman Michael Sowers (25 goals, 30 assists), is a transfer from Princeton. Notre Dame faceoff specialist Kyle Gallagher (won 67 of 101) and attackman Will Yorke (16 goals) are from Penn and Bucknell, respectively, while Virginia senior attackman Charlie Bertrand (19 goals, six assists) led Merrimack College to back-to-back Division II national titles in 2018 and 2019.

You get the picture. With the Ivy League canceling its 2021 season in advance, the ACC has become a super conference.

“The ACC has always been a talent-laden conference with incredible teams, and it used to include Maryland, which made it more competitive,” Dixon said. “I have seen this competitiveness before, but what makes this year really unique is the additions that have been added to the roster. Adding those weapons, and most ACC teams staying relatively healthy, compared to a team like Penn State or even Ohio State, has created an unprecedented situation.”

North Carolina is averaging 17.4 goals and 51.4 shots per game. Duke is second in the conference with 15.5 goals, followed by Virginia at 14.8. Both Syracuse and Notre Dame are averaging slightly more than 14.5 goals per game, while Notre Dame is taking 48 shots per game followed by Virginia at 44.9 and Syracuse with 44.3.

If you are watching an ACC game on TV, don’t take a lunch break. If you’ve got to go to the restroom, run, don’t walk.

“It’s like all of them have had their little struggles at one point, but seem to bounce back,” Cottle said. “They all have gotten better throughout the season, which makes it even more interesting.”

Duke has Sowers but also attackmen Joe Robertson (31, 15), Brennan O’Neill (33, 7) and midfielder Owen Caputo (14, 4). Now, they need to work on improving team defense and clearing the ball. Virginia and North Carolina have superb depth, more than the other teams in the ACC. The Cavaliers seemed to be on a mini roll until they had the setback to Duke on Thursday night. North Carolina’s is Dixon’s “dude” team.

“They [Carolina] just keep bringing dudes off the bench, they have incredible talent,” Dixon said. “Hopefully, they can keep everybody happy as far as sharing the ball. They also have Will Bowen on the defensive end, who can erase the opposing team’s No. 1 player on offense.”

“Carolina has the ability to play a full field game and Virginia has good balance,” Cottle said. “Both teams are very athletic.”

No team has more talent or athleticism at midfield than Syracuse with Brendan Curry (14, 8), Jamie Trimboli (9-2) and Tucker Dordevic (14, 5). The trio creates a lot of mismatches, but the Orange have trouble winning faceoffs, which makes their suspect defense worse than it appears.

The team everyone seems to like a little more every week is Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have two good faceoff players in Gallagher and Charles Leonard and perhaps the most physical and best close defense in the country, led by Kyle Thornton and Jack Kielty. Notre Dame is allowing only 7.4 goals a game, and goalie Liam Entermann has a .597 save percentage.

The Fighting Irish seem to have found some consistency on offense, especially with the ability to stretch the field.

“Notre Dame dominated the transfer portal. They are sneaky good,” Cottle said.

So is an unheralded and underrated Denver from the Big East, and then there is Maryland, which has as much balance as Virginia or North Carolina. But the Big Ten Conference is down this year, with the exception of the Terps, and some slight mention of Rutgers.

“For my money, Maryland is the best team in the country, the most complete from top to bottom,” Dixon said. “They usually play North Carolina and Notre Dame every year and just renewed their rivalry with Virginia. I think [Terps head coach John Tillman} wished he could play some of these guys this year because that would be more of a litmus test of where the Terps are on the national scene.

“Right now, the ACC is like a carousel. It’s going to come down to faceoffs and defense, and right now Notre Dame looks like they have figured out the secret sauce and their offense has been humming recently. But we’re only in April. We’ll see where we are in about six weeks. Anything can happen in the ACC.”

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