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Led by star attackmen, Princeton and North Carolina shaking up title race in men’s lacrosse | COMMENTARY

Johns Hopkins' Evan Zinn, left, passes North Carolina's Chris Gray as he drives with the ball during a game at Homewood Field on February 22, 2020.
Johns Hopkins' Evan Zinn, left, passes North Carolina's Chris Gray as he drives with the ball during a game at Homewood Field on February 22, 2020.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The big picture for the 2020 men’s lacrosse season became a little clearer over the weekend, even though it’s still early.

Two teams with high expectations showed that they are indeed among the best in the country.

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Princeton upset defending national champion Virginia, 16-12, on Saturday and North Carolina easily defeated Johns Hopkins, 17-10, on the same day at Homewood Field. The Tigers and Tar Heels entered their games undefeated, but few were taking them seriously.

Princeton had beaten Monmouth and Colgate, and North Carolina had roughed up Lafayette, Mercer and Colgate. But then came Saturday.

Lacrosse fans across the country got to see why these teams were early favorites to win the national title. No. 8 Princeton (3-0) has attackman Michael Sowers and No. 4 North Carolina (4-0) has attackman Chris Gray.

Which one is better?

There’s nothing intimidating about them: Sowers is 5 feet 9 and 175 pounds, while Gray is 5-7 and 170. Both are athletic and extremely quick with explosive bursts. Gray might have the better shot because of his quick release, which allows him to score from anywhere on the field.

Sowers has the better shake. He plays the game like an NBA point guard. Last week against Colgate, Sowers set an Ivy League record with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in a game and had four goals and four assists against Virginia, which had won 10 straight and had beaten Princeton in their previous seven meetings.

Sowers, a senior, entered the season as Princeton’s all-time leading scorer with 116 goals and 172 assists. He already has 11 goals and 22 assists this season for the Tigers.

“There is so much parity,” Sowers said. “Because of the landscape in lacrosse, everything has opened up and anybody can beat anybody on any given day. Before, about 15 years ago, the best players went to six schools. Everybody knew who the best players were in high school. Now, the talent is spread out which speaks to the growth in the sport.

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“I think because of the polls and media rankings, this was a big week. But to be honest with you I am just glad we’re in the position we’re in, and our guys are having a lot of fun. Because of the fast-paced style we play, we can score quickly and get up on teams in a hurry.”

So can North Carolina, which has outscored its opponents 74-30 this season. In the past, the Tar Heels had a midfield-driven offense, but that changed during the offseason when Gray transferred in from Boston University. He had eight goals against the Terriers and has 16 goals and 11 assists this season.

“Chris Gray is a bona fide superstar you’ve not heard much of him because he played at BU,” said Mark Dixon, a lacrosse analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network. “He is an incredible finisher whose mere presence opens things up for dodging middies who are pretty solid in their own right.”

Said Dixon of Sowers: “Good luck on defending him one-on-one. He attacks from different spots all over the field. Will teams start to zone him?”

Over the weekend, Gray and Sowers made college lacrosse even more interesting. No. 1 Yale and No. 2 Penn State are the best two teams in the country, but the Ivy League is balanced with other top teams like No. 9 Penn and No. 10 Cornell.

But the Atlantic Coast Conference has three top teams in the top five in No. 3 Syracuse, No. 4 North Carolina and No. 5 Notre Dame. Then there is No. 7 Maryland, which has a strong lineup but needs to play four good quarters in a game instead of just one in the fourth.

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“It’s a long season,” Sowers said. “This is such a fun time for lacrosse because each individual game is unique, but it was a good weekend for the sport."

Especially for Princeton and North Carolina, which proved they belonged.

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