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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Maryland men’s lacrosse still favored but Ivy League and Delaware add suspense to NCAA Tournament | COMMENTARY

As the opening round of the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse tournament was about to conclude Sunday night, the only thing missing was a Cinderella story.

Top-seeded Maryland, after crushing Vermont, 21-5, was still the team to beat and Virginia, unseeded and the two-time defending national champion, was still the team to hate after a convincing 17-10 win against Brown. But every tournament needs a David to knock off Goliath, and that came with unseeded Delaware’s 10-9 last-second win over No. 2 Georgetown Sunday night.

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As the quarterfinals start this weekend, there is still a lot of suspense and intrigue, even though Maryland remains the heavy favorite. The intrigue is because Maryland has to play Virginia in one quarterfinal matchup Sunday, a team the Terps toppled 23-12 last month, but lost to in the playoffs by one goal in 2019 and then again in the national championship a year ago.

After Maryland and Virginia, it’s wide open with four Ivy League teams remaining, including Princeton, Yale, Cornell and Pennsylvania, as well as Rutgers, which has one of the most explosive offenses in the game. And don’t forget Delaware.

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There aren’t many lacrosse fans out there complaining anymore about the traditional bluebloods that didn’t make the field like North Carolina, Syracuse or Johns Hopkins, or more modern-day powers like Duke or Notre Dame.

The face of the sport has changed, and it’s never going back, not where it once was anyway.

“I think the face of lacrosse has been changing for a while now,” said Mark Dixon, a lacrosse analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network. “Kids playing the game at the youth and high school levels has exploded over the last 15 years. Go to any summer event, tournament or showcase. You’ll see license plates that aren’t rental cars from all over the country. That’s only going to continue to get bigger and more pronounced.

“At the collegiate level Denver won a National Championship in 2015. Schools like Ohio State, Towson, Loyola and Penn State have been to the championship weekend in the last five to six years. Rosters are no longer dominated by kids from just Baltimore and Long Island.”

Delaware (13-5) is for real. The Blue Hens offense can become stagnant at times, but they play good, solid defense and have a hot goalie in Matt Kilkeary, who can carry a team through the postseason and showed as much by making 14 saves Sunday night versus Georgetown. The Blue Hens play Cornell on Saturday, and it’s your typical Big Red team being solid, fundamentally sound and taking advantage of a team’s weakness, just as it did against Ohio State’s close defense in a 15-8 opening-round win.

There were some who predicted that Ivy League teams would have a meltdown in the opening round, but these teams showed that they belonged. Even Harvard, which lost to Rutgers, 19-9, showed something. The Scarlet Knights, though, with attackman Ross Scott, might have too much firepower for Pennsylvania, the team they play in the quarterfinals Saturday.

“I thought six bids for [the Ivy League] was too high,” said Dixon. “At some point, not everyone can get an invite to the party. That said, the prowess of the Ivies was on full display this past weekend. We got a little bit of everything — Penn and Yale were in dogfights and prevailed; Princeton and Cornell dominated their competition; Brown and Harvard both ran out of steam but showed well for most of their games.

“Would teams like Duke and Notre Dame had better games and been more entertaining? Who cares, it’s all hypothetical. After not playing for nearly two years, this league exceeded all expectations in 2022. The coaches have done a masterful job of gaining admissions support and getting the right guys for their styles. The question now becomes ‘Can they sustain this?’ No one knew what to expect from this league due to their hiatus. The ACC will be back, meaner and more focused than ever. Will the Ivy League be able to handle that?”

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The Ivy League might never have another showing like this in the tournament, but it is a part of the changing face of lacrosse. The two constants, though, have been Maryland, which has lost only one game in two years, and Virginia. Both the Terps and Cavaliers have outstanding athletic talent, but Maryland’s defense is exceptional with middies Roman Puglise and Alex Smith and long poles Brett Makar, Matt Rahill and Ajax Zappitello.

The defense doesn’t get as much recognition as the offense, but the Terps have shut down some of the game’s top attackmen, including two they will see Sunday in Virginia’s Connor Shellenberger and Matt Moore.

Despite the anticipation of the Maryland-Virginia game, a lot of attention will now be focused on Delaware, which beat Robert Morris, 20-8, in a play-in game to get into the tournament field.

“I think any time a team who takes on the No. 2 seed on the road and knocks them off are for real,” said Dixon. “Delaware has had an up and down season but are up at the right time, winners of seven in a row.”


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