Face-Off Classic a preview of lacrosse championship weekend

It's part of the job description for Andy Bilello to be equal parts matchmaker and recruiter, as much a spreadsheet expert as he is a scheduling broker.

These days, though, there might be a more apt title for Inside Lacrosse's director of business development: kingmaker. As the conductor of high-profile lacrosse events such as Saturday'sKonica MinoltaFace-Off Classic, Bilello orchestrates nationally televised doubleheaders and tripleheaders that make up some of the sport's biggest regular-season showcases.

The thousands of fans expected at M&T Bank Stadium this weekend wouldn't be there if a handful of the nation's best teams weren't there as well. But those same teams, to be sure, wouldn't show up if they didn't think doing so would help them win what aFace-Off Classicparticipant has in four of the past five years: a national championship.

"We try and get the best teams," Bilello said, "and I think that statistic is a bit of confirmation of that effort."

The path to Saturday's six-team, three-game event typically proves about as arduous and even longer than most teams' journeys to championship weekend. Top-ranked Virginia's showdown with No. 3 Cornell, for instance, was set nearly a year and a half ago, according to Inside Lacrosse editor in chief John Jiloty.

The behind-the-scenes legwork begins long before then, typically on Bilello's computer. With an expansive web of helpful — and eager — coaches, he compiles preliminary schedules from the nation's top programs, lays them out side by side on a spreadsheet and goes to work.

Without the help of a crystal ball, guesswork abounds. Still, the objective is clear: Identify an open date for a handful of alluring programs, arrange games between them and find a venue that can host a day of lacrosse for what might be 25,000 or more spectators.

The negotiations, Bilello said, typically begin in the summer months, as he trades emails and swaps text messages with interested coaches and administrators. Oftentimes, he'll make the trek from his Baltimore office to the sidelines of recruiting showcases such as the Nike Blue Chip Lacrosse Camp at UMBC or Under Armour's underclassman events at Towson'sJohnny Unitas Stadium. There he's bound to find whichever coach he needs and pitch his grand plan.

"Most of the coaches in the sport are receptive to talking and to sharing ideas," Bilello said. "They're as logistically challenged as I am with dates."

Once a day on the calendar has been circled, financials come next. UMBC, which faces No. 2 Johns Hopkins on Saturday in the finale, was set to host the Blue Jays this season before coach Don Zimmerman was approached about relocating the game eight miles east to M&T Bank Stadium.

The Retrievers, Zimmerman realized, wouldn't be able to replicate that kind of experience anywhere else. And given the contingency plans — financially and otherwise — Bilello could offer, losing gate and concessions revenue was little more than a minor quibble.

"We recognize they have certain financial realities," Bilello said. "We've always approached it like, if you are willing to participate in one of our events, you're going to get this exposure. You're going to get a lot of benefits, but we recognize you may be giving up some money on campus that is already planned in your budget, so we want to make you whole."

"Financially, to give up a home venue, yeah, maybe you take $10,000 in ticket sales or whatever," said Denver coach Bill Tierney, whose Pioneers will play Duke in late April as part of the inaugural Mile High Classic, another one of Bilello's projects, at Sports Authority Field in Denver. "But for the schools themselves, you can't buy media attention like that."

Or the experience of playing in the closest in-season substitute for championship weekend. Tierney, it's fair to say, has wondered how his time in Baltimore in May might have gone if the Mile High Classic's first year had come in 2011, not 2012.

He thought he'd accounted for all the variables — adverse crowds, stifling heat, cross-country travel — as he readied for his 11th semifinal appearance. Then the Pioneers, used to playing for no more than 3,000 fans at their home field, Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium, saw 35,000 people packed inside M&T Bank Stadium. They saw the glut of TV cameras, the army of tailgaters and the Ravens locker room where some of their NFL idols had once readied for "Monday Night Football."

"You don't want them, when they pull a bus underneath the stadium like that, you don't want them losing all their emotion on the bus," Tierney said.

That seemed to be the case against eventual national champion Virginia, which led 5-2 after the first quarter, 9-2 at halftime and 14-8 when the final whistle blew. When Maryland met the Cavaliers two days later for the title, the soon-to-be-crowned champions might not have been a surprise to Bilello: the Terps hadn't played in theFace-Off Classic.

The Cavaliers had.



Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic

When: Saturday

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Tickets: Available at Ravens box office at M&T Bank Stadium or by calling 410-261-RAVE or Ticketmaster at 800-551-SEAT

Game 1

Princeton vs. North Carolina, 11 a.m., ESPNU

Game 2

Virginia vs. Cornell, 1:30 p.m., ESPNU

Game 3

UMBC vs. Johns Hopkins, 4 p.m., ESPN3

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