With college basketball finally in the books, and the weather warming up, lacrosse season takes over centerstage. Syracuse and Notre Dame are the nation's only unbeaten teams, Johns Hopkins is back in the top five, and Virginia finds itself in the midst of a two-game losing streak. Jockeying for the NCAA tournament is a storyline to watch in April. Let's take a closer look at some this weekend's key games:
Albany at Johns Hopkins (Friday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
This is a trap game for Hopkins (7-2). After consecutive wins over Virginia and North Carolina the Blue Jays welcome Albany to Homewood Field with Maryland looming next Saturday. The Great Danes (4-5) have beaten playoff contenders Delaware, UMass and Ohio State and stubbed their toe against Marist, Bucknell and Hartford. Go figure.
Offensively, Albany is a different bird. The Thompson cousins, Ty and Miles, scare me and I'm not suiting up. Schooled in the nuances of lacrosse in the Onondaga Nation, the Thompsons offer an unpredictable style that Hopkins rarely sees. "They are so creative, so fun to watch, they do things in practice that are just amazing," said Albany coach Scott Marr. The Blue Jays can't simulate what the Thompsons do on offense unless Dave Pietramala was able to clone six Zach Palmers.
Marr and Pietramala are former teammates at Hopkins and remain good friends. But for 60 minutes that gets tossed out the window. "We won't sit back and stall," Marr said. Hopkins will be performing on short rest, after its Sunday win in the New Meadowlands. If the Jays regress and don't play with emotion, hustle and awareness, Albany is capable of an upset.
Maryland at Navy (Friday, 7 p.m.)
Maryland (7-2) has positive energy from its 12-7 win in Charlottesville last Saturday while Navy (4-6) lost a close contest to Georgetown, 9-8. The Mids, who have lost six games by a combined 10 goals, have grown accustomed to losing tight games.
Goalie RJ Wickham made 20 saves against the Hoyas, has been heating up after a slow start. Navy has only given up 17 goals in their last three games.
Maryland coach John Tillman spent a dozen years in Annapolis as an assistant coach under Richie Meade and recruited the Navy juniors and seniors. He will have to block out his love for the academy. "They will fight us," Tillman said. "They'll be all fired up."
Last week was gut-check time for Maryland, and the Terps showed grit in beating the Cavaliers in Scott Stadium. Attackman Ryan Young scored two goals and added four assists. He ran circles around Virginia's defense. The Maryland lacrosse family has been rallying around Ryan, and playing for his mother Maria, who is battling pancreatic cancer. The team wears purple ribbons on its helmets as a tribute. Ryan writes "MOM" on white tape and attaches it to his helmet. "Ryan is the heartbeat of our team," Tillman said.
Playing for a cause bigger than themselves, I expect this Terp team to play deep into May.
North Carolina at Virginia (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
>How is Virginia going to stop Tar Heels attackman Billy Bitter? Bitter can't be covered by one defender when he sets his mind on getting to the goal. Expect Virginia to double team Bitter, early and often, making him distribute the ball. A year ago the Wahoos knocked Bitter senseless with a vicious hit, and Bitter was never himself for the rest of the 2010 season.
Shamel Bratton will play for Virginia. The ultra-talented midfielder was suspended after the Hopkins game and did not play in last week's loss to Maryland. Bratton is Kemba Walker on the lacrosse field, but was acting more like Ron Artest during the Hopkins loss. Will Bratton become a better teammate or will his antics ruin Cavalier chemistry?
Delaware at Villanova (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
This is a critical game for both squads. Villanova (7-3) is very much in the playoff hunt, while Delaware has rattled off three straight wins in the CAA. Watching Delaware (7-3) on tape, Nick Elsmo is the traffic director, the guy who makes smart decisions and unselfish plays, who often gets the second hockey assist. Opponents have been putting the long stick midfielder on Elsmo or Kevin Kaminski, a blazer who only shoots 12 percent.
Villanova trots out the games must disruptive force in Brian Karalunas, a senior from Dewitt, N.Y. The dean's list defender is averaging 4.6 caused turnovers a game utilizing an ultra-aggressive style, which is high-risk and high-reward. Karalunas is the Wildcats' emotional catalyst and will challenge Elsmo and Kaminski when they carry the ball.
Georgetown at Notre Dame (Sunday, noon, ESPNU)
Fans will enjoy the titanic matchup between Georgetown's Barney Ehrmann and Notre Dame's Zach Brenneman. Both were drafted by Major League Lacrosse in January. Ehrmann is Ted Hendricks with a lacrosse stick, rangy, active, a space-eater who covers ground with unusual mobility for guy 6-foot-6. Brenneman dodges to the goal like a runaway train. Brenneman absorbs checks, shrugging them off. His style says, "Get out of my way." And at 6-3, most do.
Hoyas (5-4) are desperate for a win which would get them back into then playoff discussion. The Fighting Irish (7-0) methodically stifle their opponents with the country's top-rated defense.
Syracuse at Princeton (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNU)
Princeton has been decimated by injuries but the one constant, and its only hope for an upset over the Orange, is goalie Tyler Fiorito. The left-handed junior from McDonogh is eighth nationally in save percentage at .599. He can get hot if he gets off to a great start. Just ask Hopkins, who was held to a mere three goals in its loss to the Tigers.
Denver vs. Duke (Saturday, 2 p.m., Bethpage, N.Y.)
Duke's Dan Wigrizer is the most inconsistent goalie in the nation, fluctuating between porous and impenetrable. Last week he wasn't seeing the ball, as Syracuse jumped out to an 8-1 advantage before he found his bearings. Denver owns the No. 2-ranked scoring offense in Division I with an arsenal of snipers that can make the best goalie look silly. Mark Matthews (26 goals), Alex Demopoulus (21 goals), Todd Baxter (16 goals) and Cam Flint (12 goals) play with finesse, flash and are unorthodox, which could have Wigrizer fighting double vision by game's end.
Quint Kessenich covers college sports for the ESPN networks and writes a weekly column for the Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.