PHILADELPHIA — Whether top-seeded Maryland or unseeded North Carolina emerges on Monday as the winner of the 2016 NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship, decades of disappointment and frustration will be wiped out.
The Terps (17-2) are 0-8 in the title game since capturing their last crown in 1975. The Tar Heels (11-6) are making their first finals appearance since 1993 and are seeking their first championship since 1991.
Still, both sides did their very best to downplay the enormity of a task of trying to end a drought that has caused much consternation among alumni.
North Carolina coach Joe Breschi hinted that as the No. 1 seed, Maryland bears the burden of carrying the pressure.
"They're the No. 1 team in the country for a reason," he said Sunday morning. "They've got talent in the midfield, their attack is special. Defensively, they're sound. Their goalie is exceptional. They're deep all the way across the board. So they're the No. 1 team in the country, and we're the unseeded team that's here crashing the party."
Terps coach John Tillman countered by pointing out that the Tar Heels have knocked off three seeded opponents in No. 6 Marquette in the first round, No. 3 Notre Dame in the quarterfinals and No. 7 Loyola Maryland in Saturday's semifinals.
"I think anytime you say there's a favorite, it's just someone's opinion, and it's kind of relative," he said. "If you look at the last two weeks, I don't think anybody is playing any better [than North Carolina]. So it just depends on how you want to look at it. You've got a team that just handled Loyola pretty well, and that was a really good Loyola team, and a team that did what they did to Notre Dame, which we have so much respect for, and then beat Marquette. I don't know who's hotter right now. You might say that they're the favorite."
The tournament final is scheduled for 1 p.m. here at Lincoln Financial Field
Tillman acknowledged there is a sense of anticipation every year as players commit to the school to win championships, not just compete for them. The Terps, who have won a school-record 16 consecutive games, are not ignorant of their program's unsuccessful history in the title game.
"Obviously, it's been a while since Maryland won it all, but the way we see it, this is the 2016 team," redshirt senior goalkeeper Kyle Bernlohr said. "… I think it hurts you when you put that kind of pressure on yourself. So as a team, we haven't really thought about that pressure."
Senior defenseman Matt Dunn said the players have kept outside expectations at arm's length.
"There's definitely an awareness of it, but not a focus on it just because focusing on that can take away focusing on what's really important, which is the next game," the Towson resident and Loyola Blakefield graduate said last week. "So I think guys know it, but they also understand that to achieve our goals, we have to focus today on getting better. … So I think focusing more on the short term allows you to accomplish the long term."
North Carolina is perhaps the biggest surprise of the postseason. The team opened the year with a 3-3 record and with an 8-6 mark at the end of the regular season, was thought to be on the bubble for an at-large inviation to the NCAA tournament.
Breschi said being unseeded has given the Tar Heels a nothing-to-lose mentality. Senior attackman Steve Pontrello agreed.
"I think we are very loose," he said. "It's a great thing to be here. I know I don't feel any pressure, and I don't think any of these guys do. That's just kind of how we play."
The North Carolina squad that captured the 1991 title will be honored Monday for the 25th anniversary of their achievement. There might be no better present than the current Tar Heels team joining that group later that afternoon.
"The stars aligned at the right time, and it's a credit to the young men in the locker room who made it happen," Breschi said. "I tell them all the time, 'Look, it's not about the X's and O's. We can only do what we do by putting you in the best position for success. But you have to go out and make a play.' And to be able to celebrate it with the '91 team on Monday, couldn't be any better."
There are a couple other trends that run counter to each of the teams winning, but one of them will be snapped. North Carolina will try to become the first unseeded squad in seven attempts to capture the NCAA championship, and Maryland, which outlasted No. 5 seed Brown, 15-14, in overtime on Saturday, will try to snap a 0-5 skid for teams that emerged from the second semifinal.