Kessenich: Important weekend on tap in college lacrosse

College Park, MD -- 04/19/2016 -- Maryland Terrapins attackman Matt Rambo (1) and midfielder Colin Heacock (right) sandwich Navy Midshipmen defender Matt Rees at Maryland Stadium. Maryland sank the Midshipmen, 10-5.
College Park, MD -- 04/19/2016 -- Maryland Terrapins attackman Matt Rambo (1) and midfielder Colin Heacock (right) sandwich Navy Midshipmen defender Matt Rees at Maryland Stadium. Maryland sank the Midshipmen, 10-5. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

It's a monster weekend of crucial games in the Patriot League, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten Conference. All of the games have NCAA tournament implications with a week left before Selection Sunday.

In the Patriot semifinals at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis on Friday, Navy faces Army at 4:30 p.m. followed by Loyola and Bucknell at 7:30 p.m. The winners meet Sunday in the league championship game.


The ACC tournament starts on Friday night in Kennesaw, Ga., with semifinals pitting North Carolina against Syracuse and Duke facing Notre Dame.

On Saturday at 2 p.m., Johns Hopkins hosts Maryland in a key Big Ten regular-season game that has an effect on the conference tournament seedings.


Also on Saturday, Brown plays ACC bottom dweller Virginia in the ACC-Ivy Showcase game. The ACC tournament final is Sunday at noon.

Let's take a closer look at each game:

What to watch for: North Carolina vs. Syracuse

North Carolina (8-5) used a stirring comeback on Saturday in Chapel Hill to down Notre Dame 17-15. The Heels play Syracuse in the ACC semifinals.

North Carolina has been hot or cold this season, losing games to UMass and Hofstra while beating Johns Hopkins, Duke and Notre Dame. You never know what to expect. Last week they showed grit and belief.

The Heels are led on offense by attackmen Steve Pontrello (36 goals,12 assists), Luke Goldstock (23,19), Chris Cloutier (24,11). The midfielders have great speed. Patrick Kelly (23,5), Michael Tagliaferri (22,5) and Shane Simpson (7,12) provide the scoring punch. Face-off man Stephen Kelly has been a key catalyst winning 60 percent of his draws while scooping up 92 ground balls. He has set the tone.

The defense is long and rangy with the strength being the defensive midfield position. Jake Matthai, Tate Jozokos, Brett Bedard and Timmy Gehlbach form one of the country's top units. Goaltending has been an issue. Carolina net minders have made just 47 percent of the stops. Carolina lost to the Orange 13-7 on April 16 in the Dome. Syracuse won 16 of 24 faceoffs thanks to wing play taking nine of the 11 50-50 grounders and held the Heels to 16 shots on goal. That's where this game is won and lost.

After getting pummeled in the Dome by Notre Dame and losing an overtime game to Cornell, Syracuse (8-4) has rebounded with wins over North Carolina and Binghamton. A goalie change to Evan Molloy, who is an outstanding communicator, and a re-focused defense have been apparent. The Orange has focused in slide and recovery fundamentals.

Syracuse stands for star power on the offensive end of the field. Dylan Donahue (21,27), UMass transfer Nick Mariano (29,6) and Sergio Salcido (21,13) are its explosive scorers. The defensive tandem of Brandon Mullins and Nick Mellen can be disruptive. Faceoff ace Ben Williams (64 percent) can suffocate opponents by dominating possessions.

The main stumbling block has been in closing out games. The Orange is three overtime losses away from being 11-1. With an RPI of No. 14 another loss would put the Orange on the NCAA tournament bubble. Syracuse is proudly celebrating its 100th year of lacrosse. The 11-time NCAA champions have qualified for the tournament every year but one since 1983. They have only appeared in championship weekend once since winning the title in 2009. The ACC tournament represents an opportunity for the Orange to win themselves back into the national conversation.

What to watch for: Duke vs. Notre Dame

The Blue Devils' midfield duo of Myles Jones and Deemer Class has combined for 71 goals and 42 assists this spring. Jones is a force of nature at 6-5 and 240 pounds, able to lean in and see over a defense to an open teammate. He has more than 100 career goals and 100 assists. He sits behind only Gary Gait for midfield career points. Class is lethal with his hands free, when given time and space. The lefty from Baltimore shoots an uncanny 42 percent Class (126) is seventh all-time in career goals by a midfielder.


Duke (9-6) ranks No. 2 in scoring offense while shooting a red-hot 37 percent, but have struggled in the fourth quarter because the Blue Devils lack depth. Clearing the ball against Notre Dame's aggressive 10-man ride is critical.

After giving up 15 to Syracuse and 17 to North Carolina, the Blue Devils' defense has shown dramatic improvement holding Notre Dame, Virginia and Marquette to a combined 17 goals. Coach John Danowski simplified the defensive scheme. Goalie Danny Fowler has experienced a similar transformation. His save percentage was 49 percent for the first 12 games. Over the last three games it's 65 percent.

A loss on Friday isn't catastrophic. The last time Duke missed out on the NCAA tournament was the canceled season of 2006. Blue Devils played in eight consecutive Final Fours, a streak which ended last spring. They won NCAA titles in 2010, 2013 and 2014. They appear to be peaking at the opportune moment. Right now Duke (RPI No. 10) looks like an at-large selection into the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (9-2) collapse at North Carolina last week stings. The usually airtight defense was fleeced for 17 goals. Defenders Matt Landis, Garrett Epple, Eddie Glazener and John Sexton will be looking to bounce back against Duke on Friday. "Our defense is built to defend the goal, not take the ball away," said head coach Kevin Corrigan. "Opponents have been chewing up clock and that's cut into the amount of possessions we've had on offense."

On their best day, the Irish can beat anybody as evidenced by their win over Maryland and their 17-7 shellacking of Syracuse in the Dome. However, scoring goals sometimes isn't easy. One goal wins over Virginia, Ohio State and Marquette shown vulnerability.

What to watch for: Maryland at Johns Hopkins

If you're looking for something to do on Saturday at 2 p.m., I highly recommend securing tickets and attending the game. This contest is a rite of spring in Baltimore like the Orioles and Preakness. The Big Ten created a "Rivalry Trophy," a 25-pound wooden Maryland Blue Crab, which the winning team holds for a year. Being conference foes has only increased up the intensity.

After losses to Yale and Notre Dame, the Terps (11-2) have won 10 straight games. They took down Navy last Tuesday and Ohio State on Sunday. The offense is percolating. The defense is well organized and tough. I love the Terps' sense of self-identity and their camaraderie. Maryland is battle tested having played seven top 20 teams.

Coach John Tillman turns to Matt Rambo (24,14), Colin Heacock (30,5) and Bryan Cole (15,16) on offense. Henry West has come to life after an early season shooting slump.

Recently, the Terps have been injury riddled at the faceoff position. Austin Henningsen (62 percent) and Will Bonaparte (51 percent) have been nicked up. Andrew Walsh is their third option. This bears watching on Saturday.


Hopkins (8-4) is a patchwork quilt. A rash of injuries to midfielders has hit them. Regardless, the Jays score 13 goals a game because of Shack Stanwick's vision and Ryan Brown's shooting prowess. Hopkins extra-man clicks at 51 percent and the unit often gets the calls at Homewood.


The Jays ranks No. 51 in scoring defense and No. 48 in clearing percentage. Clearing the ball up field has been a nightmare.

Maryland will make Hopkins pay for self-inflicted mistakes. Unless the Jays can solve their clearing issues, scrap for ground balls with greater success and erase the sloppy turnovers and poor late-game shot selection, an upset is unlikely. Although in 113 years of this rivalry the underdog inexplicably rises up.

What to watch for: Virginia vs. Brown

The Cavaliers (7-6) play Brown in the ACC Showcase game Saturday night. A loss would end a forgettable season. However, a win would put Virginia (RPI No. 22) in the discussion for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.

Cavalier seniors went 3-16 against ACC foes and 4-3 against the Ivy League. Virginia hasn't won a playoff game in their tenure. The champions from 2011 have been on a slow downward slide. Their interior defense has holes and Cavalier marksmen shoot a low percentage (26 percent).

Brown (13-1) hasn't played an ACC opponent since 2013 and hasn't beaten one since 2000. The Bears have been silencing doubters all year with an up-tempo, 1980s brand of transition offense. What's old is new. They have benefitted from being a strategic outlier in an era of over-coaching and slowdown tactics.

Brown's analytics are off the charts. The Bears rank No. 1 in scoring margin, scoring offense, assists per game and winning percentage. Dylan Molloy is averaging 6.6 points per game, on pace to challenge Lyle Thompson's (Albany) single-season all-time scoring record. Goalie Jack Kelly leads the nation in save percentage (62 percent).

Saturday's game offers Virginia hope for redemption or it will give Brown further validation.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.

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