Kessenich: The march to Philadelphia for the men's lacrosse final four gets real this weekend

Brock Turnbaugh, Hopkins goalkeeper, keeps control of the ball as Connor Kelly, Maryland, pressures him in the first half of their April 30 game.
Brock Turnbaugh, Hopkins goalkeeper, keeps control of the ball as Connor Kelly, Maryland, pressures him in the first half of their April 30 game. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Now that the two play-in games are over, there are 16 teams left to take the next step to greatness in the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament this weekend.

None are more surprising than Quinnipiac and Marquette, the two new faces in the tournament that concludes Memorial Day weekend in Philadelphia with the final four.


There are four games Saturday and four games Sunday, all on ESPNU, with five teams from the state of Maryland participating.

Who will survive and advance to the elite eight? We take a look at each game and why each team has a chance this weekend:


Duke (10-7) at No. 7 seed Loyola (12-3), noon Saturday

Why Loyola could win: The Greyhounds are playing in their fourth NCAA tournament in the last five years. Patrick Spencer's ability to dodge and distribute will be paramount. The freshman is an old-school, triple-threat attack man. Fellow freshman goalie Jake Stover is 8-1, although Duke shooters are a step up from anything he's seen.

When faceoff man Graham Savio gets to 50 percent Loyola can play with anybody, but when it doesn't win draws, the lack of depth at the defensive midfield position has led to late-game hemorrhaging.

Gang Green lost to Duke 15-6 on March 12 and has since rattled off eight straight wins. The first midfield of Romar Dennis, Brian Sherlock and Tyler Albrecht must be effective.

Why Duke could win: Coach John Danowski and the Blue Devils are making their 10th straight NCAA appearance, winning three titles in that time.

Duke's defense has improved late in the year. Goalie Danny Fowler experienced a transformation. The Blue Devils gave up 32 goals combined to Syracuse and North Carolina in late March and early April and have since tightened — cleaning up bone-headed decisions in the middle of the field and fixing their slide and recovery packages.

Duke midfielders Myles Jones and Deemer Class present match-up problems. The emergence of Brad Smith helped in the ACC. Kyle Rowe could be the difference-maker at the faceoff dot. Duke is a slight favorite although one thing is for sure; the score won't be close to 15-6 in their favor this time.

North Carolina (8-6) at No. 6 seed Marquette (11-4), 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Why North Carolina could win: The Tar Heels are a scary first-round opponent having beaten Hopkins, Duke and Notre Dame. Their offense wasn't crisp in an ACC tournament loss to Syracuse. Steve Pontrello has been explosive from behind the cage.

Tar Heel midfielders Shane Simpson, Patrick Kelly and Michael Tagliaferri are the keys. If Carolina goalie Brian Balkam can make some stops, the Heels will utilize their speed in transition.

Why Marquette could win: The Golden Eagles debuted in 2013. Their entry into the tournament is this year's big success story. "Milwaukee's best" upset Denver in the Big East title game.

Golden Eagles play strong defense (No. 15 nationally) and are well schooled by coach Joe Amplo. B.J. Grill, a 5-foot-5 defender who has great feet, will cover Pontrello. Grill and Liam Byrnes (6-3) could start for anybody. Marquette turns to Ryan McNamara and Conor Gately to kickstart the offense. McNamara, from Minnesota, is a star in the making. Marquette is a good faceoff team at 57 percent and plays excellent defense in half-field sets. The Golden Eagles prefer a slower pace. Defending UNC transition and early offense looms large. Handling the NCAA stage is a prerequisite for a first timer.


Johns Hopkins (8-6) at No. 5 seed Brown (14-2), 5:15 p.m. Saturday

Why Johns Hopkins could win: If Hopkins can handle Brown's pressure on defense and convert its scoring chances, this may be a barn-burner. Shack Stanwick and Ryan Brown must deliver. The midfielders have to handle the heat and get to the goal.

Hopkins' defense has been really bad since April 2 and Brown can blow up a scoreboard. The Blue Jays have given up 77 goals in their last 6 games. Rebound control has been an issue for goalie Brock Turnbaugh. So it's not a good matchup for coach Dave Pietramala's struggling unit. This game could be very fan friendly, with the combined goals pushing 30.

Why Brown could win: The Bears have the nation's most dynamic offense utilizing a hyper-speed strategy to score in unsettled situations. Bulky attackman Dylan Molloy is a Tewaaraton favorite and has put up monster statistics. Kylor Bellistri, Henry Blynn and Brendan Caputo complement him.

Brown plays aggressive man-to-man defense, creating turnovers and turning ground balls into fast breaks. Its reckless style puts goalie Jack Kelly under pressure, and he has delivered with an All-American season. In an era of slowdown tactics, overcoaching and conservative play, coach Lars Tiffany has achieved success by being a strategic outlier.

Air Force (15-2) at No. 3 seed Notre Dame (10-3), 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Why Air Force could win: The Falcons won the Southern Conference automatic qualifier over Richmond, 9-8 in overtime, for their 15th straight victory. Coach Eric Seremet relies on a defense that's ranked No. 3 in goals against. Goalie Doug Gouchoe is a charismatic stopper.

Chris Walsch, Nick Hruby, Christopher Allen, Andrew Tien and Cameron Carter are the go-to guys on offense. The Falcons' gutsy win at Duke serves as a warning for Notre Dame. Air Force is very athletic, fearless and hungry.

Why Notre Dame could win: The Irish make their 11th straight tournament appearance for coach Kevin Corrigan with eyes on the ultimate prize. Notre Dame's defense puts them in the equation. Defenders Matt Landis, John Sexton, Edwin Glazener and Garrett Epple protect the paint in front of goalie Shane Doss. Although in late-season losses to North Carolina and Duke, the defense showed signs of wear and tear, failing in the final quarter.

Staying the course for the full 60 minutes is critical against Air Force. Scoring goals may not be easy at first. Notre Dame's depth — it can roll 24 or more players off the bench — can tilt the scales in its favor.

The Irish have four proven goal scorers in Matt Kavanagh, Mikey Wynne, Sergio Perkovic and Ryder Garnsey. Too often they are asked to carry the entire load. Somebody else must step up.

Quinnipiac (12-3) at No. 1 seed Maryland (14-2), 12:30 p.m. Sunday

Why Quinnipiac could win: The Bobcats have won nine straight games, the latest in the preliminary game over Hartford. The NCAA appearance is their first for a school that has excelled in men's ice hockey for the past decade.

Coach Eric Fekete has a diverse roster led by Ryan Keenan, Brian Feldman, Foster Cuomo and goalie Jack Brust. The netminder from Charm City has been outstanding all year. He made 18 saves on Wednesday in the win over Hartford. Brust worked at my goalie camp last summer. He's a terrific young man and a very talented goalie.

Why Maryland could win: The Terps have won 13 straight games with concrete defense, upgraded midfield depth and team toughness. The Terps are the team to beat.


The offense has been clicking since shifting Colin Heacock to attack. Bryan Cole, Matt Rambo and Connor Kelly are in career form. Long-stick midfielder Greg Danseglio is a ground ball machine. Goalie Kyle Bernlohr cleans up defensive breakdowns. Coach John Tillman won't allow Maryland to sleep walk through a lesser opponent.


Towson (14-2) at No. 2 seed Denver (13-2), 3 p.m. Sunday

Why Towson could win: The Tigers are making their third NCAA tournament appearance in the last four years for coach Shawn Nadelen. They've won 10 of their last 11, including a preliminary game victory on Wednesday over Hobart.

Towson has the No. 2 scoring defense in the country bolstered by Pat Conroy, Nick Gorman, Mike Lowe and Andrew Cordes. That gives the Tigers a shot in the Rockies. Faceoffs have been an Achilles' heel and may prove too much to overcome. Regardless, Towson is a tough out and won't be beaten without a 60-minute fight.

Why Denver could win: The defending champs fell to Marquette at home last Saturday in the Big East final. It was the Pioneers' first home loss in 22 games and will serve as a wakeup call.

The No. 2 scoring offense in the country features rapid-fire ball movement, patience in settled sets and a superb shooting percentage. Connor Cannizzarro, Zach Miller and Colton Jackson are the primary party starters. Faceoff man Trevor Baptiste typically gives the Pioneers a significant possession edge. That could offset the large edge that Towson has in goal with Tyler White.

Denver has played in three straight championship weekends and coach Bill Tierney owns seven NCAA titles. Teams that travel to Denver for the NCAA tournament usually end their season in Peter Barton Stadium.

Navy (10-5) at No. 4 seed Yale (13-2), 5:15 p.m. Sunday

Why Navy could win: Navy has the No. 1 scoring defense in the country led by Matt Rees, Chris Fennell, Jules Godino and goalie John Connors. However, the offense went dormant late in the year, managing just five goals in a loss at Maryland, seven in a win over Sacred Heart and three in the Army loss.

A bye week gave Coach Ricky Sowell some time to fine-tune a unit that has lost its scoring touch. Brady Dove's faceoff wins and a tight defense may give Yale fits.

Why Yale could win: Experience favors Yale, a team making its fourth tournament appearance in the last five years. Scorers Ben Reeves, Michael Keasey, Eric Scott and Jeff Cimbalista looked sharp in the Ivy League tournament.

The Bulldogs have a top-10 defense, although playing without Michael Quinn is a serious setback. Faceoffs remain troublesome. Coach Andy Shay has done remarkable work in New Haven, Conn.

Albany (12-3) at No. 8 seed Syracuse (11-4), 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Why Albany could win: If you trade possessions with Albany, they usually win. Their offense strikes in transition and is a free-flowing creative juggernaut. Connor Fields, Seth Oakes and Justin Reh are the primary weapons. The biggest dilemma facing the Danes is that they aren't playing their best ball right now. Goalie Blaze Riorden must have a huge game if Albany hopes to upset the Orange.

Why Syracuse could win: Syracuse has made the NCAA tournament 25 of the last 26 years. The ACC champs have found their stride lately. A switch to goalie Evan Molloy made a big difference. Defenders Nick Mellen, Brandon Mullins, Austin Fusco and Scott Firman anchor a unit that now plays with cohesion.

Dylan Donahue directs the offense and midfielder Sergio Salcido has become a game breaker. Shooters Tim Barber, Derek DeJoe, and Nick Mariano stretch a defense. Face-off man Ben Williams has destroyed Albany the last two meetings.

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

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