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Kessenich: Leaders, moments in time helped define NCAA lacrosse quarterfinalists' seasons

For the remaining eight teams in the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament, there were players — or moments — that turned their season around or kept them focused on their ultimate goal.

Whether it be a show of leadership by one person, a team meeting or coaching that resonated with a player, it allowed the player or team to reach their potential.

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But will it be enough to get a team to the Final Four? We'll find out this weekend.

Here's a look at each game:

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Syracuse vs. Maryland, Saturday at noon, Providence, R.I., ESPNU

The Big Ten champs square off against the ACC champs in the game of the weekend. The formula for success is quite simple. Play your best, or go home.

The Terps' motto is "Be the Best," a tradition started by coach Buddy Beardmore in the 1970s and carried through the decades. "My focus is on getting better everyday," coach John Tillman said. "The film doesn't lie. It's important to re-emphasize our principles. That allows players to make good decisions in the gray area."

Maryland's senior class stands out in the bracket. Six seniors were selected in the first 19 picks of the Major League Lacrosse collegiate draft. That's a talented nucleus.

"Our four captains have been selfless in their roles," Tillman said. "That sets the example. They are even-keeled. Isaiah Davis-Allen is a junior captain elected by his peers, with intangibles that are off the charts. Kyle Bernlohr never gets rattled. Matt Dunn is super smart and communicator on the field. Bryan Cole does anything we ask him to do."

Maryland's offense has become powerful and deep but at the core, the Terps win with defense. Dunn, Greg Danseglio, Mac Pons and a rapidly improving Tim Muller are the foundation.

Possessions are paramount against a Syracuse team that rolls out faceoff man Ben Williams. The high school football player from Minnesota can take over a game with his clamp, rake or pinch and pop.

"Williams is such a great athlete who times up the whistle," Tillman said. "When he doesn't win the draw, he's physical and knocks you around, and has a strong wrap check."

On paper, the Terps have more weapons than Syracuse, and a more experienced goalie in Bernlohr. Games aren't won on paper. Seeding Syracuse at No.8 against the No. 1 Terps gives fans a championship-like game in the quarterfinals.

Navy vs. Brown, Saturday at 2:30 p.m., Providence, R.I., ESPNU

It was Navy captain Patrick Keena who decided that during spring break the Mids would remain in their dorm, Bancroft Hall, instead of living in civilian comfort at their sponsor homes in Annapolis. Navy, according to coach Ricky Sowell, has a history of playing poorly after spring break. Keena's decision wasn't a popular one among teammates. The end result, however, was a win over Loyola that Saturday. And on Selection Sunday, it was that victory that enabled Navy to get into the NCAA tournament. His unpopular and bold decision is why Navy plays Brown on Saturday.

Last week at Yale, Keena let his stick do the talking. In a masterful performance, he scored two goals and added four assists against the Bulldogs. His team-first mentality epitomizes a program that's gone from four wins in 2014 to nine last year and now 11, one game away from championship weekend in Philadelphia. Keena has become a more versatile playmaker; able to dodge to score or dish when doubled. He has earned the trust of Sowell and often calls the offense if the coach is tied up on the sideline.

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The challenge for Navy on Saturday is enormous. Brown's up-tempo scheme is an outlier, difficult to simulate in practice. Dylan Molloy is a bulldozing force of nature. The Bears are on a roll and at home. But with Keena in charge, you get the feeling that Navy will step up and stand toe-to-toe with the Brown.

North Carolina vs. Notre Dame, Sunday at noon, Columbus, Ohio, noon, ESPN2

At 3-3 with losses to Hofstra and UMass, North Carolina's season looked bleak. A team meeting turned the tide.

"We had a two-hour meeting in a hotel in Massachusetts," coach Joe Breschi said. "Everybody spoke — the players and coaches. Guys were in tears. It was heartfelt and it changed our season."

Carolina rallied to beat Notre Dame late in the regular season after trailing 15-10. They took care of Marquette last week in the first round. They are playing with house money and a nothing-to-lose mindset.

"Since that meeting we have displayed the passion and energy in practice," Breschi said. "I'm all over them in practice. We have ramped up the intensity and competitiveness in everything we do. This group has been gratifying."

When you play Notre Dame it's imperative that you score goals in non-traditional ways. The Irish half-field defense is tight. The Heels have done a good job riding, winning loose balls and scoring off broken plays and face-offs in a series that is tied up at 7-7 since 1995.

"The closer this game resembles a summer league game, the more advantageous it is for them," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "We are stressing poise and discipline this week."

Towson vs. Loyola, Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Columbus, Ohio, noon, ESPNU

This game features two exceptional goalies. One is a rookie, one a veteran. Freshman Jake Stover starts for Loyola and is 9-1. He plays with uncommon poise. Attitude is his greatest gift; he is a forward-looking, ultra-positive person, who attacks all challenges. When he makes a mistake, he immediately wants a do-over to correct it, and then he moves on.

Stover is in good hands. Let's not forget that Greyhound coach Charley Toomey played the position and led Loyola to the NCAA title game in 1990. The charismatic keeper played with a strong dose of confidence, quickness, swagger and presence. Toomey was a fighter and still is. His work with young goaltenders has been superb.

Far from a finished product, Stover has stabilized the defense, making clutch saves against Bucknell and Duke. Apparently having ice in your veins is inherited. His dad, former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, was a model of consistency in the NFL. The next kick mattered most. Now, the next save counts most.

Towson's goalie Tyler White is built more like an offensive lineman. He's a mellow fifth-year senior, who fills up the goal frame at 6-3 and 230 pounds. His size forces shooters to peg corners. Former TU volunteer assistant coach Scott Rodgers led Notre Dame to the NCAA title game in 2010 and worked with White for two years. It was a perfect match. Rodgers is also a behemoth. "Scotty taught me to work," White said. "He taught me how to be a big goalie, how to stay square to shots, how to play my angles and how to hold my position."

White watches tons of tape, looking for trends and tendencies. The smallest tip can lead to the instinctual save. When you have less than a quarter of a second to react to a shot, finding any edge helps.

A brick wall during the last two seasons., White has helped the Tiger defense go from good to great. On Tuesday, White talked about goaltending and his journey. He is wise beyond his years and a likable guy. When he speaks his teammates listen. Golf is his hobby and it shares the mental challenges of being a goalie.

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"The most nervous I've ever been was on the tee box in high school at the first hole, driving the ball in front of a crowd," he said. "Golf requires the same short term memory as goaltending."

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Slicing the golf ball into the rough or giving up a goal isn't the worst thing in the world. Unfortunately, White has been to that dark place. He lost his mom, Sandy to breast cancer when he was 13 years old. He moved in with his dad and step mom, changing school districts to Corning East, where his lacrosse skills blossomed. The game and his teammates have always been his escape, the crease a safe haven. His style is peaceful, subdued and minimalistic. On Sunday, after a handshake with Stover at the logo at midfield, he will lumber back toward his crease, tap the pipes with his stick and point to the sky to acknowledge Sandy.

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

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