Each Final Four team believes it can bring home the trophy

When practice began in the first week of January, about 19 weeks ago, the hopes of every team were to be playing this weekend.

There are just four left standing after a season that saw huge upsets, remarkable comebacks and inspired play. On one side you have a rivalry, Johns Hopkins vs. Maryland, that almost defines the sport. On the other side, you have two teams, Notre Dame and Denver, searching for their first national title.


Every young player dreams of playing this weekend, and they work from the first time they pick up a ground ball to have this moment.

A lot of experts had Notre Dame and Denver at Nos. 1 and 2 entering the season, and really in no particular order. If you had Hopkins playing Maryland in the Final Four, go buy a Mega Millions ticket.


It should be a fun and exciting weekend. Here's what to look for in the two games Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia:

Denver vs. Notre Dame, 1 p.m., ESPN2

Coach Kevin Corrigan has built a national power in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame has never won a national title, but this roster is deep — the Irish played 27 players in both NCAA playoff games — and the players are big, fast and strong. They bullied Albany late in the quarterfinal victory by winning the 50-50 battles. The Irish senior class is making their third championship weekend appearance. They lost the title game 11-9 to Duke in 2014. Lefty attackman and catalyst Matt Kavanagh has gone cold, but Notre Dame has multiple weapons with Conor Doyle, Sergio Perkovic and Nick Ossello picking up the slack in the tournament.

Notre Dame is built on a foundation of defense. This team likes to run, as evidenced by its No. 6 pace of play rating. Jack Near is a defensive midfielder who can turn a stop into a fastbreak in the blink of an eye. The defense remains stout (No. 18 in scoring against) and is led by Matt Landis and Garrett Epple. Landis is a relentless coverman. Goalie Shane Doss has moments of brilliance and others where he struggles. Corrigan utilizes a 10-man ride, or full court press, to create pace and chaos.

In their regular-season loss at Denver, the Irish took just 24 shots and surrendered four extra-man goals. They committed five faceoff violations and lost the majority of the draws, yet led by three entering the fourth quarter before stalling. Can the Irish win enough faceoffs on Saturday?

Notre Dame is 12-2 for a reason, It's a very talented and a balanced group with a proper dash of experience. The players are grounded in Corrigan's culture and approach.

Denver's senior class is appearing in a third consecutive championship weekend, having lost in the semifinals to Syracuse (2013) and Duke (2014). Coach Bill Tierney won six NCAA championships at Princeton and is trying for a first at Denver with a roster of players who represent 17 states and two Canadian provinces. This team has world-class skill.

The Pioneers are masters of the half-court game — preferring a slow pace (No. 63 in pace), where their six-on-six patterns have been unstoppable. Denver ranks second in offensive efficiency and shooting percentage (37 percent). They win faceoffs at a 67 percent clip with Trevor Baptiste clamping his way to greatness. Baptiste hasn't been his usual self in the post-season which bears watching. Maryland transfer Connor Cannizzaro is the Pioneers' most dynamic dodger who has lightning for feet. He is the penetrator that this offense missed in their last two NCAA losses. Shooter Wesley Berg (180 career goals) hit net six times against Ohio State last Saturday and is a big-game hunter. The Pioneers trailed 7-1 early, never panicked, then rolled to their 11th straight win. Lefty playmaker Zach Miller has 32 assists. Midfielder Tyler Pace has more than 40 points. Denver dissects defenses with Prestissimo stickwork, dodges topside and feeds to the in-side or back-side. It's beautiful to watch.


The defense is good, not great. Christian Burgdorf and Carson Cannon are solid cover-men down low. Expect Notre Dame to probe the defensive midfielders. Homegrown goalie Ryan LaPlante was excellent in the first round against Brown.

Johns Hopkins vs. Maryland, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2

They have met 112 times, including NCAA championship games in 1973, 1974 and 1979. They've staged tension-filled playoff games throughout the past four decades. Quite simply, they don't like each other. This time, somebody drives home on Saturday night and the other plays on Memorial Day.

The Terp seniors are playing in their third championship weekend. That's quite an accomplishment. Maryland has become a perennial over-achiever for coach John Tillman, a team defined by grit, toughness and attention to detail. The recipe for success starts with defense. Maryland owns the nation's stingiest group, led by Matt Dunn, Casey Ikeda, Mac Pons, Matt Neufeldt, Isiah Davis-Allen and goalie Kyle Bernlohr. They double-team and support while protecting the paint. They also rely on their No. 26-ranked offense and faceoff scheme to buttress the defense, preferring slow tempo, low-scoring games. The Terps rank No. 61 of 69 teams in the nation in pace of play. When Maryland is playing well, it commits very few turnovers.

Maryland enters the semifinal off its most-complete win of the season, a 14-7 destruction of North Carolina that was a decided before halftime. Midfielders Bryan Cole and Joe LoCascio have caught fire. The Terps got production from their second midfield line of Connor Kelly, Colin Heacock and Bobby Gribbin. Kelly entered that contest with five points on the year and scored a hat trick in the first half. Just 46 percent of Maryland goals have been assisted against 62 percent for Hopkins — a more than subtle style difference.

Faceoffs and ground balls dictate pace and tempo. Maryland's Charlie Raffa is a war horse at the face-off stripe. He went 12 of 19 against the Tar Heels and took control of the game. Hopkins knocked Raffa around in the Blue Jays' regular-season win. When Raffa left the game, the momentum swung to Hopkins.


Johns Hopkins has rattled off seven straight wins after a startling 4-6 start. The low point was a 15-12 loss to Ohio State on Easter Sunday. Coach Dave Pietramala has managed his team through the off-the-field tragedy of losing a teammate. It's been Pietramala's finest moment as a leader of young men.

Like Maryland, the Jays come into this game off a peak effort. The offense, under the direction of Wells Stanwick, is humming. The Jays lit up Virginia for 19 goals and Syracuse for 16 during the last two weeks, shooting 41 percent in the process. Make no mistake, Maryland's defense towers over ACC schools. Ryan Brown scored eight goals in the regular season matchup and will draw more respect this time. Freshmen Shack Stanwick, Joel Tinney and Pat Fraser look to continue their strong rookie seasons.

Scoring has never been the issue for the 2015 Blue Jays. The defense is the problem. Hopkins is ranked No. 38 in scoring defense. It's been a tad-bit better lately, but let's not forget that Syracuse did score 15 against them last week. To their credit, the Jays have reduced self-inflicted wounds and are more assignment sound. Graduate-student goalie Eric Schneider is making 57 percent of his saves during the win streak. It's a turnaround from 43 percent, when the Jays were 4-6.

The faceoff tandem of Drew Kennedy and Hunter Mooreland will try to frustrate and tire Raffa. The Stanwicks and invert midfielders will initiate from behind the Maryland net and throw skip passes up top for 10-12 yard shots. I don't expect a track meet in a game that will be decided by mental toughness.

The odds will be stacked against the Hopkins-Maryland winner on Memorial Day regardless of who they face. The quick turnaround can produce inexplicable results. I've learned to respect the unexpected.

All four teams have a strong belief that they will be champion. May the best team win.


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