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Mike Preston: Virginia’s Rode could be on course for lacrosse greatness again | COMMENTARY

Virginia goalie Alex Rode could steal the show again.

The teams remaining in the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse semifinals feature the top four offenses in the game in North Carolina (16.67 goals a game), Maryland (16.07), Duke (14.81) and Virginia (14.62), not to mention some of the game’s best attackmen in Chris Gray, Jared Bernhardt and Michael Sowers.

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But a lot of eyes will be on Rode, the senior from Lutherville and St. Paul’s, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the 2019 NCAA tournament as Virginia won the national championship.

“All the remaining goalies are really good, and this tournament has had outstanding goalie play,” said Quint Kessenich, lacrosse analyst for ESPN and former All-America goalie at Johns Hopkins. “The shot clock in the past two full seasons has really put more emphasis on goaltending with more possessions ending on a shot. I would say the goalies are relatively even, but Rode’s advantage is his experience.

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“And he is off to a strong start,” Kessenich said. “I thought he was terrific against Bryant in the first round and was good last week against Georgetown even though Virginia’s defense made his job easier. But he is the proven commodity of the bunch.”

Rode won the MVP in 2019 following an 18-save performance against Duke in the semifinals, and then 13 more in the Cavaliers’ 13-9 championship win versus Yale.

According to Kessenich, Duke’s Mike Adler has gotten better since the start of the season and is one of the better goalies in the country. Carolina’s Collin Krieg is only a freshman but has showed no signs of buckling under the pressures of a championship run.

Maryland’s Logan McNaney might be the less agile of the four but Kessenich says he has a knack for reading the ball when it comes out of a shooter’s stick and played a strong second half in the Terps’ quarterfinal win against Notre Dame.

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But none of them has played as well as Rode for such an extended period. In 2021, Rode has a goals-against average of 11.31 and a save percentage of about 55%. In a 13-11 win over Bryant in a first round game, Rode was a difference-maker with 18 saves. He had eight in the Cavaliers’ 14-3 quarterfinal win over Georgetown.

The Tar Heels have the nation’s top-rated offense, but they have to piece together a game plan for beating Rode, the former high school linebacker and ice hockey player.

“He is a terrific player,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “We’ve played him twice this year. He is extremely athletic, obviously, with their 10-man ride, and we are familiar with him being out of cage. He has quickness and has made stick saves, foot saves, elbow saves, a little bit of everything.

“He has become so much more consistent,” Breschi said. “He played great last week as well. We’ve seen him twice this year. From our standpoint, we try to understand what his strengths are, and exploit his weaknesses, but he doesn’t have a lot of those.”

That wasn’t the situation when Rode arrived at Virginia four years ago. He admits to having poor and sloppy technique, which he could get away with in high school, but not on the Division I college level.

“The biggest thing I had to make an improvement on was being patient with shots, and just waiting for the shooter to shoot and then react,” Rode said. “In high school I got away with some bad things and doing things too quickly.”

In other words, there had to be less guess work. Rode also had to communicate better and get out of his quiet, reserved shell.

“He has done a wonderful job of being kind of the main stain at the defensive end,” Breschi said.

Rode is 1-1 against the Tar Heels this season. Virginia lost to North Carolina, 16-13, on March 11, but beat the Tar Heels a month later, 18-16.

Besides Gray (46 goals, 40 assists), North Carolina has the game’s most prolific scoring midfield with Tanner Cook (22 goals, 9 assists), William Perry (28, 15) and Justin Anderson (25, 6).

Virginia, though, seems to be peaking, especially on defense. The Cavaliers also have Rode and are the defending national champions even since the 2020 season was cut short because of the coronavirus.

“I think we came out slow in first game we played them, including myself,” Rode said. “It was really a rough start to the game, and we got behind the eight ball. In the second game, we trusted the players we play with to make plays, and knowing these guys are going to makes plays is going to be huge in this game.

“North Carolina is a well-rounded team,” Rode said. “It is senior-laden. But our defense is playing well, and our offense can score goals like few teams I have ever been on. We’re proud of it (national championship) and we talk about it a little bit, but this is a new year with new teams that are hungry to win. If we focus on that too much, we might not be there at the end but it’s something you want to defend, something you want to keep in the state of Virginia.”

NCAA MEN’S LACROSSE

at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut

Saturday’s DI semifinals

No. 1 seed North Carolina vs. No. 4 seed Virginia, noon

No. 2 seed Duke vs. No. 3 seed Maryland, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Championship game: Monday, 1 p.m.

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