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Preston: Chase for NCAA men's lacrosse championship is unusually wide open this year

Minutes before his postgame news conference was about to end, Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala was asked about the difficulty of preparing for Duke, his quarterfinal opponent Sunday.

No. 5 seeded Johns Hopkins had just beaten Georgetown, 10-9, in overtime on Sunday while No. 4 Duke easily beat unseeded Villanova, 17-11, in another opening-round game.

“It doesn’t make a difference,” Pietramala said. “To get into the final four, you have to beat a quality team and everybody is good at this point.”

All the remaining teams appear to be equal. In the first half of the season No. 1 Maryland and No. 2 Albany separated themselves from the rest of Division I, but after the opening-round games over the weekend, those teams have either slipped back or the others have stepped up.

There are no clear-cut favorites heading into the quarterfinals this weekend, which will be played either in Hempstead, N.Y., at Hofstra or in Annapolis at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“All the teams have significant strengths and significant weaknesses,” said Mark Dixon, lacrosse analyst for the Big Ten Network and ESPN. “This race hasn’t been so wide open in recent years like it is in 2018. Everybody has a shot to win it, and we’d still be saying the same thing if Syracuse had beaten Cornell and Notre Dame had beaten Denver over the weekend.”

“There is no favorite to hoist the championship trophy in Foxborough,” Dixon said.

Maryland almost suffered one of its worst losses in school history. Down by three goals at halftime, the Terps rallied with eight in the second half to defeat unseeded Robert Morris, 14-11, and narrowly escape becoming the first top seed to lose in the opening round since the tournament expanded in 2003.

Maryland will face unseeded but scrappy and resilient Cornell on Sunday. The Big Red are the second-most balanced of the remaining teams after No. 3 Yale and ahead of Hopkins. Cornell is led by attackmen Jeff Teat (37 goals, 60 assists) and Clarke Petterson (42, 19).

The Terps’ biggest problems have been their inability to win faceoffs and their invert defense. Opposing teams have been able to attack their short stick midfielders from behind the goal, and Maryland’s slides have been indecisive and slow. There are times when the Terps look lost.

“Their invert defense has taken a step backward,” Dixon said. “They are sliding more than I have seen in the last five years. It’s part of a more aggressive style, but they also don’t have [those] lockdown defensive players like they have had in the past.”

Hopkins plays Duke in the other quarterfinal in Annapolis on Sunday. The Blue Devils have one of the country’s top players in attackman Justin Guterding (58, 41), but the Duke defense is suspect, especially goalie Danny Fowler, who has a .537 save percentage and 8.36 goals-against average.

The Blue Devils’ defense can disappear at times.

“It’s like talking about Randy Moss,” Dixon said. “There were times when he would just take plays off. With Duke they have a good team and the defense is very good, but sometimes they take plays off. They don’t play the entire 60 minutes.”

Pietramala will be stressing that point to his Blue Jays during the next couple of days. It’s great that Hopkins can rally and repeatedly come back from deficits, but those comeback attempts have a way of falling short as the competition and games get bigger and better.

Sometimes teams expend so much energy in coming back that they don’t have anything left in the final stretch. It’s one thing to rallyagainst Georgetown, and another when it’s Duke.

Yale has been steady and complete throughout the season. The Bulldogs average 42.2 shots and 13.94 goals a game. Their attack is relentless, led by attackmen Ben Reeves (53, 43), McDonogh’s Jackson Morrill (37, 23), Jack Tigh (31, 14) and Matt Gaudet (30, 7).

No. 6 Loyola Maryland, Yale’s opponent Saturday, is coming off one of its best defensive efforts of the season in an opening-round win against Virginia. The Greyhounds are not known as a team that slides often, but they came hard and aggressively at the Cavaliers, and the tactics caught Virginia unprepared.

Loyola will score its share of points against almost any team, but it will be interesting to see whether the Greyhounds can maintain that same intensity for four quarters. They lost focus in the last quarter against Virginia and the Cavaliers found an apparent weakness in goalie Jacob Stover (McDonogh) by shooting low to his weak side.

“If Yale had not lost to Cornell in the Ivy League championship everyone would say this is their championship to win because they don’t have any weaknesses,” Dixon said. “That’s not to say they are going to win it, but they don’t have a major weaknesses like the other teams.”

The Denver versus Albany game will feature a battle of faceoff specialists as the Pioneers’  Trevor Baptiste goes against the Great Danes’ TD Ierlan.

Baptiste has won 264 of 345 faceoffs while Irelan is 326 of 391. Albany would be the favorite in the game, but it is uncertain whether star attackman Connor Fields’ knee is close to 100 percent. Denver lacks its high-powered offense of recent years, but the Pioneers can still go on scoring runs. Also, goalie Alex Ready has to get hot for Denver to succeed.

But the Pioneers have the game’s best coach in Bill Tierney. Over the years it has been basically impossible to go against Tierney or Duke coach John Danowski in playoff games.

But this year it’s different.

Any team can win.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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