Portions previously appearing on WTOP.COM
Memorial Day Weekend will be a convenient one for many in the Maryland Athletic Department as well as Sports Information Office. Division I holds its Mens and Womens Final Fours in the same city (albeit at different venues), giving Terrapin boosters a chance to “bundle” their National Championship hopes. Both teams enter the weekend as #1 seeds and prohibitive favorites. Can the school pull off the first lacrosse double-dip since Princeton in 1994?
For the Maryland women (22-0), the Final Four that was once a goal to reach is now a standard to be met by Cathy Reese’s program. Eight straight trips to the National Semifinals. That means not only has every player on this team been on a Final Four squad, but everyone they’ve played with during their careers has also suited up during the National Semifinals. “You’re a little six-year old playing lacrosse, this is what you dream of,” explains sophomore attacker Megan Whittle,”I’ve always wanted to be wearing a Maryland uniform playing in the Final Four…on the biggest stage.” Whittle’s 69 goals entering the Final Four paced the team and helped them reach this stage (she has the most goals per game of any player still in the tournament).
For a team that’s won two straight National Championships and began 2016 ranked #1, this was a team that still needed to find itself. Coach Cathy Reese says, “we returned five starters off of last years group, so we had a lot of work to do. I think our chemistry is really unique this year. We’re playing with a lot of confidence and great energy.” The Terps lead the nation in scoring with 15.38 goals per game. In addition to Whittle, senior Zoe Stukenberg and Taylor Cummings provide the necessary firepower.
When you reach the Final Four eight straight years, the last weekend in May not only becomes competition for the current team but an annual pilgrimage for Reese’s former players. Stukenberg has had a chance to witness two previous “reunion weekends”, saying “almost everyone who has played in those Fours will be there cheering us on Friday. I think that’s one of the most special parts about being a Terp during championship weekend. They’re all over the country, and everyone makes an effort to come and support us.” Instead of the fans in the stands though or even the opponent, Cathy Reese looks inward, “for us, our focus is all about Maryland…what do we need to do to be prepared for anything that we see. This is what you work for…the chance to get out there and compete in this venue.”
After beating Syracuse 19-9 in the National Semifinals Friday night, the the Terps tangle with 3rd seeded North Carolina (19-2) in Sunday’s Championship game. UNC beat Penn State 12-11 in the early semifinal to earn its berth in the title game. Maryland won the regular season matchup 8-7 on February 27th in Chapel Hill. Sunday’s showdown starts at noon.
The Maryland men (16-2) may be facing Brown (16-2), but the Terps are also confronting a 40+ year title drought as well as facing down the ghosts of last year’s Championship Game loss to Denver. Senior Matt Dunn remembers that day all too well: “I don’t think it’s something we want to make too much of a deal out of…but I feel it’s definitely a source of motivation knowing we worked hard last year and didn’t get to achieve our goal–but now have another chance to.” This season they’re leaving nothing to chance, entering the Final Four on a 15-game winning streak. How hot has this team been? Their closest margin of victory in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments has been 6 goals.
This is the fifth time in six years since coming to College Park that coach John Tillman has the Terps this far; as opposed to previous editions that were seeded 6th and 7th before reaching the final weekend this has been his first team seeded #1. Tillman acknowleges, “We don’t have that known faceoff commodity (this year)…and we’ve had more of our ups and downs there. I think we’re a little more a deeper team…which we hope we may be able to turn into an advantage.” Five players have 20 or more goals, led by Matt Rambo’s 39 (the junior ranks second on the team with 24 assists). Senior Bryan Cole is the team’s top distributor with 27 assists this spring.
But make no mistake, Saturday’s showdown will come down to how Maryland defends Brown’s offense. A lot will be on the shoulders of senior goalie Kyle Bernlohr, who says “the style they play is pretty free-flowing…they’re a transition-heavy team. They’re loaded at every position…and can find the back of the net.” The Bruins lead the nation in scoring with 16.44 goals per game and the Terps allow the fourth fewest goals in Division I (while their man-down unit ranks 3rd). They likely won’t have the nations #1 assist man in Dylan Molloy, who injured his right foot in their NCAA First Round game against Johns Hopkins and didn’t play last weekend against Navy. Even without Molloy, Brown boasts two of the top ten scorers in the nation in Kylor Bellistri and Henry Blynn. Bellistri & Blynn. Sounds like a law firm I don’t want to be on the other side of a big case against.
The other semifinal features Loyola of Maryland (14-3) against North Carolina (10-6) in the upset-riddled half of the bracket; the Greyhounds were the #7 seed and the Tar Heels had to shock Marquette and Notre Dame to reach Philadelphia. While Loyola is just four years removed from winning it all in 2012 they’re also one season away from missing the tournament entirely. Coach Charlie Toomey’s team arrives in Philadelphia this weekend fresh off a 10-8 quarterfinal triumph over Towson. Pat Spencer has been the catalyst this year for an offense that ranks 24th in Division I; his 83 points (on 36 goals and 47 assists) are more than double anyone else on the roster. The Tar Heels are in search of their first National Championship in 25 years…and boast the 7th best offense in the nation with triggerman Steve Pontrello ranking 8th in goals per game. UNC is also dominant on special teams: 8th best in man-up and 7th best in man-down situations. Once again, a lot will be on the shoulders of Jacob Stover (2nd nationally in saves percentage and goals-against average). He was able to keep Towson at bay; can he and the nation’s 9th best defense contain the Tar Heels?
Saturday Faceoff Times: