BALTIMORE, Md. (AP) — Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh served as keynote speaker at Thursday’s banquet to kick off the NCAA men’s lacrosse championship weekend, and he immediately pointed out that one of the teams is not like the others.
Three of the semifinalists — Duke, Maryland and Virginia — are members of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Harbaugh then turned toward the players and coaches of the team that traveled the farthest to get to Baltimore.
“Denver, you don’t play in the ACC do you?” he joked. “I know what you’re saying: ‘That’s all right. Watch us win the ACC championship this weekend.”‘
Duke, Maryland and Virginia represent the establishment of the sport, having combined to capture seven national titles. Denver is the newcomer to the party, a program that was elevated to varsity status in 1999 and is making just its first appearance in the semifinals, which are being held at M&T Bank Stadium.
The semifinals are Saturday, with Denver taking on Virginia and Maryland facing Duke for the third time this season.
“It’s a thrill and an honor for Denver to be in the Final Four for the first time. I think some of our young guys still don’t realize what they’ve accomplished,” Pioneers coach Bill Tierney said. “On my part, there are mixed emotions — from amazement to disbelief. I don’t know if it’s naivete or dumb confidence, but the players have believed we could do this all along.”
While the Denver players may not have experience at this level, Tierney certainly does. He led Princeton to six national championships during a 22-year tenure as head coach at the Ivy League school. Denver lured Tierney to take its program up anotch, and he has delivered in just his second season at the helm.
Sixth-seeded Denver became the first school west of the Mississippi to host an NCAA tournament game this season. The Pioneers, who had lost in the first round in three previous playoff appearances, upset third-seeded Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals.
Virginia coach Dom Starsia believes Denver’s surprising run to the Final Four is good for the game. Notre Dame was national runner-up last season and the success of schools in the West and Midwest helped convince Michigan to announce this week it would be adding men’s lacrosse as a varsity sport in 2012.
“In terms of the big picture of our sport, two of the most significant events in recent history happened this week. I think Bill Tierney going to Denver and getting the program here to this level is important for showing that a school in the West can compete at the highest level,” Starsia said. “Having the University of Michigan decide to play Division I lacrosse is huge. It’s a signal to all these big-time football schools that you can do it.”
Maryland and Virginia are truly the old guard of college lacrosse, winning two of the initial three national titles after the NCAA began sanctioning the sport in 1971. The Cavaliers have enjoyed more recent success, capturing three crowns since 1999 under Starsia. The Terrapins, on the other hand, have been snake-bitten — losing five times in the finals and nine times in the semifinals since their last championship in 1975.
Duke has developed into a national power during the past decade, advancing to the semifinals five times in the past seven years. The Blue Devils lost in the finals in 2005 and 2007 before securing their first national championship last season.
Starsia readily admits the ACC takes pride in having three teams in the semifinals, the first time in NCAA tournament history that one conference has accomplished such a feat.
“One of the things we sell in recruiting is that the ACC has four of the best teams in the country,” Starsia said. “We knock the heck out of each other during the regular season and in the ACC Tournament, but it hardens all of us for the month of May.”
Denver (15-2) versus seventh-seeded Virginia (11-5) on Saturday shapes up as a shootout as both teams like to play a fast-paced, high-scoring style. Canadian-born attackman Mark Matthews (69 points) leads the Pioneers, who are scoring nearly 13 goals per game. Attackman Steele Stanwick (64 points) is the catalyst for the Cavaliers, who are also averaging almost 13 goals.
Meantime, this is the rubber match between Duke (14-5) and Maryland (12-4) as the former school won the regular season meeting and the latter took in the ACC tournament matchup. Both teams won defensive struggles in the quarterfinals with fifth-seeded Duke edging Notre Dame, 7-5, and Maryland nipping top-seeded Syracuse, 6-5 in overtime.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)