Championship weekend will have a hard act to follow. Three of the four quarterfinal games were one-goal classics loaded with twists and turns. Cornell, Syracuse, Denver and Duke emerged unscathed and with championship hopes still alive.
There should be plenty of drama in Philadelphia, and there are several storylines that should make the contests even more compelling. Can a Syracuse team that heard it from its own fans after a season-opening loss to Albany win the 12th title in school history? Can the best player in the country complete the title quest that lured him back to Ithaca when there were many other options in play? Will a Duke team that was left for dead in early March grab the crown? Can a hall-of-fame coach who built a dynasty at Princeton add to his legacy by delivering the first championship to a school west of the Delaware Water Gap? You’ll have to tune in to see how these subplots play out over three games in three days in Philadelphia.
Cornell vs. No. 7 Duke: This should be a fan-friendly and entertaining contest because both teams like to create tempo by being aggressive on both ends. There is no indication one will change its MO on Saturday.
There is no arguing that Cornell has been the most impressive team in the postseason. Led by Rob Pannell’s 15 points, the Big Red toyed with Maryland and Ohio State. Although it helps to have the best player in the country on the roster, this has been far from a one-man act. Steve Mock had seven goals last week vs. Ohio State, and the defense has caused 22 turnovers in two games. The biggest reasons that the Big Red have won by big margins in the first rounds? Faceoffs and goalie play. Doug Tesoriero has won 31 of 49 draws in the tournament, and A.J. Fiore has 22 saves. If that duo shines again, Cornell will cruise into Monday.
That is easier said than done, since Brendan Fowler at the X has been Duke’s X-factor all year. The Chaminade grad has won 65 percent of his draws, which is third-best in the country. He tends to eliminate wing play by picking up 9.6 ground balls a game. The Blue Devils will do more than hang around if Fowler can keep the ball away from Pannell and get it into the sticks of Jordan Wolf and David Lawson. If Fowler does not win it to himself, the ground-ball battles between former hockey players Luke Duprey of Duke and Thomas Keith of Cornell will get nasty.
Did I mention subplots and storylines? Pannell is seven points away from becoming the all-time points leader in Division I lacrosse, passing former Duke great Matt Danowski’s 353. Danowski will have a front-row seat at Pannell’s attempt to break his record since he is in his first year as an assistant coach for his father.
Prediction: Cornell 15, Duke 12
No. 4 Denver vs. No. 1 Syracuse: This is a classic matchup of Denver’s excellent offense against Syracuse’s much-improved defense on one end. On the other is Syracuse’s balanced offense against a so-so Denver defense.
The Pioneers are hoping that Chase Carraro can be more than a neutralizer in the faceoff game. The Louisville product allowed Denver to hang around and chip away at North Carolina’s early lead last week by winning 17 of 26 draws. At this point of the season, Syracuse knows how to play despite a one-sided faceoff situation. The Orange lost all but one of 24 faceoffs to Bryant and won. Syracuse lost 12 of 17 faceoffs to Yale and won.
With all due respect, though, this is not Bryant or Yale. Denver will be the best offense John Desko’s defense has seen since Albany hung 16 on them back on Feb. 17. The Pioneers play patiently and combine slick skills with great schemes devised by assistant coach Matt Brown. Wesley Berg has 12 goals in two NCAA tournament games. With a healthier Jeremy Noble joining Cam Flint at the midfield, Denver can attack from any spot on the field.
Bill Tierney is a defensive mastermind, and you don’t win six championships by accident, so his troops will be ready for Syracuse. But Jo Jo Marasco’s ability to wait for the play to develop and find the open man puts a ton of pressure on a team defensively. Syracuse’s attack was unknown at the beginning of the year but has emerged with clutch playmakers down the stretch.
Syracuse is 6-3 in one-goal games, the most in the country. Denver is 5-3 in one-goal games, second-most in the country. They are a combined 4-3 in overtime. Don’t make early dinner plans for Saturday night.
Prediction: Denver 12, Syracuse 11 OT