Baltimore is within reach. Championship weekend is the ultimate payoff for a college lacrosse team. More than 60,000 fans and a live national TV audience will fuel the fire.
Expect nail-biters this weekend at Princeton and Annapolis. Since 2004, half of the quarterfinal games have been decided by a goal.
Five of the eight remaining teams have never won an NCAA lacrosse championship. Six of the quarterfinalists didn't make this round last spring.
The past four years have not been kind to defending champions. After a title in 2003, Virginia went 5-8 in 2004. Mikey Powell and the Orange took the trophy home in 2004 and went 7-6 the following year, losing to UMass in the first round of the playoffs. Hopkins and Kyle Harrison captured the 2005 championship and failed to reach championship weekend in 2006. Virginia was undefeated and untouched in 2006 but lost last weekend in Charlottesville to Delaware. All of those champions were senior-laden teams.
The nation's top four offensive teams are still alive -- Cornell, Albany, Duke and Delaware -- while only two of the top 11 defensive teams are still playing (Cornell and Duke). Defensive juggernauts like Navy, Princeton, Notre Dame and Virginia all lost last week in the first round. Offense prevailed.
After Round 1, the nation's two best teams, Cornell and Duke, sit in the upper half of the bracket. The fourth-seeded Big Red (14-0) shut out Towson in the first period 5-0 and never let the visitors get within three goals. The prior two playoff games at Schoellkopf Field had ended up in losses for Cornell.
Towson outshot the Big Red 42-37 and converted five of seven extra-man chances.
"Statistically our man down was not great, but to be honest with you, I would credit Towson as they played very good [extra-man] offense and shot the ball well," said Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni. "I was more disappointed with the fact that we were in the penalty box seven times. We played hard but very undisciplined at times."
Tambroni, like so many of his peers, has the difficult task of preparing Cornell for its biggest game of the year against Albany while balancing academic responsibilities.
"The biggest hurdle for teams this time of year are exams," said Tambroni. "It's difficult to even find practice times where the majority of our guys will be there."
Big Red goalie Matt McMonagle should be a Tewaaraton finalist, as should Delaware faceoff midfielder Alex Smith. Both are having MVP seasons for their teams. McMonagle is a combined 73 percent against Duke, Princeton and Towson. For the year he's at 64 percent while Cornell opponents have only managed to save 45 percent.
Duke and North Carolina will be reacquainted on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET (ESPNU) in Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Will the third time be the charm for the Heels?
In the first regular-season game in Chapel Hill, Carolina darted out to a 6-1 lead as Bart Wagner scored four goals. But before halftime, Matt Danowski cut the margin to 6-2 and then with :38 seconds left in the second quarter, Max Quinzani used a hockey-like slap shot to bang home a rebound after Grant Zimmerman made a great save on Danowski.
Then, following a scramble for the ball near midfield, Danowski found Zack Greer on the doorstep from 25 yards away with just :01 second on the clock to send the teams into halftime with UNC up 6-4, but with all the momentum on Duke's side. Blue Devil Brad Ross won the opening faceoff to start the third quarter, scooped up the ground ball and raced to the cage and scored to pull Duke within one. Game over.
In the ACC semifinals, Carolina jumped out on top 3-1 but Duke scored five goals over the last nine minutes of the first quarter. It was a powerful run that featured two goals from Greer and Danowski and a slick dodge-and-shoot effort from LSM Nick O'Hara. It was a Duke run that decided the game. The Blue Devils shone on the specialty situations going 3-for-3 on EMO while UNC was 0-4.
Keys for UNC this Sunday: Find a way to neutralize the best player on the field in Danowski, match Duke's energy and intensity on loose balls and use faceoff wins (Shane Walterhoefer) and saves (Zimmerman) to limit Duke runs.
Big players, big hits Around the Pac-10
Notre Dame's Will Yeatman is the ultimate matchup problem at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds. Yeatman, a freshman from Rancho Bernardo, Calif., played in 12 of 13 Notre Dame football games this season as a tight end. On Saturday night, defenseman Eric Zerrlaut of Hopkins limited Yeatman to five shots and two assists (one on EMO). Zerrlaut is listed at 6-5, 235, and has overcome an ACL injury. Zerrlaut amazingly started the season opener on Feb. 24 after injuring his knee in September. I have never seen a matchup at the college level which featured two such behemoths.
Saturday in Princeton (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET), Johns Hopkins will have to contend with a Georgetown team whose roster is stocked with size. Dave Urick can lean on Andrew Brancaccio, Dan D'Agnes, Scott Kahoe, Scott Kocis and Garrett Wilson, all of whom are 6-2 or taller, and all play midfield. The Hoyas, who haven't lost since March 24, will try to pound on Hopkins in the middle of the field.
The two schools have not faced each other since 1993. They scrimmaged during the winter of 2006, a preseason tilt that ended with Hopkins' Stephen Peyser's jaw being broken by a disputed hit. Peyser missed eight games in 2006 and the two coaches did not renew the scrimmage this winter.
Buckle your chin strap and expect another close shave. The Hoyas are 5-0 in one goal-games this year. Hopkins is 5-1 this spring and 29-6 overall in one-goal games under coach Dave Pietramala.
Goaltending and special teams will decide this ballgame.
Other tourney notes
It was a brutal Sunday for the ACC. I have always been opposed to the ACC tournament -- which rewards ACC schools for redundancy, an important tidbit in this era of strength of schedule and RPI. But when I hear fans say that in 2007 the ACC was overrated, I have to disagree. Prior to the NCAA Tournament, the ACC was 4-1 versus the Ivy League, 8-0 against the Great Western Lacrosse League, 2-2 when facing teams from the ECAC, 6-1 against the Patriot League, 5-0 versus America East, 3-1 against Johns Hopkins and 3-1 versus the Colonial. That's 31-6 for a winning percentage of 84 percent.
Delaware has won six straight after a three-game skid in late March and early April. It's an identical pattern to Johns Hopkins. Mark Dixon covered their upset win over Virginia for ESPNU.
"Delaware played out of their minds. The game was sensational. It resembled a Syracuse-UVa game, fast paced, physical, emotional -- it had a little bit of everything," said Dixon. "The story of the game was the execution of Delaware's offense and their tenacity on the defensive end. They beat Virginia at their own game."
The Blue Hens made saves and turned them into quick transition, opportunistic goals and applied relentless pressure all over the field.
"They never allowed UVa to catch their breath," said Dixon. "They took the intensity to the Cavs' defense, no matter if it was an attackman, middie, or even their poles -- every guy ran hard every single time."
Virginia's Tewaaraton finalist Ben Rubeor never got on track.
"Coach Bob Shillinglaw put Rob Smith on him and he did a great job," said Dixon. "They slid early and never allowed Rubeor clean looks."
The game was decided after Drew Thompson scored 20 seconds into the third for Virginia to tie the game. It appeared as if a spark had ignited but Delaware countered at the 11-minute mark.
"After that, you saw the wind come out of the Cavs' sails and the confidence of the Blue Hens swell," said Dixon. "Delaware played very much like Duke -- at a higher speed than their opponent."
Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He can be reached at email@example.com. ESPN.com is working with Inside Lacrosse to provide you with news and analysis. Click here for more coverage.