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Best NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Tournament Runs of All Time

The NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Tournament began in 1971 and has undergone immense changes since its start. We’ll soon be more than 50 years removed from the first tournament, and we’ve seen some incredible lacrosse and some incredible runs in that time. But what are the tournament’s best runs of all time?

There are a number of factors that can be considered to determine what makes a lacrosse tournament run great. Was it full of blowouts? Were all the games close? Was it historic for another reason?

A great run also doesn’t necessarily mean a championship, either. Sometimes runs fall short. What we’ll do is dive into some of the best runs in the history of the NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Tournament.

Best NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament Runs of All Time

First up, the teams that fell short:

1980 Virginia

In 1980, Virginia went on a crazy run. The Cavaliers entered the tournament with just two losses and earned the No. 1 seed (one-loss Hopkins was the No. 2). But that top seed didn’t include a cakewalk.

Virginia’s first-round matchup against No. 8 Cornell finished in a 9-8 overtime win, which earned the team a date with No. 5 North Carolina in the national semifinals. Once again, overtime struck and the ‘Hoos took the 11-10 victory in the extra period, clinching a spot in the championship game.

Squaring up with No. 2 Hopkins with all the marbles on the line, Virginia experienced its third-straight overtime contest, this time going to double OT. But the Cavs would not be the positive side of this one, falling 9-8.

The next time you think a No. 1 seed means you have an easy path, just think back to the 1980 Cavaliers.

1988 Cornell

In 1988, the tournament expanded once again. This time, two more teams were added to bring the total up to 12, with the bottom four seeds all starting off in play-in games. Because of this, we saw the first major run by an unseeded team.

Unseeded Cornell beat No. 6 UMass, 12-11, in the opening round, then toppled North Carolina, 6-4, in the quarterfinals. The Big Red followed that low-scoring affair with a massive 17-6 triumph over fellow-unseeded UVA to face – and lose to – Syracuse and the Gait brothers in the championship game, 13-8.

Why is this notable? Because it marked the first time in tournament history that a team won three games and it didn’t result in a championship.

1997 Maryland

In the 1997 tournament, we were still working with 12 teams, but Maryland was the first team to go from an opening round game all the way to the championship.

As the No. 7 seed, the Terps were paired up with Georgetown. They took care of the Hoyas, 14-10, before facing Virginia in the quarterfinals. After escaping the Cavs, 10-9, Maryland faced No. 3 Syracuse in the semifinals and won, 18-17.

Princeton then did Princeton things and claimed the championship, 19-7, but it was still a great run by the Terps and a sign of what was soon to come in the expanded tournament!

2001 Towson

In 2001, the championship was another exciting Syracuse-Princeton matchup that went into overtime. But the run of the year was No. 6 Towson, who beat Duke, 12-10, then No. 3 Maryland, 12-11, before falling by just a single point, 12-11, to eventual-champ Princeton.

This run isn’t so big by the numbers, though. I personally remember that during this run, everyone was saying, “Have you seen this Towson team?” The Tigers were just flat-out intimidating on their way through the tournament.

2006 Massachusetts

After the tournament’s 2003 expansion, it was only a matter of time before an unseeded team made some noise. That happened in 2006.

The Minutemen first defeated No. 6 Cornell in the opening round for a date with No. 3 Hofstra in the quarters. An 11-10 overtime victory there meant a meeting with No. 2 Maryland in the semifinals. UMass toppled the Terps, 8-5, but then fell to Virginia in the championship, 15-7.

2008 Johns Hopkins

Yes, Johns Hopkins did make it to the final this year, ultimately falling to Syracuse. But the reason why this run is notable is the remarkable consistency that has never been repeated. Hopkins scored 10 goals in every single game: 10-4 over Hofstra, 10-4 over Navy, 10-9 over Duke, and then a 13-10 loss to Syracuse. Weird, right?

2010 Notre Dame

Notre Dame was firmly on the map before this, but this year is what made everyone realize that the Irish were for real. Riding a tremendous defense and amazing goalie play from Scotty Rodgers, the Irish were unseeded and had to go through Princeton, Maryland, and Cornell before ultimately falling to Duke in overtime off the now-famous CJ Costabile faceoff goal.

2011 & 2012 Maryland

What’s major about these years? It was what helped build the current mystique around Maryland, and by mystique, I mean the idea that this team is just incredibly good every year.

These years were back when ball control was king, and Maryland knew how to use possession lacrosse to win games. The Terps didn’t win in either of these seasons, but they did manage to ride all the way to the championship as an unseeded team. In 2011, they beat UNC on the road, then won “that game” against top-seeded Syracuse, 6-5, at Gillette Stadium in the quarterfinals. By the way, “that game” is the infamous one where Maryland played unflinching possession lacrosse against one of the best college lacrosse defenses ever. The Orange were absolutely loaded that year (and also ran out in their volt-accented gear), but the Terps rode their game plan to victory.

Maryland went on to beat Duke, 9-4, in the semis, but then lost to No. 7 Virginia and Steele Stanwick, 9-7, in the title game.

In 2012, the Terps were not nearly as famous, but still had quite a run. They pulled off a one-goal win over seventh-seeded Lehigh in the first round, then topped second-seeded Hopkins, 11-5, and third-seeded Duke, 16-10, in their next two matchups. But Maryland ultimately lost in the final to first-time champions Loyola.

Now, let’s take a look at those who came away with the championship:

1975 Maryland

While this wasn’t the first NCAA title, this was the first really dominant title. As the No. 3 seed in an eight-seed bracket, Maryland started out with a 19-7 win over Hofstra. Next, the Terps outdid No. 7 Washington & Lee, 15-5, in the national semifinals.

In the final, Maryland faced a fourth-seeded Navy squad that was coming off an upset of No. 1 Cornell. The Terps ran away from the Midshipmen, 20-13, in another wide margin of victory for the champions.

So, in their three NCAA Tournament games, the Terps scored a total of 54 goals while letting in just 25. You can’t argue that’s not one of the best lacrosse tournament runs of all time.

1986 North Carolina

When 1986 rolled around, the tournament was up to 10 teams with the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds starting off in play-in games and expanding beyond just the quarterfinals. While those games didn’t factor in here, UNC had its own 1980 UVA-like run but came away with the win.

As the No. 5 seed, Carolina started with a 12-10 victory over Maryland, then faced top-seeded Hopkins in the national semis. That game went into overtime with the Tar Heels prevailing, 10-9. What happened in the final? An identical 10-9 overtime triumph against No. 3 Virginia. Five seed for the win!

1990 Syracuse

Much like the 1975 Maryland run, this 1990 loaded Syracuse team left no doubt in anyone’s minds that it was the best team in the country. Oddly enough, this is also the year the NCAA doesn’t recognize (but pretty much the rest of the lacrosse world does) due to some off-field NCAA violations that took place. But Syracuse was the top seed, and the two-time defending champs were ready to go in this one.

The Orange opened with a 20-12 win over Brown (with Lars Tiffany and Andy Towers), then continued on with a 21-10 beating of North Carolina (Joe Breschi and Billy Daye). Next, Syracuse walloped Loyola (Paul Cantabene and Charley Toomey), 21-9, in the championship game.

Not only were the Orange dominant in this tournament run, but they were also beating some incredible lacrosse players along the way.

1992 Princeton

This was the year that Bill Tierney officially started leaving his stamp on college lacrosse with his defense.

Princeton was the No. 3 seed, so let’s not frame this as too much of an underdog story, but it worked its way to the championship with close wins all the way through. In their quarterfinal matchup with Maryland, the Tigers won 11-10, then followed that up with a 16-14 victory over defending-champs UNC. That earned Princeton a date with top-seeded Syracuse in the title game, and the Tigers pulled out another tight one, 10-9 in overtime.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Tigers earned their stripes in 1992.

2003 Virginia

In 2003, the tournament ballooned to 16 teams, meaning everyone had an opening-round matchup. While No. 2 Virginia beating No. 1 Hopkins falls into “good game” territory and not a particularly notable run (although the 14-4 semifinal win over Maryland was impressive), what’s big about this run is it was the first time a team needed four wins to win it all.

2013 Duke

While their scores weren’t particularly massive, this title cemented the whole idea of “Duke plays best in May” that is still repeated every year (and will be in 2022).

Being notched as the No. 7 seed going into the tourney, the Blue Devils had a one-goal opening round win over Loyola, then followed that with a one-point survival of Notre Dame. Duke next faced a determined Rob Pannell in the semifinals in Philly but advanced, 16-14, before grinding out a 16-10 W against No. 1 Syracuse in the final. This was also “The Brendan Fowler Game,” for anyone keeping track.

2016 North Carolina

UNC became the first unseeded team to win the whole thing in 2016, and it wasn’t easy.

The Tar Heels opened with a one-goal win over No. 6 Marquette, then had to beat a third-seeded Notre Dame, 13-9. Once in the semifinals, North Carolina over a Pat Spencer-led Loyola squad, 18-13, before outlasting top-seeded Maryland, 14-13, via overtime in one of the best championship games you’ll ever see.

2019 Virginia

Virginia almost pulled a Hopkins-style 10-10-10-10 goals year (except with 13).

The Wahoos started off their run with a 19-10 triumph over Robert Morris, then went into OT with unseeded Maryland, needing a goal in the extra period to advance, 13-12. In the semifinals, Duke took them into double overtime, but Virginia survived, 13-12, before outdoing Yale, 13-9, in the championship game.

What’s also major about the 2019 title contest is that the Cavs held Yale to just nine. That Yale squad was looking unstoppable before it meant Virginia. The Bulldogs had opened with a 19-16 win over Georgetown, followed that with a 19-18 overtime W versus Penn, then came out on top of a shootout with Penn State, 21-17. And Virginia held them to just nine.

So, that’s my list of the best NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Tournament runs of all time. Who else do you think should have been included? Let us know!