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D1 Men’s Lacrosse Championship Weekend Preview 

You can catch all the D1 Men’s Lacrosse Championship Weekend action on ESPN and ESPN2 this weekend. If you’re on the move, the games can be seen on your device on ESPN+. Join Anish Shroff, Paul Carcaterra, and myself for the semifinals live. Our statistician Russ Dlin will be working his 22nd consecutive D1 Men’s Lacrosse Championship Weekend. Producer John Kettering runs the ship. Another notable name on our team is Ryan Hoff, an associate producer who’s a former Notre Dame (2009) goal-scoring attackman who finished his career in South Bend with 134 goals. That begs the question, who had more career assists; Carc or Hoff?

Chris Cotter and former RIT, Princeton, and Denver Coach Bill Tierney will be in the studio on Saturday and on-site at field level on Memorial Day. Remember that the D1 Women’s Lacrosse National Championship will be played on Sunday on ESPN, live from Cary, NC. Enjoy the weekend.

Duke vs Penn State (Saturday, May 27th @12:00 pm on ESPN2)

Brennan O’Neill took over the quarterfinal win against Michigan, scoring six times. The Tewaraaton finalist has asserted himself at critical moments in 2023. If Nittany Lion defender Jack Posey isn’t 100% or out with a lower-body injury, then Penn State has a major dilemma. What’s their base defense look like? Will the trio be Alex Ross, Kevin Parnham, and Sam Sweeney? Or does Will Costin get reps? What are the matchups? They would be without an answer for O’Neill. Do they shut off O’Neill and play a five-man defense? Or do they play zone? They could shut him off and play a five-man zone. There are options and variations. A day off and five practices during a whole prep week give Defensive Coordinator Joe Bucci and Head Coach Jeff Tambroni time to think, experiment, and decide. There is a fine line between strategic adjustments and a massive overhaul.

I expect Penn State to be in their zone defense. That means the game will slow down. So in Durham, Duke prepares for the kitchen sink. Midfielder Owen Caputo has proven to be an effective passer against zone during his career. Andrew McAdorey will be asked to kickstart the party. Dyson Williams will hover inside.

Having said that, it’s imperative to note that the key to playing well in Championship Weekend is staying true to your team identity, not making wholesale strategic changes, and worrying less about the opponent and more about your own systems. Effort comes first. Some teams get engulfed by the enormity of the week and forget how to pass and catch.

The bigger the game, the simpler the approach. The bigger the game, the more you must play to your strengths. Boil it down. The louder it gets, the harder it is to stay connected. Talk and trust will guide you.

So that’s the balancing act for Coach Jeff Tambroni and his staff. How do they cover Brennan O’Neill without compromising who they are?

Either way, man or zone, it’s undeniable that Nittany Lion goalie Jack Fracyon will need to make 18 to 22 saves for Penn State to win. At 57%, we’ve seen that he’s capable of heroics. Historic goalie performances are a regular occurrence at the D1 Men’s Lacrosse Championship Weekend.

Duke stopper Kenny Brower will cover TJ Malone. Matt Traynor is likely to draw the pole. Penn State would be smart to attack from the invert and high wing, using picks and off-ball motion. You’ve got to get the Duke defense moving. Listening to John Danowski talk during Tuesday’s Zoom press conference, you get the sense that defending picks is job No.1.

Penn State’s Kevin Winkoff, a transfer from Binghamton who played for Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, owns a righty rip and has been clutch in 2023. Ethan Long was the star in the Princeton comeback. Whose turn is it on Saturday? Luke Mercer? Jake Morin?

Duke has a potential faceoff advantage with Jake Naso. Can Penn State muck it up and hope to get to 50%? Transition goals will be critical in this game. Both teams have dangerous shorties during run-outs, guys who can score during odd-man rushes or trailer breaks. Penn State’s strongest position groups are their short-stick defensive midfielders. The quartet of Grant Haus, Mark Sickler, Peter McVicker, and Kyle Aldridge are the best in the Big Ten. Shorties are 33% of the defense, although more critical than that because they get taken to the rack 75% of the time.

Duke is a four-goal favorite in Vegas. I’ve seen enough of these games go off-script to justify making a case for Penn State. In fact, the more people I hear who proclaim Duke will waltz their way to Memorial Day, the more likely it becomes that this game will be a 60-minute affair.

Penn State (11-4) has more than two handfuls of players from the Philadelphia area, including Malone, the Traynor brothers, Mac Costin, Jeb Brenfleck, and Ryan O’Connor. The crowd will be on their side. A player’s mind must be strong enough to overcome his emotions.

The recipe for an upset always begins with belief and becomes a reality because of possessions. It starts with winning faceoffs, scooping groundballs, and strong goaltending. You don’t pull off big upsets by hoping to keep it close. You shock the world by throwing the first punch and continuing to hammer away.

Virginia vs Notre Dame (Saturday, May 27th @2:30 pm on ESPN2)

Connor Shellenberger was the main catalyst when UVA defeated the Irish in Indiana in late March. ND defenders struggled with on-ball picks and the crisscross scissor cuts of Xander Dickson and Payton Cormier. The Wahoos scored six goals from the tight slot, giving goalie Liam Entenmann little chance.

When they met later in the season at Klockner, UVA goalie Matt Nunes made the difference. ND defense did a much better job on Shellenberger. Defender Chris Fake handled the picks well.

Notre Dame must score in transition off Virginia giveaways. I expect Cole Kastner to cover Pat Kavanagh and Cade Saustad to handle righty Chris Kavanagh in settled sets. Will UVA short Jake Taylor and bump a pole up top? I wouldn’t. Notre Dame has experienced their two lowest-scoring outputs of the season in a pair of losses to UVA. I expect to see some subtle formational adjustments. They’ve got to move Pat Kavanagh. They should be setting more picks for him. I would throw a heavy dose of invert at the Virginia shorties.

Virginia FOGO Petey LaSalla has the stat edge in his battle with Will Lynch, although Notre Dame often loses the faceoff battle yet wins the possession war. When Virginia ten-man rides, the Irish watch how Pat Kavanagh works back to the ball while crossing the midfield line toward the defensive end. Both programs have SSDMs that can score with the Wahoo’s Evan Zinn, Noah Chizmar, and Notre Dame’s Jack Ramsey and Brian Tevlin.

Virginia must avoid the penalty box as Notre Dame has one of the most lethal six-man groups in the nation. The Irish use a straight-up 3-3 and rely on Jeffrey Ricciardelli as the hub man. Notre Dame has to score goals outside the six on six if they want to advance to the D1 Men’s Lacrosse Championship; that’s riding goals, groundball goals, rebound goals, and odd-man rush breaks.