We are quickly approaching the best weekend in college lacrosse, Championship Weekend. In order to get there, we had to outlast the NCAA Quarterfinals which provided great lacrosse from start to finish. The stage is officially set for Championship Weekend.
If you watched ESPN’s coverage of Quarterfinal games, you may have noticed an absence in the broadcast booth. Our very own Quint Kessenich was not in Hempstead due to the sudden passing of his brother, Wes. My condolences to Quint and the entire Kessenich family.
#6 Rutgers (11) – #3 Penn (9)
Lacrosse is a game of runs, and there was no better example of that than this NCAA Quarterfinal matchup. Both defenses were sharp and goalies were ready. There were only two goals scored in the first quarter, and the game was tied 4-4 at halftime. The offense opened up in the second half, and former Penn graduate transfer, Mitch Barolo, scored his first of the game less than three minutes into the third quarter. SSDM Zackary Franckowiak scored his third goal of the season to give Rutgers a cushion. The Scarlet Knights had all the momentum, and the Rutgers faithful were feeling good.
Not so fast.
Penn’s offense exploded for four straight goals to take an 8-6 lead with 12:03 left in Q4, but Rutgers answered again. Shane Knobloch took over the fourth quarter of this Quarterfinals matchup scoring two clutch goals (including the game-winner) to send Rutgers to their first NCAA Lacrosse Final Four in school history. For a team with a surplus of transfers and graduate students, it’s refreshing to see a sophomore contribute in key moments.
Colin Kirst played out of his mind on Saturday. The netminder made 18 saves finishing with a 67% save percentage. It’s critical to have a hot goalie in May, and Kirst was making utterly ridiculous saves the entire game.
First-team All American Ethan Rall was phenomenal guarding Penn’s Sam Handley. Handley finished with zero goals for the first time this season. Something seemed off with Handley. Whether it was nagging injury, or heat induced fatigue, he just wasn’t the same dominant midfielder he has been all season.
I made the trip down to Hempstead, NY to watch both NCAA Quarterfinal games, and nothing impressed me more than the Rutgers lacrosse fans. They were crazy from start to finish, and I honestly believe the crowd played a role in Cole Daninger’s decision to push the ball in transition which led to Dante Kulas’ go-ahead goal. Either way, the Rutgers fan base was awesome, and I look forward to seeing them again in Hartford, CT.
#5 Princeton (14) – #4 Yale (10)
Unforced turnovers ended Yale’s season. Yale only had fifteen turnovers, but eleven were uncharacteristic unforced errors. Time and time again, Yale threw the ball away on settled 6v6 sets, transition, and clearing. They shot themselves in the foot, and you can’t win in May unless you play your very best. The Bulldogs were mediocre at best on Saturday, and that simply isn’t good enough.
Individually, it wasn’t all bad for Yale. Brad Sharp has emerged as one of the best freshmen in the country, and he was the lone first-year to be named to one of the two Ivy League teams. I wrote about him in January, but he’s even exceeded my expectations. As a freshman, Sharp is one of Yale’s best athletes and is bound to be a multi-year All-American. He’s an extremely polished midfielder, and his balance is off the chart. All three of his goals were different, but the most impressive was his ride back goal where he bodied 6’3″ 205lb Beau Pederson. Brad Sharp is a superstar in the making.
Princeton’s offense was incredibly fast, and the ball never seemed to be in the same stick for more than five seconds. Princeton’s No.6 ranked offense was lights out on Saturday and everyone contributed. No player had more than three points, and eleven Princeton players registered at least one point. The attack trio of Chris Brown, Alex Slusher, and Coulter Mackesy all made meaningful contributions.
Princeton’s defense was extremely tenacious. Their aggressiveness threw Yale off at times, and they could give Maryland some fits during their matchup. George Baughn has arguably been the best defenseman in this tournament, which makes me question why he went undrafted. Baughn will likely get receive an invitation to the PLL training camp after this weekend. Senior goalie Erik Peters also impressed on Saturday finishing with 17 saves.
Princeton advances to the NCAA Lacrosse Final Four for the first time since 2004. The Tigers are one of the most balanced teams in the nation, and they proved it with a complete team win across all facets of the game. Nobody expects them to beat Maryland, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a team with nothing to lose.
#7 Cornell (10) – Delaware (8)
Cornell was one successful clear away from a NCAA National Championship in 2009, and they weren’t going to make the same mistake with a trip to the Final Four on the line. The Big Red were nearly perfect in clearing finishing 18-19 with their lone failure being with 12 seconds remaining on the game. On the other side of the field, Cornell forced two fourth quarter turnovers which both led to goals breaking the 7-7 tie.
It was a back-and-forth game for the first three quarters, but Cornell seemingly always remained in control even if the scoreboard suggested otherwise. John Piatelli, the nation’s leading goal scorer, scored the opening two goals of the game to set the tone early. Delaware answered back by scoring four straight to take a 4-2 lead.
Both starting faceoff men (Logan Premtaj and Angelo Petrakis) entered Sunday sub 50%, so there was no glaring advantage at the dot. Petrakis chose the right time to have his best statistical game of the season; the junior finished with 15-19 (78%) while also scoring his first goal of the season. Faceoffs were the difference makers in the fourth quarter, and Cornell won the final six faceoffs including five in the fourth quarter. Petrakis was Cornell’s best player on Sunday.
I was really impressed by Cornell’s use of the second midfield line. They consistently contributed throughout the game, and gave the starters some much needed rest. Spencer Wirtheim entered Sunday with only four career goals, but he scored two on Sunday including the game-winner to ice the victory. Wirtheim and the rest of the second middie group’s play will be crucial against Rutgers.
#1 Maryland (18) – Virginia (9)
I’m no lacrosse historian, but this Maryland team has to be one of the greatest college lacrosse teams ever. Not only are they undefeated, but no team has come remotely close to giving the Terps a scare. Notre Dame – who has been sitting on their couch since selection Sunday – came within two goals, and Syracuse lost by four in February.
Virginia had previously beaten Maryland in the last two NCAA Lacrosse tournaments, but the Terps were ready for revenge in this Quarterfinals matchup. Maryland earned plenty of extra possessions winning the groundball battle 45-30 and the faceoff battle 21-10.
Logan McNaney was incredible between the pipes, and Luke Weirman was the difference maker at the faceoff X. Anthony DeMaio had the hot hand to start scoring three of their first four goals. Owen Murphy continued his shooting hot streak with four goals off seven shots, and Logan Wisnauskis added to his Tewaaraton resume scoring 3 goals and 2 assists.
He doesn’t get a ton of recognition, but Ajax Zappitello wow’d me more than anyone. The sophomore defenseman held Connor Shellenberger pointless for the first time in his career, and it wasn’t due to a lack of effort on Shellenberger’s end. A performance like that comes around once in a blue moon.
Virginia simply couldn’t find answers on either end of the field. Offensively, they couldn’t win 1-on-1 matchups, they had trouble containing Maryland’s lethal offense, and they got dusted in faceoffs and groundballs. The Hoos switched to a zone defense in the third quarter which was effective, but it was too little too late.
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Maryland that hasn’t been said already. If Virginia couldn’t keep it close I’m not sure who can. The Terps face Princeton on Saturday in a rematch from late February. Maryland won the first meeting 15-10 in College Park. The job’s not finished. Maryland cannot overlook Princeton or else the Tigers will make them pay. Both Saturday matchups should be entertaining.
Shoutout to ESPN’s Katie George for a great day of lacrosse sideline reporting during Sunday’s NCAA Quarterfinals. She’ll be covering the PLL for ESPN this summer, so get used to hearing her voice. It’s great to see ESPN’s continued investment in our sport.