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Quint Kessenich’s NCAA D1 Lacrosse Quarterfinals Preview

Welcome to the pay off round. Win and advance to Championship Weekend. Nobody remembers quarterfinal losers.

Saturday the NCAA Lacrosse Quarterfinals action starts at noon on ESPNU and the ESPN app from Hofstra. Anish Shroff and Paul Carcaterra have the call under the production expertise of John Kettering for the doubleheader. Chris Cotter, Ryan Boyle, and Katie George will be in Columbus covering Sundays action for producer Todd Jones on ESPNU.

Six of the last eight quarterfinal games have required overtime. Buckle up. 

Day 1

📆 Saturday at Hofstra University – Hempstead, NY

☀️ Sunny and 80 Degrees

#3 Penn vs #6 Rutgers

While they may be geographic neighbors, Penn and Rutgers haven’t met in eons. Penn is the Ivy League Champion and advanced to the NCAA Lacrosse Quarterfinals after a tense overtime win against Richmond. The Quakers have won five one-goal games this spring and all of their games have been sixty minute affairs. They prefer close shaves. 

Rutgers is back in the NCAA Quarterfinals with a veteran lacrosse roster of 27 seniors, 15 transfers, and 7 graduate transfers. They lost a heart breaker to North Carolina at Hofstra in the 2021 quarterfinals, after seeing a late lead dissipate because of poor clearing. They’ll benefit from that experience. They’ve never advanced to Championship Weekend. 

Penn’s offense is midfield-centric. It’s top-down flow rarely moves the ball below GLE. Sam Handley is a massive problem at the top of the box, drawing automatic double teams. Rarely have I seen a player with his combination of size, speed, and skill. Wing shooters flank him on either side with Dylan Gergar spraying right handed heat and lefty Cam Rubin showcasing his gorgeous motion. Handley rumbles to the goal from up top and defenses are forced to slide. Penn throws exceptional skip passes. It isn’t a circular motion offense like Maryland. It’s very north-south with Handley’s immense body, speed, and vision as the launching point. He runs every offensive shift.

The Quakers have struggled to clear at times this spring. Their defense is solid, not spectacular. Although when compared to other teams in the Ivy League, it’s quite good. I’ve been impressed with BJ Farrare and Peter Blake. Farrare has been moved from LSM to close defense because Brendan LaVelle has been unavailable. Penn is a stronger team with the fuel injected from Farrare roaming the middle of the field. Goalie Patrick Burkinshaw has been hot during the last three weeks as his rebound control and outlet passes have been upgraded.

Penn plays hard. They compete for 60 minutes, capable of shrugging off a bad quarter. They are self-assured with a defined identity. They are an easy team to admire. 

The Scarlet Knights exposed Harvard behind an eight goal performance from Oregon born attack man Ross Scott. He’s a sprint car, a quarter horse type player who doesn’t dance, instead making one move and leaving his defender in the kickback. Mitch Bartolo, the 6’6″ tall attack man and Penn graduate transfer faces his former team. Rutgers is dangerous in transition from defense to offense with their NASCAR approach. Their shorties are capable in early offense and during the sub phase. Their defense has been one that’s typically slow to slide, instead allowing iso shots while relying on goalie Connor Kirst. If Penn takes bad shots, Kirst will make them pay. Penn must be careful when they sub midfielders off. If they sub too quickly then Rutgers will run. If they stay on they risk getting tired, and Penn isn’t deep at any position. 

#4 Yale vs. #5 Princeton

These two Ivy League foes met during the regular season in game won by Yale 14-12. It featured over 100 combined shots. Matt Brandau was the Eli hero with eight points. The Tigers struggled to clear against the Yale’s ten man zone ride.

Bulldog pups on offense have been barking. Leo Johnson, Chris Lyons, Brad Sharp, and company form a top ten scoring offense. The defense has been porous. It’s been a comedy of errors, surrendering 15+ goals per game over the last month, now ranked at No.54 in the country. I get the feeling that this game, like many recently for Yale, will approach 30 or more total goals. 

Princeton’s half-field offensive patterns are terrific. They share the ball and move, have a nice balanced group able to attack from up top, and the wings like to make the extra pass. Lefty Chris Brown, righty Alex Slusher, and Coulter Mackesy have been a highly proactive attack unit. Slusher is a slasher, able to dodge inside. Mackesy is a freshman who reminds me of former Denver attackman Ethan Walker, with his left handed release and instincts. Jake Stevens has been effective as a wing man on faceoffs and has scored on those ensuing rushes. He’s also dangerous from mid-range on the Tiger EMO. 

Neither team is stellar or dominant in the faceoff department. Two capable goalies who feel evenly matched stand between the pipes. Erik Peters is a senior right-hander who plays on a high arc. Yale goalie Jared Pacquette sits deeper in the crease and uses his big body and smart angle play to make stops. 

Princeton leads the all-time series 74-30-2. Yale has won the last six meetings. The Bulldogs have remnants of playoff lacrosse experience from their 2018 NCAA Championship run and from their 2019 trip to Championship Weekend on this roster which should help them in this quarterfinals matchup.

Day 2

📆 Sunday in the Horseshoe – Columbus, OH

☁️ Cloudy and 60 Degrees

#7 Cornell vs. Delaware 

Delaware scored three goals in the final four minutes to shock No.2 Georgetown, 10-9, on Sunday night in the Swamp. Cornell, the seven seed, rallied to pull away from Ohio State in Ithaca to advance. They meet on Sunday at noon from Columbus, Ohio on ESPNU. 

There are four players on Cornell’s roster that you need to be familiar with. Defender Gavin Adler, while only 5’8″ inches tall, has covered like a giant in 2022. His motor, coverage skills, chip on the shoulder mentality, and attitude are a microcosm of the Cornell program. The Big Red offense has been spearheaded by CJ Kirst, John Piatelli, and Michael Long. If you have to slide to Cornell’s middies, these three will destroy you with step downs, skip passes, feeds to the inside, and strong dodging moves stemming from off ball movement. The Big Red rides hard, the attack digs in well and their first wave can be difficult to get around. Cornell’s 29 year old head coach and former Big Red midfielder Connor Buczek is an Ohio native from the Cincinnati area. He will have tons of Ohio fans in the stadium, pulling for the St. Xavier alum.

Delaware became the story of the first round and hopes to roll that momentum into the quarterfinals. They’ve held four straight opponents to single digits, which is significant in the shot clock era. FOGO Logan Premtaj and goalie Matt Kilkeary have improved dramatically over the April and May timeframe. JP Ward, flashy Mike Robinson, and Ty Kurtz form the nucleus of production. Mark Bieda has 30 assists and is often the party starter. Defender Owen Grant is as active as any defender you will see. He has 6 goals and 47 ground balls. When you watch the Blue Hens play he jumps off the screen. He was impossible to miss at Duke, against Hopkins in their win over the Jays, and during the Georgetown game you could argue the defender was the best player on the field. 

The Hens buzzer beater in DC was their first playoff victory since 2007. They are now 13-5, the CAA Champions hold regular season wins over Johns Hopkins, NEC Champions St. Joseph’s, and Big East Champions Georgetown. They are feeling no pain. Coach Ben DeLuca, once the head man at Cornell and former captain of the Big Red as a player, squares off against a program he knows as well as anybody. Both teams are itching to get past the NCAA Lacrosse Quarterfinals. This game feels like it’ll be dramatic. 

We’re not done yet. 

#1 Maryland vs. Virginia 

Don’t be fooled into thinking the 23-12 Maryland romp over Virginia on March 19 at Audi Field will be indicative of future results. Looking closer into this matchup is essential and don’t be misled by Virginia being unseeded. They have the second most talented roster in this tournament. The bracket formation did nobody any favors; not the players, coaches, nor the fans. These two elite lacrosse programs have been on collision course all season in what could easily be the NCAA title game, instead it’ll be played during the quarterfinals on ESPNU, on a Sunday in Ohio in front of 100,000 empty seats.

The Terp offense been unstoppable. They average 18.5 goals per game. Can they be held to 16? That might be the magic number on Sunday. Nobody has made them uncomfortable. I expect Virginia to be bold. To mix in some zone defense, some shut off, some early slide and no slide packages. If you sit still and play vanilla against the Terps according to their rules, you have no chance. UVA must mix and match strategies to make Maryland hesitate a hair.

Virginia needs to win the marquee matchups involving Connor Shellenberger and Matt Moore. They must have a strong inside presence, an area that Maryland has shown some vulnerability. Jeff Conner, Xander Dickson, and Griffin Schutz must be best supporting actor nominees.

Maryland’s main advantage in this game is their short stick defensive midfielders consisting of Bubba Fairman, Alex Smith, Roman Puglise, and Jake Higgins. That in combo with FOGO Luke Wierman, long pole John Geppert, and wing faceoff man Owen Prybylski must be considered offensive weapons in transition. Non-offensive personnel have accounted for 30 goals; that’s two per game. ’Be the Best’ repeatedly struck in transition against the Cavaliers in DC. I’m not sure the Virginia ten man ride is the answer. Instead I’d flirt with a ride that allows Maryland goalie Logan McNaney to carry the ball up near the mid-line. Make him handle. Make him run.

Maryland has the stingiest defense left in the quarterfinals so possessions are key. Faceoffs, riding, clearing situations, 50/50 ground balls, and goalie saves set the table. Terp faceoff man Luke Wierman has been unstoppable. Virginia needs a plan A with Petey LaSalla and then a plan B and C with Gable Braun and a long pole. Giving Maryland juice goals directly off of faceoffs would be fatal. Being restart ready on all change of possessions is critical. Bailing to the sub box allowing Maryland to get 5 on 4s and 6 on 5s must be avoided.

If you get into the sliding business against the Terp motion offense, they will carve you up. They run a spaghetti / blender offense under the direction of OC Bob Benson. They shoot 41% and don’t take bad shots. 147 of their 240 goals are assisted, always probing for layups and dunks. Make them score unassisted goals. Play some zone to stop their movement. Keep ‘em guessing. Play a different scheme against their top two midfield lines. Benson’s fade or drift pattern at X has given opponents nightmares. Too often that adjacent defender has to take a bad angle to X or to the front side and the player at X curls topside for easy looks and feeds. What’s the strategy at X for UVA defense? It’s either don’t go back there and give up hang man situations or press to X and kill ball rotation while risking no backup on wing dodgers that push to get underneath. Pick your poison against an offense that has seven players with 33 points or more.

Virginia will make adjustments and if they can keep it close, the burden of pressure weighs on Maryland. The Wahoos hope to take the Terps (15-0) into deep water, an unfamiliar place. The ‘unbeatable’ lacrosse team of the decade is in the midst of an all-time season heading for a Memorial Day coronation, but has to make it through the NCAA Quarterfinals first. Ironically as two-time defending champions, Virginia is now the hungry hunter, not the hunted. 

I’ve seen this movie before. It has multiple endings.

This game airs on the ESPNU and the ESPN app on Sunday at 2:30pm with Chris Cotter, Ryan Boyle and Katie George live from the Horseshoe from Columbus, Ohio.