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Quint Kessenich’s NCAA D1 Lacrosse Semifinals Preview

Championship Weekend is one of the main highlights of NCAA lacrosse. Rentschler Field, the UCONN football stadium in Hartford, CT, is the host. This mid-size venue is ideal for tailgating. The acoustics are loud and the gorgeous grass surface plays like a golf fairway. It drained exceptionally well in 2021. Saturday’s weather is expected to see temperatures in the upper 70’s with a minor chance for showers. Monday will be warmer with highs in the low 80’s. Perfect conditions for fans and players alike.

Saturday’s NCAA lacrosse double-header can be seen live on ESPN2 and the Monday championship game will air on ESPN. Anish Shroff, Paul Carcaterra and I will have the call with producer John Kettering calling the shots. Enjoy the games!

Rutgers vs Cornell – 🕛 12:00pm – 📺 ESPN2

Rutgers (15-3)

The Scarlet Knights are making their first NCAA lacrosse semifinals appearance. This is the best lacrosse team in school history. They are the first men’s program in any sport to reach a national semifinal since men’s soccer in 1990. Fencing last won a men’s national title back in 1949. Since the formation of Big Ten lacrosse, the league has sent Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State, and now Rutgers to the NCAA semifinals. Down 8-6 against Penn, the ‘Jersey boys’ scored five straight goals winning 11-9 at Hofstra.

The roster is mature with 27 seniors and 7 grad transfers. Coach Brtian Brecht has capitalized on the lacrosse transfer portal, the new acquisition mechanism of NCAA athletics. His aggressive tactics and ability to mesh new faces into the team culture has elevated Rutgers from good to great. 

The Kirst family is a major storyline in game No.1. Rutgers goalie Colin Kirst faces his brother CJ Kirst, the star lefty attackman for Cornell. The netminder recorded a 66% save percentage against Harvard and Penn. His time is now.

Explosive X-attackman Ross Scott triggers the half field sets. Mitch Bartolo, a 6’6″ grad transfer from Penn stretches defenses with right handed range. Two-handed dodging midfielder Shane Kobloch isn’t shy to let it rip while on the run down the alley and has shown he has the ability to penetrate against the pole. 

Rutgers is lethal in transition and early offense, their “Thunder Road” tactics were evident late in the Penn win, scoring on odd-man rushes. Brecht has a stable of capable shorties, strong depth in that department. The defense is typically slow to slide and rely heavily on Kirst to make saves off of iso’s. One safe prediction, I expect Jaryd Jean-Felix to button his chin strap. 

How will they defend the Cornell attack? Where do they employ their cover #1? Will they slide to the jitterbug midfielders? Do they pole Billy Coyle or Hugh Kelleher? If you pole Kelleher you’ll see lots of invert. I don’t think that’s what I’d do. When you pole Coyle, Kelleher will launch his long moon dodges from the box and Rutgers will have to slide. 

Neither team is particularly strong at the faceoff dot. Both are new to Championship Weekend. The more meaningful the stakes, the more simple the approach. Be yourself. That’s always good enough. 

Cornell (13-4)

The Big Red last played in the NCAA lacrosse semifinals in 2013. They lost a heartbreaker in the 2009 NCAA Championship game. Cornell put away Delaware in the quarterfinals with a three-goal run in the final quarter. Coach Connor Buczek, 29 years old and in his first real season at Cornell, has stamped this squad with a clear cut identity. Scrapping for loose balls, playing solid team defense, making smart decisions with the ball on offense while parlaying the power of an excellent attack unit are constants for a team that continues to surpass expectations. Cornell’s strong sense of identity is their strongest trait. They know who they are, derived from Hard Hat 21.

Goalie Chayse Ierlan has ramped up his game in the postseason with a 64% mark against Ohio State and Delaware. Diminutive lefty defender Gavin Adler is one of my favorite players to watch. His footwork, hand position, active stick, and motor combined with game IQ make him elite. The offense revolves the attack of Michael Long, John Piatelli and CJ Kirst. They are three very different styled players who require different types of coverage traits. Long is fast and quick. Piatelli is the brains of the operation. Kirst is quite an athlete, an aggressive lefty dodger who pushes and roll-backs to mid-range shots. Midfielders Billy Coyle and Matt Licciardi are water bugs. Sophomore Hugh Kelleher, a future star, runs through defenders on long dodges from up-top. Spencer Wirtheim buried two key goals in the quarterfinal win over the Blue Hens. Cornell scores a remarkable amount of rebound and junk goals in the crease area.

How will Cornell handle Rutgers transition and early sub-phase offense? Do they ride or bail for the box? Efficient subbing is critical. So is shot selection, Kirst gobbles up shots outside the football hash marks. Adler hopes to erase Ross Scott. If they slide top-down and not from the crease, Ierlan will be tested by step-downs. If Scott can’t get past Adler, Rutgers may rely on a wing based sets with Knobloch, Ronan Jacoby, and Ryan Gallagher. 

When Cornell lost to Penn and Yale, their midfielders had little impact. Faceoffs were problematic in their Army and Yale losses. They ran into a hot goalie against Brown. They’ve been fortunate to dig out of slow starts and are -12 in the first quarter this season. So an alert start, faceoff success, and midfield scoring are three categories to watch.

Both schools have been honoring former coaching legends this spring. Rutgers wears former coach Tom Hayes on the nameplate of their jerseys and Cornell has been galvanized since the passing of their former coach, Richie Moran. His iconic teams won three NCAA titles (1971, 1976, and 1977). The Big Red culture is rock-solid, a brotherhood forged through six decades of sustained success. “It’s great to be here” is their rally cry. Only one team gets to show up on Memorial Day. 

Maryland vs Princeton – 🕛 2:30pm – 📺 ESPN2

Maryland (16-0)

Terp fans expect a coronation in Connecticut. Maryland’s dominance in 2022 is historical. They average 18.5 goals per game, sitting at fifth all-time in scoring margin (9.31) behind 1976 Cornell (10.75).

Maryland has 31 goals scored by non-offensive personnel. The Terps attack their opponent in all phases, restarts, run outs, substitution, faceoffs, and rides. It all starts with FOGO Luke Wierman winning 2/3 of the draws. He’s a game changer. 

The Maryland motion offense hums, like a swarm of bees, with snappy passing and dizzying cuts, that result in a slam dunk or lay-up. Maryland doesn’t take maybe shots, or bad shots. This is ‘unit based’ offense as opposed to a ‘match up’ or a ‘personnel based’ scheme. Their zone offense was crisp against Virginia. They’ll be ready if Princeton decides to press out and not slide. Pick your poison.

Goalie Logan McNaney is 69% in his last two wins over Vermont and Virginia. He handles the ball exceptionally well around the crease. Defensemen Brett Makar and Ajax Zappitello lock down the edges. The shorties are arguably the best in the history of the sport, with three PLL draft picks amongst their top four. Name a better foursome? I can’t. Princeton must probe players not in this paragraph. 

Coach John Tillman has led the Terps to the NCAA lacrosse semifinals nine times in 11 years, an incredible mark. He is 1-5 on Memorial Day, only favored in the 2016 OT loss to UNC. Once again Maryland is saddled with the second semifinal, a 12% disadvantage according to a mathematician I trust. I get the feeling they could play a double-header and manage to prevail. They are that good.

Terps defeated Princeton 15-10 on February 26 in College Park. The score was closer than the game. There are no guarantees in sport, yet a loss by Maryland this weekend would be shocking. I was a member of a team that beat an “unbeatable” Maryland team before you were born, so I know anything is possible. I’ve seen 60 minutes go sideways. And that’s where the intrigue is.

Be the Best’ has captured gold in 1973, 1975, and 2017. They are on a mission in 2022. 

Princeton (11-4)

The Tigers make their first trip to the big dance since 2004. Coach Matt Madalon, in his fifth season, has done outstanding work with this talented group who was unranked when the 2022 NCAA lacrosse season began.

Goalie Erik Peters has been on fire in the tournament saving at a 68% clip. Princeton’s defense was noticeably improved against Boston University and Yale after hitting the wall late in the season with losses against Harvard and Cornell. They looked gassed. After a week off during the Ivy League Tournament, the Tigers look fresh, and are now relying on more bodies on defense, they play a deeper bench. This athletic defense, lead by George Baughn, hasn’t been sliding much in the post season. 

Offensively, they are heavily reliant on the first midfield of Christian Ronda, Sam English, and Alex Vardaro. Faceoff wing man and EMO sniper Jake Stevens has been a nuanced MVP. They can score. Their patterns have balance, unselfish passing and terrific mid-range shooting. This offense will be the best Maryland has faced in over a month. If Ohio State could score on the Terps using two-man pick games and inside action, why can’t the Tigers? The longer they stay in this game the more the burden of pressure will shift to the Maryland sideline. 

The faceoff disparity looms large. If the field is titled, it becomes inevitable. Can Princeton muck it up to keep the possessions close to even? 

Princeton has nothing to lose. Nobody thinks they have a chance. And that’s why they are dangerous. 

Quintessential Lacrosse Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview with Nick Myers (Ohio State)

LINK HERE

NCAA Lacrosse