May 30, 2010
BALTIMORE (AP) - It is a title game few could have envisioned at any point during this peculiar lacrosse season.
Duke lost three of its first five games and entered the NCAA tournament as the fifth overall seed. Notre Dame was 5-5 on April 11 and squeezed into the postseason as an unseeded squad coming off a 12-6 loss to Syracuse.
And now here they are, the Blue Devils and Fighting Irish, meeting Monday with each in search of its first national championship.
"They are, almost in a way, similar to us," Duke senior Ned Crotty said of the Irish. "We came out not the way we wanted to, kind of hit a lull in the season and started to hit our stride at the end.
"They came out strong, had their lull and now they're playing their best lacrosse. They're a great team and we're definitely excited to be able to play them and avenge that one loss."
The improbable championship game is a rematch of a February duel in which the Irish pinned an 11-7 defeat on Duke.
Much has happened to both teams since then - especially lately.
Duke (15-4) opened the tournament with an 18-5 rout of Johns Hopkins, then ousted No. 4 seed North Carolina before upsetting top-seed Virginia 14-13 on Saturday in the semifinal round.
Notre Dame (10-6) advanced with wins over sixth-seed Princeton, No. 3 seed Maryland and seventh-seed Cornell. The string of upsets made the Irish the first unseeded team to play in the title game since Massachusetts in 2006.
"The (seeding) numbers that are put next to the teams are done by the people who pick them," Crotty said. "But it's definitely the 16 best teams in the country. And they're now one of the two best teams in the country. The fact that they were unseeded is not in any way a factor to us."
Lacrosse is a game that has long been ruled by East Coast teams, and this is Notre Dame's first appearance in the title game. Yet Irish coach Kevin Corrigan insisted that it's about time his program gets the recognition it deserves.
"I feel like we have been knocking on this door," he said. "I'm really hoping if we can win the championship, I can stop getting questions about lacrosse outside the traditional areas. The game has been growing. There have been a number of teams, ours included, that have played very well in the NCAA tournament."
Notre Dame's strength is in its defense and 6-foot-4, 254-pound goaltender Scott Rodgers, who had 16 saves Saturday against Cornell. The Irish have yielded just five, five and seven goals in their tournament victories.
And remember, Notre Dame limited Duke's potent attack to only seven goals in Durham, N.C.
"When they beat us at our place, the score wasn't even close to what the game (was like)," Duke coach John Danowski said. "When you lose, it is a great opportunity to see what you are doing. That has been one of the great motivators for us."
That defeat was part of the Blue Devils' 2-3 start. Since then, they're 13-1.
"We just stressed getting better," said Justin Turri, who had three goals and an assist against Virginia. "We've really come together and stressed the team aspect. The last four weeks have really shown that. We're kind of peaking at the right time now."