The Washington Times - June 1, 2008, 11:37AM

OK, the 2008 lacrosse season has been over for just about a week. There’s been one mild surprise to come down the chute (North Carolina’s decision to jettison John Haus) and one far less surprising development (Syracuse attackman Mike Leveille’s Tewaaraton Trophy victory).

But there’s plenty that could happen between now and even the fall. Despite the potential for all sorts of changes – and the potential for none at all – it still seems safe to provide an early glance at what could be the top 20 when everyone reconvenes next February.

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1. Virginia: Ben Rubeor is gone, and that will hurt the talented Cavaliers. So is goalie Bud Petit, who started the second half of the season. But the rest of the attack and defense returns pretty much intact, both faceoff guys will be a year more experienced, and Dom Starsia’s posse of young midfielders should be even better next spring. If Virginia finds a goalie to its liking – and it could be Adam Ghitelman – it has to be the favorite for a third title this decade.

2. Syracuse: Yes, the Orange lose a ton off their national title team. But since it’s safe to assume John Desko will simply reload rather than rebuild (2007 looks very much like an aberration at this juncture), Syracuse should be one of the early favorites to return to Foxborough next Memorial Day weekend.

3. Maryland: Let’s see. The starting attack and its top extra-man sub are all back. Four of the top six midfielders are back. Both goalies are back. Seems like a good place to start. True, the defense loses a lot – notably Joe Cinosky. But with all respect to Ryne Adolph and Jacob Baxter, two fifth-year seniors who entered the spring with one career start between them and fared quite well, Cinosky was the one cornerstone that is gone. Defensive coordinator Dave Slafkosky always finds a way to make his unit work well, so even those personnel losses won’t prove that costly.

4. Johns Hopkins: It was funny how last year people underestimated how costly it would be to replace the pieces the Blue Jays lost. Jesse Schwartzman was an obvious one, but it took half a season (or more) to figure out the way to fill in for Jake Byrne on attack, Jamison Koesterer as a change of pace on faceoffs and Brendan Skakandi as a loud, fiery long pole.

The changes are even greater for next spring. There’s no replacing Paul Rabil in the midfield, and both Stephen Peyser and Kevin Huntley will be missed. But the defense will remain almost entirely intact, and the Blue Jays will plug away with a bunch of 8-7 and 9-8 games. They’re not going anywhere.

5. Cornell: Count this as a hunch more than anything else. Sometimes, you just have to bet that one of the country’s most talented players will raise his team a bit. Max Seibald certainly could do that as a senior. If the Big Red’s transition year still netted an Ivy League title, then things might just look OK in Ithaca.

6. Duke: OK, this could change a little bit depending on who comes back – notably Zack Greer. The only fifth-year player that coach John Danowski said would return would be midfielder Brad Ross, which is a net plus but should not draw the complaints that Matt Danowski and his four classmates did this past season. The Blue Devils should still be pretty good, but getting back to the final four won’t be easy even with Max Quinzani entrenched as a top scoring option.

7. Georgetown: The Hoyas didn’t lose in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2001. Of course, they didn’t make the tournament for the first time since 1996. It’s a refrain, but the pieces are there for a deep postseason push. Goalie Jack Davis redshirted and figures to slide in for Miles Kass, and there’s still oodles of talent all over the field.

8. Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish in general acquitted themselves quite well in the postseason, but they lose goalie Joey Kemp. Other than that big hole, it seems worthwhile to give Notre Dame the benefit of the doubt, especially considering the questions plaguing the teams that follow.

9. Navy: First, an admission. The Midshipmen’s offense simply wasn’t very good for much of the season. It almost has to be better next spring, even with the loss of attackman Nick Mirabito. The defense will be without some vital pieces, but Navy is much like Maryland in the sense that end of the field will be more than passable pretty much every year. The Mids might not have a final four team, but they should reclaim the Patriot League crown.

10. North Carolina: Messrs. Baddour and Scroggs, it’s your move. The Tar Heels should be a power, not a punch line. They were a No. 4 seed in name only, and the departing senior class went 0-17 against ACC opponents. John Haus is gone, but Carolina still needs to hire the right guy to replace him. Even though the program is a middling 85-82 over the last 12 years (including 0-12 in the ACC tournament and 2-4 in the NCAA tournament), the Tar Heels are the sport’s certifiable sleeping giant. This could be a final four team in the right hands.

11. Ohio State: There’s still enough talent left for the Buckeyes to lurk just outside the top 10. It might be a bit high upon later reflection, but Joe Breschi’s program certainly enjoyed success when not facing Duke or Notre Dame last year. One big wild card: Breschi is a North Carolina alum, and the Tar Heels have a well-entrenched affinity for making coaching hires from within the family.

12. Albany: Book it – the Great Danes will be back in the postseason next year. The first half against UMBC in the America East title game was a sign of things to come. The early struggles this season aside, Albany remained at least an annoyance for nearly all of its opponents. It will be even better next spring.

13. UMBC: Terry Kimener is the most notable departure for the Retrievers, and it’s worth mentioning because he was their best player in 2008 and (if you can look past raw goals totals) arguably in ‘07 as well. Expect a slight step back, though coach Don Zimmerman is part of a cast of thousands mentioned in connection with the Carolina job. His departure would also hurt.

14. Princeton: At some point, it becomes necessary to switch from thinking ‘Gee, it’s amazing Princeton has only been to one final four since 2003’ to ‘You know, Princeton has missed the  tournament more than it has reached Memorial Day weekend in the last six years.’ That time might be now. The back-to-back losses at Dartmouth and Brown to finish 2008 only hammered home these aren’t the same Tigers as a decade ago. Princeton won’t be irrelevant so long as Bill Tierney is around, but it’s probably time to quit assuming the Tigers will be a factor every May. The last six years provide enough a sample size to suggest championship marches are much less likely than in the past.

15. Brown: Can Jordan Burke be even nearly as good as he was this year? That would be asking quite a bit. But coach Lars Tiffany certainly has a chance to get the Bears into the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade – especially if neither Cornell nor Princeton is any better than they were in ‘08.

16. Hofstra: The Pride will be the best the CAA has to offer next spring – and maybe good enough to win a first round game in the NCAA tournament. That would be the logical progression as Seth Tierney builds up his program on Long Island.

17. Loyola: The Greyhounds have a lot back, but the rest of the ECAC (particularly Massachusetts) should be better than this past spring. This could be a case of a team finishing with a similar record despite having better all-around talent than a year earlier.

18. Colgate: It’s tough to tell what to do with the Raiders, whose seven straight .500 or better seasons rank behind only Maryland, Hopkins, Georgetown and Cornell. This could be a bit low, and it would be no surprise if the ‘Gate wins another Patriot League title next spring despite some losses.

19. Denver: The Pioneers did not look like a very smart team when they lost to Maryland in the first round of the tournament last month. Sure, they should be better next spring, but their seemingly annual glaring home/road splits are cause for concern.

20. Harvard: Plenty of teams could be considered here, and certainly Army and Bucknell have a decent claim at a spot in the top 20 (so, too, would Massachusetts with a full roster and an empty court docket). But here’s a mention of the Crimson, who should take a big step in their second year under ex-Navy assistant John Tillman and perhaps even contend for the Ivy League title.