- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2011

The warnings sounded throughout the spring. Even with Syracuse and Johns Hopkins entrenched near the top of the rankings and regular contender Cornell plowing through the Ivy League, the college lacrosse season seemed as unpredictable as ever.

Those suggestions were floated in years past. Every time, Memorial Day weekend was littered with mostly top seeds.

Well, until now.

“Lo and behold, that’s exactly how it’s played out,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “I think it does speak to the growth of the game. The traditional powers are still near the top, but just the fact the four lower seeds are still playing is quite unbelievable. I think it does show what we’ve all been saying. This has been wide open.”

Take a look at the teams converging on Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium this weekend for the NCAA semifinals, and there were sound reasons to believe all would be eliminated by this stage.

Defending national champion Duke (14-5) struggled early with a youthful roster. Denver (15-2), which will make its first final four appearance, was an unknown quantity after facing just three eventual tournament teams in the regular season.

The sixth-seeded Pioneers play Virginia (11-5), which lost defenseman Matt Lovejoy to injury, dismissed midfielder Shamel Bratton from the team and indefinitely suspended midfielder Rhamel Bratton. Down three starters, the seventh-seeded Cavaliers ripped Cornell 13-9 on Saturday to reach their fourth straight final four.

Then there’s unseeded Maryland (12-4), which broke through the quarterfinal barrier after losing in that round the last three years and only intermittently playing close to its potential throughout the season.

For the first time in the tournament’s 41-year history, the top four seeds are gone before the semifinals. Maryland became only the second team to oust the top seed in the quarterfinals when it outlasted Syracuse 6-5 in overtime Sunday.

“There’s a lot of parity and a lot of good coaches out there,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “Guys are finding a way to win. The season gets long, a couple injuries could hurt you. It’s just crazy. For those two hours, you’d better play well or you’ll be sent packing.”

There is likely a temptation to pin this year’s chaos and particularly the improvement of teams ranked in the second five on the sport’s increasing diffusion of talent. It’s an argument with some merit; certainly, all four surviving teams possess plenty of capable players.

But perhaps the vulnerabilities of even Syracuse, which didn’t deploy nearly as much offensive potency as it usually does, are just as large a factor.

“To be honest, some of it’s simply because there hasn’t been a great team,” Starsia said. “There’s not a team like Duke or Virginia from a year ago. That’s not a knock on anybody. That’s just a fact.”

So, too, is how this final four turns around another popular talking point: the relatively down year in the ACC. In 2010, the league’s four schools were 46-2 against nonconference foes, with both losses coming to national runner-up Notre Dame.

This year, the ACC is 37-7 out of conference - still strong, but off enough to invite criticism. Yet in May, the only ACC team to lose (North Carolina) fell to a league rival (Maryland).

Story Continues →