- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

The dawn of the college lacrosse season brings a sense not felt in recent years.

There isn’t an odds-on favorite to walk away with a championship as Duke’s ill-fated team was last year.

Nor is there a program loaded with experience and on the precipice of a title like Johns Hopkins in 2005. Also gone is the sheer inevitability — though not the likelihood — of a Syracuse run after the Orange fell short of the 2005 final four.

For a change, it’s anyone’s guess who will win the NCAA title. But it doesn’t mean the list of potential champions is long, either.

“You could argue that there’s only four teams that could,” ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich said. “With recent events, teams break through and make the final four — Duke, UMass — but seldom do they repeat the breakthrough, and we haven’t really had a team get past Virginia, Princeton, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins.”

Those four schools are accountable for the last 15 titles and open the season ranked at the top of the Inside Lacrosse poll. But the season’s greatest wild card — Duke, which had its season suspended last year after rape accusations were made against three players — returns with plenty of talent.

Another possible final four contender is Georgetown, which has lost in the quarterfinals the last five years but collected another solid recruiting class this season.

“Those are the obvious ones; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out,” Georgetown coach Dave Urick said of the four usual powers before adding Duke to the list of contenders. “It’s wide open in a sense of any one of those five. God willing and the creek doesn’t rise, I hope we can put ourselves somewhere in there.”

Two area teams who open today have several vital holes to fill. No. 7 Maryland, which reached the semifinals three of the last four years and plays host to Bellarmine today, lost the leading scorer in school history (Joe Walters) and three other offensive stars but also returns its starting close defense.

Goalie could be a tricky spot for the Terps with freshman Brian Phipps the only healthy option. Senior incumbent Harry Alford underwent offseason shoulder surgery and is out until next month, and junior Jason Carter is out at least six weeks with a broken collarbone.

No. 9 Navy, which meets Saint Joseph’s, must find replacements for goalie Matt Russell, attackman Jon Birsner and midfielder Steve Looney. Senior Colin Finnegan is the only goalie with any college experience on the roster, while finding a feeder to replace Birsner is vital to the Midshipmen’s offense.

Navy was a finalist in 2004, Duke in 2005 and Massachusetts in 2006, and they all created the semblance of greater opportunities in the sport beyond the usual suspects. But all three lost in their title appearances to a traditional power.

“It’s a lot harder to break in than you think,” Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. “I think there’s a lot of talent, and there is parity in terms of the ability of more teams to get there, but it still seems like nine out of 10 times it’s those same teams.”

Those teams all have their share of questions this year. Defending champion Virginia lost attackman Matt Ward, midfielder Matt Poskay, defenseman Michael Culver and other parts from its title run. Johns Hopkins defenseman Matt Drenan suffered an ACL tear in the preseason, leaving the Blue Jays to fill a void on close defense. Syracuse has defensive concerns but plenty of offense.

Of course, those three and Princeton still possess plenty of the most important element for a title run: talent.

“I don’t see teams breaking out,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “The difference has been, frankly, teams are much better. The Denvers are much better, the Cornells, but the top teams seem to dominate in the recruiting, especially with the best offensive players.”

So as the Cavaliers open tomorrow against Drexel, they’re not a sure thing to repeat as champions. But they are part of a small group that has a good chance to win a title on Memorial Day.

“When people talk about parity, they’re talking about teams that have a chance to win the whole thing, and I’m not seeing that yet,” Starsia said.

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