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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Analysis: Div. I NCAA tournament final

The final: Syracuse vs. Johns Hopkins

Syracuse and Hopkins were the STX teams among the final four. Virginia is a Gait-sponsored team and Duke is with Brine. But STX, the Baltimore-based lacrosse manufacturer could celebrate on Saturday knowing they could not lose on Monday. So even though the final four was not in Baltimore, we were well represented on the field thanks to STX. And the gear looked great!

Hop's helmet stickers were cool too, featuring the cartoon lettering instead of the bird or the H. They need more levity around the Dave Pietramala coached team, based on his facial expressions during the games. A great Hopkins coach once said, "Lacrosse is a lot of fun - IF YOU WIN." That's kind of the Hopkins way. But those helmets were fun even in a loss. They'll probably never see the light of day again. We'll see.

Syracuse had some secret weapons this weekend. Like the whole team in general, Mike Leveille was underestimated. He won the Lowe's award with a 3.8 GPA in accounting and the Tewaaraton Trophy Thursday night over heavy favorites Matt Danowski and Paul Rabil after lifting the trophy on Monday. But the Orange also had Roy Simmons Jr., the legendary coach, who lent some of his wisdom and inspiration: "Anything before you; anything behind you; it doesn't matter. It's what's inside you that matters".

Simmons is great. I was hanging out with Liam and John Banks at the tailgate as I have now made a habit, and as usual, I was treated to some war stories. One was especially good and representative of the creative and out-of-the-box style of the "Slugger," Simmons nickname from his love for his second sport, boxing.

Here goes: I can't remember which year it was but Syracuse needed a good halftime speech and a second-half turnaround to win a championship. After the chalk talk, Simmons addressed the team more philosophically. He asked the boys if they remembered the story of the Wizard of Oz. They all nodded. He asked if they could remember whit it was that the Tin Man wanted from the Wizard. Someone said, "a heart." He asked if they knew what the Scarecrow wanted and someone knew that it was a brain. He asked what the Lion wanted and a few people remembered the cowardice was his shortcoming and he needed courage.

The coach stated that, of course, Dorothy just wanted to get back to Kansas but he had one last question. What was it that Toto, the little dog, wanted?

The team all looked around at each other totally confused, half trying to remember if the dog had specified a wish in the movie they saw many years earlier, the other half trying to figure out where this could possibly be going and what it had to do with lacrosse.

Before anyone could even guess what Toto wanted, Simmons opened the door to the locker room and walked out, letting it slam behind him.

The team was now really perplexed. Had they done something wrong? Was coach mad? What in the world was going on? And what in the hell did that stupid dog want? At that moment, the door swung open and Simmons was standing there. He looked them in the eyes and with a totally straight face said calmly, "Toto wanted a national championship, now go out and get one!"

The team went nuts and they won that one for Toto. Whatever works. Simmons is a genius.

Coincidentally, the NCAA celebrates the 25th anniversary championship team at different points over the weekend and the 1983 Syracuse team was honored this year. On the big screen and throughout the weekend, references to that first Syracuse championship from out of nowhere really inspired the Orange team and fans. After the semifinal, many of the tailgaters spoke of the images of the '83 team coming on the big stadium screen sometime before the huge comeback and how it was like a sign that the team would prevail this year, that and a big run of goals.

Syracuse has a swagger. Even when they lose they have one. And it's not an entitled strut. It's a "something to prove" strut. It's upstate vs. the rest of New York as much as it's Syracuse vs. the contenders in the tournament. They have to be beaten down for 60 minutes to be beaten in a final four. It goes way back to the 80s. Its part of the freewheeling style Simmons made the Syracuse trademark and coach John Desko has, in his own way, continued. You can be yourself and play the game at Syracuse - if you're all that.

Many people don't understand how Syracuse can always let their kids play and exert less control over them and still get the most effort out of the team in the biggest games. I have always believed that was a big part of Syracuse secret. If you let the players make decisions on the fly and trust their playing instincts as much as you trust your game plan, they will "own" the game. Owners usually work harder than employees. The Syracuse team members would be more responsible for a championship loss than any other team too, and they know it.

Each player owned last year's crap season. Ask them. Desko doesn't back off from responsibility but there is a program-wide maturity of shared burden supporting him. Most coaches, after a loss, can really only fault a kid for poor execution or not following the play or plan, privately of course. The game is so over-coached, generally, that players don't really own losses at most institutions. At Syracuse, it's always been the responsibility of the players to succeed or fail, and it's worked pretty well.

Boston was known for the famous ride of Paul Revere but Foxboro is now known, to me at least, for the famous ride of the Syracuse Orange. Against Johns Hopkins, the Orange ride was tenacious and ultimately won the game, in my opinion. Offensive players playing defense was the key. They scored the difference on goals directly off of their great riding and set the tone throughout. Keeping the ball on your offensive end and controlling possession through defensive efforts on the offensive side of the field builds team morale and just makes the defense play that much harder for the team when the ball is at their end.

Rabil was dominant in the losing effort, but so was Hopkins goalkeeper Michael Gvozden. Early on, Syracuse was getting shots but either Gvozden stopped them or they hit him. Either way, the production after so much possession time was low. The goal that Syracuse midfielder Danny Brennan scored off the faceoff was an emotional lift for the team. A friend of mine, Chris Kolon, an owner of Scorpion Lacrosse, speculates that every great Syracuse championship team gets a goal in the title game from a guy who has not scored goals in his career. Brennan had never scored in his career and they knew it. The sideline erupted and never really got down after that.

Hopkins plays with a lot of heart too though, coming back from a terrible season, by their standards, to make the final. The Jays' Steven Boyle answered back with a heart and hustle goal from behind the cage and it was on from that point until the fourth quarter, when Syracuse just took over, but for some Rabil heroics.

A Rabil Fan

Rabil's lefty is deadly and his right is almost equal. He's an agile horse. He's an NBA shooting guard. After one goal he was the recipient of a stick check and when they returned it to him, the TV was on a close up. He was so far from illegal, it was silly. He had a very shallow pocket - the mark of a truly great shooter.

Early in the championship, Rabil caught a rebound on the crease while playing defense and took the ball all the way down the field, scoring the second Hopkins goal on a shot that looked like 95 mph or better. Van O'Bannon, a friend and popular stringing guru, thought that play was a showcase of Rabil's talents. We talked about it for a while and agreed that in hindsight, Rabil should have controlled the ball more, all game long. He might have been worth more than even his six goals. I'm not criticizing. We did not even think of it until reflecting on Rabil's dominant performance in that final. If Rabil was as selfish as most NBA players, we speculated, Hopkins might have won this one.

Rabil was as good a lacrosse player on Monday as I have seen since Gary and Paul Gait. I think he will have 10-goal games in the Major League Lacrosse. I think he will have a few. I was really sold on him Monday. His goal weaving through the whole Syracuse defense toward the end of the game demonstrated a quickness and agility that is good enough, in my opinion, to play any professional sport, not just lacrosse. When Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on the sideline, saw that huge lean body move like that, and still score a goal in lacrosse, he had to think for a minute what this kid could do after catching a football.

I liked Leveille a lot but thought Rabil should have been the Tewaaraton winner this year and maybe last year too. I know Rabil has signed with agents Lee Southren and Keith Askenas and lacrosse manufacturers are competing mightily for his services. He will become the face of some company for the next decade, to be sure. He was selected with the No. 1 pick in the MLL draft on Wednesday, as well, although he should take his game directly to the indoor National Lacrosse League if he wants a real pro career.

Semifinal notes: Virginia vs. Syracuse

The first NCAA tournament semifinal started with a goal by Virginia's Shamel Bratton that featured, by my estimation, a new dodge that I have not seen before. He ran at the goal and the defender and then stopped short. The defender kept backpedaling and the Cavalier freshman was left with the Syracuse keeper and some good shooting space. He cocked and put a hard shot in the corner of the goal. It was spectacular.

The first semifinal game was wild. The overtime was even wilder. Each team had so many chances to win and either team could have easily won this one in the first overtime but for a pipe or bad bounce. It was riveting action. Bud Petit was fantastic in the Virginia cage. If not for Michael Gvozden's spectacular play all weekend for Hopkins, I would have voted for Petit as the All-Tournament Goalie, even with the loss in the semis.

Virginia attackman Ben Rubeor was stopped cold by Syracuse defenseman Sid Smith and U.Va. attacker Garret Billings had a sub-par outing. To his credit, they needed him, playing big, to win in 2008. Without Billings, this was not a tournament team. It would have been a real rebuilding year. He's my surprise player of the season.

Danny Glading's pipe with a minute left was a true heartbreaker for Virginia. The pipe was so cruel all weekend. Rubeor had the cage wide open in the middle of the seconnd overtime and hit the pipe with a wind-up rocket when a softy would likely have stopped the madness right there.

Syracuse attackman Mike Leveille was solid all weekend, keeping the Orange in Saturday's game for a while before Dan Hardy and Steven Brooks came alive in the second half. In the second overtime, to win the game Leveille, one of my favorite attackers, had to beat Ken Clausen, one of my favorite defenders. High drama is what this tournament is all about. Leveille drove from behind the cage but Clausen held him tough and gave him no opportunity for a shot or feed long enough that the impending double by Will Barrow sent Leveille cutting back the other way.

As he sprinted back toward X, he changed direction again at the goal line extended (GLE) and drove hard on Clausen, getting a half-step ahead this time and maintaining it for a few more steps. Just as he reached the point where Barrow would leave his man and double the shot, Leveille let go a perfectly screened worm-burner that neither Clausen or Barrow could reach and Petit could not see.

It's amazing how many shots that score at this level are screened, mostly inadvertently. The defense and goalie play is so good in the final four that most shots need something else, a Paul Rabil shot-speed, a good bounce or a little visual obstruction. I rarely see a purposeful screen on any lacrosse fields any more. Leveille's goal was screened. Most of Gary Gait's college goals were screened shots. He did it on purpose. He showed that it was deception and placement rather than speed that could beat the best keepers like Sal LoCascio, Doc Dougherty and Quint Kessenich. Since then the screen has all but disappeared from game strategy. How many times every game do you see a goalie yelling at his defense for getting in the path of the shot and screening him? And we don't do it on purpose?

Did you see Syracuse freshman Jevon Miller's diving lefty drive? I want to see him start that leap a few feet earlier so he doesn't land in the crease and he'll have a signature shot that will be hard to beat. He saved a ball going out of bounds in the final that really showed off his athletic ability. I had not seen him before and was impressed.

Semifinal notes: Hopkins vs. Duke

Kevin Huntley was awesome. Gvozden was better. Rabil dominated the offense and the Hopkins' defense dominated the other end. The Hopkins' game plan was effective. Slowing the game to a half-field affair was perhaps the only way to slow Duke, and Hopkins stopped them, led by defenseman Michael Evans and secondteamwork.

Only Georgetown had beaten Duke before in 2008 and the games looked similar to me. In my opinion, the difference in each was the Duke play and not necessarily the defensive strategy or effort, which in both cases, were stellar. In both games, the Duke superstars just seemed mortal and beatable. If you saw any of the other Duke games this year, they were far from beatable and as near to immortal as I can remember a team being. I couldn't believe it when Georgetown beat them and I found the thought of Hopkins dominating Duke absurd before Saturday. I thought that Duke would lose this weekend, but I though Syracuse would get to play the Karma Police role. Hopkins' upset, because of the Baltimore school's perennial contender role, will never be appreciated for what it was - HUGE!

I have to make a special note of the game Max Quinzani played for Duke. He played with more heart than any player in the game. With the Hopkins lead at two and time running out, he got a second try at a ball in the crease with a great effort after a rebounded shot by Steve Schoeffel. Only moments later as the game clock ran out he gave the Blue Devils one last chance with his sheer effort and quick thinking. A timeout was called (late in my opinion) by Duke with three seconds left in the game. Matt Danowski worked quickly and effectively getting off a good shot that was saved by Gvozden who shuttled the ball to his back right. Duke's Zack Greer and Quinzani darted for the loose ball and their tournament lives. Quinzani picked the ball up in one movement and placed it softly but intently in the direction of the crease. Duke midfielder Ned Crotty was there but allowed a Hopkins defender to get between him and the action and the handle on the desperate pass was impossible.

The pipe also played a part in this semifinal. With Hopkins leading 9-8, Quinzani took a shot, hit the post hard and the ball ended up past the restraining line and the Duke midfield and in the hands of a Hopkins middie, starting a fast break which ended with a Huntley goal and a 10-8 score. It was the winning goal.

No Asterisks Necessary

The TV broadcast of the semis with Duke losing to Hopkins, was like grand theater, the likes of a Shakespeare classic. ESPN wove in interviews with lacrosse notables giving their opinions on the extra eligibility issue and did a special report on the situation, staying neutral themselves but allowing the parties to represent themselves in their own words. The words of the Duke folks, even the eloquent and thoughtful coach John Danowski, just sounded self-serving next to the other arguments. It was like the only people that needed to be treated fairly were the people wronged by the false accusations.

I am sure that the audience still retained some good will toward these young men who were obviously victims to an egregious case of unfair treatment by the accuser, Mike Nifong, Durham leaders, Duke athletic department, Duke students, the press and, most despicably, the faculty.

But after each of the Duke personnel had fully stated their cases in the ESPN report, I assume most of that was gone. The people interviewed never mentioned fairness generally, just that they were wronged. "Put yourself in our shoes," they kept saying directly and indirectly, and in essence that's what the NCAA solution did. It put other players in the shoes of the Duke kids - losing opportunity due to no actions of their own. It basically punished them all for Duke's mistake. The NCAA decision spread around the misery that should have been contained at all costs. Right or wrong, the Duke stance on the extra eligibility and especially the records, blatantly favors their own best interests over those of the game, its integrity and history.

The Duke loss capped off the tragic saga aptly. With the Hopkins win and the Virginia loss to Syracuse, all of the 2006 Duke players were eliminated and the final would be played in an asterisk free environment. The game dodges one bullet. We still have to get those eight 2006 games and their statistics expunged from the records and the real damage done to the game by the false accusation scandal will be fixed.

Coincidentally, while all this was playing out on ESPN, the lacrosse commercials running were Warrior ads, which are of questionable content, imitating Asian films and perhaps Asians themselves. Its borderline, at best, but that's what Warrior does. The irony is that this is the same company that produced a stripper T-Shirt for sale at the 2006 World Games, before the Duke players were exonerated. The company founded by Princeton player Dave Morrow, but now owned by New Balance, is no stranger to controversy, often including or alluding to illegal, rude and indecent behavior in much of their advertising targeted at young kids.

Check back later today for my notes on the final and the championship weekend overall.

May 30, 2008
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