(Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Athletics)
The lacrosse world descends upon Hartford, Conn., this weekend for the greatest stage in the sport: Championship Weekend. On the DI side, only four teams remain standing and bye nightfall on Monday, only one will call themselves champions to end, perhaps, the toughest and most challenging lacrosse season ever.
Here is a look at some storylines to follow from all three divisions heading into the greatest weekend of the year:
Chris Gray, Michael Sowers’ Championship Weekend Debuts
For North Carolina’s Chris Gray and Duke’s Michael Sowers, playing on Championship Weekend has been along time coming. Gray started his career at Boston U. where he was the focal point of the Terriers offense and helped lead them to back-to-back Patriot League tournament appearances (2018, 2019) and set records. However, Gray and his Terriers’ squad never got past the Patriot League semifinals.
The attackman took his talents to Chapel Hill in the summer of 2019 to play for Joe Breschi’s North Carolina Tar Heels, and upon arrival rose the expectations for North Carolina’s 2020 season in which they went 5-0 before things were shut down. Now in 2021, the Tar Heels are the top seed in the tournament and have returned to Championship Weekend for the first time since winning the title in 2016, and none other than Chris Gray is quarterbacking the Tar Heels offense as a Tewaaraton finalist.
Gray and the Tar Heels will matchup against a very familiar opponent in No. 4 Virginia. The two faced each other twice during the regular season with the Tar Heels winning 16-13 the first meeting and Virginia winning 18-16 in the second meeting. Gray had five (4G/1A) and four (3G/1A) in the two meetings.
In Durham, the Duke Blue Devils are also led by a first-time Championship Weekend participant in Tewaaraton finalist Michael Sowers.
Before his arrival at Duke as a grad transfer, the Princeton Tigers’ all-time points leader’s postseason experience was limited to the 2017 Ivy League Tournament during his freshman season. Sowers and the Tigers failed to make the postseason the next two seasons and the 2020 season, which was looking like it could be Princeton’s best in quite sometime, was shut down by the Coronavirus.
Sowers arrived at Duke with arguably more expectation than any transfer before him. The lacrosse world, and especially the Blue Devil faithful, knew that the arrival of one of the best and most exciting players in recent history only increased Duke’s chances to making a Championship Weekend run, and coupled with the talent already on campus, created what many considered a super team.
Sowers and Duke have lived up to the hype thus far, earning the No. 2 seed and advancing to Championship Weekend where they will face the No. 3 seeded and undefeated Maryland Terrapins. It’ll be Sowers’ first-ever meeting against the Terrapins and Duke’s first contest against them since the 2018 semifinals, in which Duke won 13-8 before going on to lose to Yale in the national title game.
Can Maryland Go Undefeated?
No team since the 2006 Virginia Cavaliers has gone undefeated in DI. And even at that, they are part of a small class with 2005 Johns Hopkins being the only other team to do so since the 1990s. Further more, 2009 Notre Dame, who lost to Maryland in the first round, is the last team to even enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten. That is, until this year.
The Maryland Terrapins (14-0) made it through a double round-robin Big Ten-only regular season, the Big Ten tournament, and the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record. And it’s a record that has been seriously threatened multiple times in the past month as the Terrapins edged rival Johns Hopkins 14-13 in the regular season finale and 12-10 in the Big Ten title game. This past weekend in the NCAA Quarterfinals they needed overtime to beat Notre Dame 14-13.
On paper, Maryland has all the tools to complete the first unbeaten season in DI since 2006. Not only do the Terrapins have a Tewaaraton finalist and favorite in Jared Bernhardt leading an offense that features threats all over the field, but they also have a reliable goalie in Logan McNaney anchoring a defense the features some absolute dogs such as Nick Grill and Brett Makar, and everything in between. The only thing left is to sit back and watch how they put together all the puzzle pieces this weekend.
Can Virginia Repeat as Champions?
The Virginia Cavaliers are the defending national champions (2019) and have made it back to Championship Weekend to continue their title defense. And if they are able to succeed in that quest, the Cavaliers will be the first team to have accomplished that feat since Duke in 2013 and 2014.
The Cavaliers’ path to Championship Weekend in 2021 feel early similar to the path they took in 2019, in some respects. Maybe most of all is their signature player in between the boxes. With LSM Jared Conners, and SSDMs John Fox and Chris Merle roaming the middle of the field, in addition to Ian Laviano, Connor Shellenberger and Matt Moore continually dropping back to the mid line, Virginia has continued to win the middle of the field this season and they certainly did so this past weekend against Georgetown. On top of that, the Cavaliers’ six-on-six play on both ends has continued to progress and impress this season.
On Saturday, the No. 4 seeded Cavaliers will face a similar and familiar opponent in top-seeded North Carolina, who also happens to have a similar style of play, especially when it comes to riding and trying to own the middle of the field.