Previewing lax tourney semifinals

Originally Published: May 23, 2012
By Mark Dixon | Special to ESPN.com

The field has been set for the sport's biggest stage. Three of the top four seeds advance to Foxborough, Mass., after a wacky season of twists, turns and upsets. What needs to happen for one of these teams if it wants to walk away as the 2012 national champion?

Saturday, May 26

No. 4 Notre Dame (13-2) vs. No. 1 Loyola (Md.) (16-1) on ESPN2/ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET
LMU ND

Loyola was ranked No. 21 in the preseason by Inside Lacrosse Face-off Yearbook. The lacrosse world took notice of the Greyhounds after an early-March victory over Duke but remained skeptical. Loyola responded with solid, consistent lacrosse all season long. Notre Dame was ranked No. 9 and came into 2012 minus 37 percent of its 2011 offense, a new LSM and two new starting close defensemen. The defense has not missed a beat and the offense has been very effective by committee.

[+] EnlargeLoyola
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesLoyola's talented midfield line will be put to the test by Notre Dame's depth.

Forecast: These two schools last met in the 2010 regular season at the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic with Notre Dame coming out on top, 11-9. Both offenses are humming coming in to Foxborough. Loyola possesses an outstanding righty-lefty shooting combo in attack in Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby. This pair represents a unique challenge to Notre Dame's slide-and-recover defense that can be vulnerable to skip passes to tough shooters. The Irish offense is as balanced as any in college lacrosse. They are not flashy but effective. A big factor to look for could be midfield depth. Loyola relies heavily on its talented first line of Davis Butts, Chris Layne and Sean O'Sullivan. Notre Dame goes three units deep with the likes of Jim Marlatt, Max Pfeifer and Eric Keppeler. Notre Dame has shown the ability to wear teams down with this core.

Notes: This is Loyola's first trip to championship weekend since 1998 and third overall. Loyola's initial berth was in 1990, and its starting goalie then was current head coach Charley Toomey. Notre Dame is also making its third appearance in the national semifinals, with its other trips coming in 2001 and 2010. Both teams are looking for their first-ever NCAA titles and have met twice before in the tournament; Loyola trounced the Irish 21-5 in 1997 while Notre Dame returned the favor in 2000 with its first-ever postseason win by a count of 15-12.

Where the game will be won: Goaltending and shot selection. Notre Dame has a decided advantage between the pipes with John Kemp. The Irish defense, led by Kevin Randall, forces dodgers into poor shooting angles and refuses to get run by. Loyola needs to keep the rock hot and attack the Irish defense through the air to get clean looks. If this happens for marksmen like Sawyer and Lusby, then Kemp will need to come up big. Loyola features the best defensive midfield unit in the game in Scott Ratliff, Josh Hawkins and Pat Laconi. They are tough and athletic but have a tendency to be over-aggressive. Their ability in transition and offensively allows Loyola to run that first midfield so much. If Notre Dame can get the Greyhound defense sliding, it will get chances. The Irish have been shooting over 30 percent for the last month of the season with a strong blend of scorers. Trying to figure out who might get the hot hand is like guessing the winning lottery numbers -- good luck. They will have to continue this trend in order to beat the Hounds. It is up to Loyola netminder Jack Runkel to come up with saves if his D gets compromised.

Maryland (11-5) vs. No. 3 Duke (15-4) on ESPN2/ESPN3, 5 p.m. ET
Duke MD

The Blue Devils were expected to be here after being ranked No. 2 in the preseason. Despite a typically slow start, the Blue Devils once again proved they save their best lacrosse for May. Maryland entered 2012 ranked No. 8 with a really new look, having graduated 42 percent on their offense, half of their LSM tandem and the entire starting close defense. After a season that has had highs and lows, the Terps are back in championship weekend.

Forecast: This marks the sixth meeting in two seasons between these ACC rivals. They split this season's series with both goalies having a hand in propelling their teams to victories. Niko Amato stopped 14 shots as Maryland took the first contest in March by a count of 10-7. Duke returned the favor 6-5 in the ACC tournament behind Dan Wigrizer's 10 saves. Both midfields are really clicking and scoring goals at a healthy clip. Drew Snider of Maryland has been on fire, while Rob Rotanz leads the way for Duke. These units will be key this coming Saturday. The attacks for both can be either complementary or take on a leading role. Their ability to get open and operate underneath will earn the respect of the defenses and dictate some dodging lanes for the middies.

[+] EnlargeOwen Blye, Bill Conners
Tony Quinn/Icon SMISaturday's semifinal will be the third time Duke and Maryland have played this season. They split both games they've played.

Notes: Duke's John Danowski has now led the Blue Devils to championship weekend six years straight. He has made the semifinals in each of his seasons as the head man in Durham. Overall this is Duke's eighth appearance in the semis. This is John Tillman's second consecutive go-round as a head coach in championship weekend, both with Maryland being unseeded. This marks the 21st appearance in the semifinals for the Terrapins program and the second straight year they will square off against the Blue Devils in this round. Maryland whipped Duke 9-4 last year in Baltimore.

Where the game will be won: Ball control and the ability to execute in 6-on-6 sets. This contest features long poles that play like shortstick offensive middies. Maryland's Jesse Bernhardt is the better cover defender and CJ Costabile is the better offensive wand; both are on the same level in terms of groundball work and starting transition.

When the action settles, who can show more poise and discipline to get the job done? Duke's ability to control face-offs will be important to dictate a faster pace. Maryland has followed the formula of holding the ball into a stall warning and then running an efficient offense. With this in mind, team defense will be a major factor; the Terps will use their long possessions to get the Blue Devils out of their defensive groove.

Duke's close unit will need to be patient and alert. Flip the field and you have a young Maryland group that will try to stifle any push that comes around its goal. Duke will not back down and should use different sets and formations to keep the Terps off-balance. The Duke offense has been a buzzsaw as of late and is difficult to defend. Big stat: Jordan Wolf and Rotanz have combined for zero goals against Maryland this season. They are the primary initiators of the Duke offense down low and up top.

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