When Virginia defender Todd Breier walked onto the soft, grass turf of Delaware Stadium before Saturday's NCAA semifinal lacrosse match against Syracuse, he heard a sweet sound.
He looked into the stands and saw a large Virginia contingent cheering. "We definitely recognized the fans when we came out on the field," said Breier, a senior who attended Landon School in Bethesda.
For the first time in the history of the playoffs, the semifinals were played at a neutral site. And the Cavaliers (12-2), who were seeded lower and would have played at Syracuse in past years, took full advantage and beat the second-seeded Orangemen, 12-10, to advance to Monday's championship game against North Carolina (10-3).
The Cavaliers' victory sets up the first all-Atlantic Coast Conference championship match, which will start at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium. North Carolina, with its come-from-behind 10-9 overtime victory Saturday, kept top-ranked and No. 1-seeded Johns Hopkins out of the title match for the first time in 10 years.
"It's nice to have other teams in the championship," said Virginia attackman Roddy Marino, who had two goals against Syracuse. "The last three years, you've been seeing the same thing. In college basketball, it's nice to see somebody different. It's good for the sport. It was nice for us and North Carolina to send them home."
It also will be the first time since 1976 that the two top-seeded teams didn't make the final.
"I think it is a great thing," said Virginia Coach Jim Adams. "When I heard the news that they beat Hopkins, I was happy."
Monday's final should be just as interesting without the top-ranked teams, as the fifth-seeded Tar Heels and third-seeded Cavaliers both are playing their best lacrosse.
Virginia has won nine consecutive matches, and North Carolina has put together two straight upsets. The Tar Heels' last loss was to the Cavaliers, 11-9, in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
"If anything, it seems like we would have everything to lose, and they would have everything to gain," said Breier. "But we're approaching it as if we're dead even, and it is the last game of our careers."
Virginia's defense was outstanding against a high-scoring Syracuse team, which, going into the game, had five players with more points than Virginia's top scorer. Cavaliers goalie Peter Sheehan came up with several stops in the fourth period and will have to repeat his superb effort against North Carolina's top attackmen, Pat Welsh and Gary Seivold.
"If we're in a settled situation, it's tough to beat us one-on-one," said Breier. "They have very good stick work. They might not be as strong one-on-one without Joey Seivold an all-America who is injured , but they work the back door well. Setting picks, that's where they're dangerous."
Breier noted the importance of a hot goalie in the playoffs, and he compares Sheehan to Hopkins' Larry Quinn, who helped his team to titles the last two years in which he was named the most valuable player.
But North Carolina's Mike Tummillo, who scored the winning goal against Hopkins in overtime, feels Sheehan can be beaten. "I think he is like any goalie," said Tummillo. "If we get on him early and score, he could fold."
Sheehan is aware that North Carolina's shooting accuracy in Saturday's fourth quarter could carry into today's match. "I think they're peaking now, and this is the best time to peak," he said. "They lost to Maryland and Hopkins and Virginia during the season, and beat Maryland and Hopkins in the playoffs. Now, they have one more to reverse."
"The last time we played them, I thought it was a close ball game," said North Carolina Coach Willie Scroggs, adding that the Tar Heels were going to have to do a better at stopping Virginia attackmen Marino and Jeff Nicklas. Nicklas has scored 11 goals in the teams' last two meetings.