A pair of NCAA men's lacrosse final four rookies will try to produce the first all-Washington area championship game in 24 years today at Byrd Stadium.
Having completely reshaped its program during Dave Urick's decade as its coach, Georgetown will make its first semifinal appearance against one of the sport's perennial title contenders -- Syracuse, which is seeded eighth but nonetheless making its 17th consecutive final four appearance.
In the day's second game, Virginia and its freshman goalkeeper, Derek Kenney, will meet Johns Hopkins. For all of their talent, the Cavaliers easily could rise or fall on the play of Kenney, who was replaced during the fourth quarter of a 16-15 loss to Johns Hopkins on March 27, gave up an overtime goal to Duke two weeks later and went through several stretches during which his coaches and teammates sometimes questioned his ability.
The first game starts at noon, and with Maryland officials saying 15,700 tickets had been sold for the games as of yesterday afternoon, a crowd of more than 25,000 is expected on what is forecast to be a beautiful day.
Victories by Georgetown and Virginia would make the day that much nicer for local fans who have not had a chance to see two area teams play for the national championship since Maryland defeated Navy for the title in 1975. A Georgetown victory alone would make this the first time since 1991, and only the second time since 1987, that neither Syracuse nor Princeton has won the championship.
So even though the No. 5 Hoyas (13-2) have the better record, the higher seeding and a victory earlier this season over Syracuse (11-4), it's difficult to regard the Orangemen as much of an underdog.
Georgetown's 17-13 victory over Syracuse at home three weeks ago capped the Hoyas' best regular season, and Hoyas senior attackman Greg McCavera scored a career-high eight goals when the Orangemen initially used freshman defender Billy St. George against him before switching to a zone defense throughout the second half.
"I think Syracuse might match up a bit differently this time," said Urick, whose team also will have a different look -- gray helmets that had been ordered for next season but arrived early. "I thought [St. George] actually did a pretty good job on Greg, but Greg was finishing his shots the way we need him to" in the semifinals.
While that matchup may seem relatively even, the starting goalie's matchup in the Virginia-Johns Hopkins game seems anything but equal.
Kenney is the first freshman to start in goal for Virginia since 1979, and his .521 save percentage is the lowest of any of the starting goalies in the final four. Johns Hopkins's Brian Carcaterra was a first-team all-American and goalie of the year last season.
In the teams' meeting earlier this season, Kenney was pulled with nine minutes remaining and the score tied at 14. He finished with 10 saves, but called the game "by far my worst of the season."
However, Virginia Coach Dom Starsia said Kenney played his best game of the season Sunday, when he tied his career high with 13 saves in the Cavaliers' 17-10 quarterfinal victory over Delaware.
"Goalie play will be the wild card today," said Starsia, whose team is seeded third and has an 11-3 record. "I was a little nauseous when I thought about starting a freshman goalie in the playoffs, but Derek responded with his best 60 minutes against Delaware. He has a lot of confidence and he has the attitude you like to see. Even when we pulled him [against Johns Hopkins] I found out later he was pulling on assistant coach Doug Knight's sleeve asking to get put back in."
No team has won an NCAA title with a freshman goalie since Johns Hopkins in 1987. Unfortunately for the second-seeded Blue Jays (11-2), that also was the last time they won the title, making this the school's longest title drought since it began playing lacrosse in 1887. Johns Hopkins has won a title in every decade this century except the 1990s.
A hand-written sign on the door to the team's equipment room at Homewood Field details the program's shortcomings in recent NCAA tournaments ("Last semifinal win: 1989"; "Last semifinal appearance: 1996", etc.). At the bottom of the sign are the words: "End the Drought."
However, first-year coach John Haus played down the title dearth yesterday.
"We cannot do anything about the drought," Haus said. "We can only win tomorrow and then try to win again on Monday."