Georgetown senior lacrosse midfielder Walid Hajj was 15 when his family's house outside Baltimore burned down. The fire was an accident and no one was injured, but it took almost all of the family's possessions. Almost.
"One of the firemen saw Walid sitting on the ground and asked what was wrong, and Walid said he was going to lose his lucky lacrosse stick," said his mother, Mona. "That was his only reaction. The fireman went inside and, sure enough, he got it out for him. I didn't think it was a big deal, but I guess we all have our priorities."
Lacrosse was not always a priority for Hajj. He didn't come about it naturally -- his parents are from Beirut, he was raised a Muslim and his family acknowledges they didn't know much about the sport when he began to play it in the seventh grade.
Hajj picked up the sport quickly, however, because of his speed and his ability to change direction so precisely. Those are some of the reasons he has a team-high 23 goals for No. 5 Georgetown (11-3) entering an NCAA tournament quarterfinal against No. 4 Syracuse (12-2) today at 3 p.m. in Ithaca, N.Y.
It is the second game of a doubleheader. The first game pits No. 2 Navy (13-2) against No. 7 Cornell (9-4), also in Ithaca. The winners today will join No. 1 Johns Hopkins and No. 6 Princeton in the final four next weekend at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
More than 31,000 tickets have been sold for next weekend, according to published reports.
Syracuse has been to 21 straight final fours and has won seven in a row against Georgetown dating from 1999. The Hoyas' chances lie largely with Hajj.
He led the team with 23 goals last year. And he may be in for a big game against the Orange, considering the contest is being played on his favored artificial turf. The surface lends itself well to his speed. It also is a rare opportunity, given that Georgetown plays its home games on grass.
"He is different on turf," Georgetown Coach Dave Urick said. "Sometimes I feel sorry for him having to play on our grass. It looks like he is spinning his wheels out there. . . . He reminds me of [former Hoyas all-American] Steve Dusseau. Steve used to beg me to move our games to turf, and Walid is the same way."
Said Hajj: "The grass on Harbin Field, it's like quicksand. If I can play on dry turf, then I am really in my element."
He has had big games in previous NCAA tournament quarterfinals played on turf. He had a team-high three goals in a 12-7 loss to Virginia last year and had the tying goal in the final minute of a 14-13 loss to Princeton in 2002.
Hajj first showed his ability on turf in a 15-6 victory at Loyola (Md.) in a crucial late-season game in 2002. Hajj, then a reserve midfielder, scored three goals in the first 25 minutes.
"After the third goal, he ran across the crease and said, 'You can't stop me,' " Georgetown senior captain Andrew Owen said. "That's unusual for Hajj. He's a pretty quiet guy. Normally he doesn't talk any trash."
He lets his actions do the talking instead. Like in his senior year at McDonogh School in Baltimore, when he broke a rule for athletes by attending a party at which some people were drinking. The following Monday, the school principal called a meeting of almost all of the school's athletes.
He asked those who had been at the party to step forward. Hajj and two teammates were among the few who did. He was stripped of his captaincy and suspended from the team for two weeks; he missed four or five games in all.
"Walid did the honorable thing. There were a lot of other kids in that room who were at the party and did not turn themselves in," McDonogh Coach Jake Reed said. "It made me angry that a lot of those kids didn't turn themselves in. Walid was probably the best midfielder in Baltimore that year, but he probably didn't get a lot of notoriety [because of the suspension].
"But he definitely did the right thing."
That was part of the reason he fell beneath the radar of schools such as Johns Hopkins and Princeton, according to Reed. Getting Hajj was quite a coup for Georgetown, which does not normally get many Baltimore natives. He is just the 12th such player to play for the Hoyas in Urick's 14 seasons.
Hajj is due for a good game against the Orange. He was held scoreless in a 13-9 loss on May 7 and in a 12-10 loss last year. Both games were at Harbin Field.
In a 15-14 loss to Syracuse on the turf at the Carrier Dome in 2002, however, he scored a late goal and then was called upon to take the final shot; it bounced twice around the goal before it was saved by Orange goalkeeper Jay Pfeifer.
"That said something, that we had Dusseau and the last shot went to Walid," said Neal Goldman, a senior attackman. "If he gets the final shot again, I wouldn't bet against it going in."