Virginia's offense looked unstoppable and Maryland's defense appeared impenetrable during the semifinals. Something will have to give when the Atlantic Coast Conference rivals meet Monday in the NCAA men's lacrosse championship game.
Attackman Steele Stanwick is the quarterback of a Virginia offense that is averaging 13 goals and shredded Denver's defense in a 14-8 victory Saturday. The Cavaliers have scored 40 goals in three tournament games and are shooting a sizzling 40 percent.
“To score on 40 percent of your shots is just unheard of,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “Virginia is just being very patient, moving the ball, waiting for a good shot and getting excellent looks.”
Meanwhile, goalie Niko Amato is anchoring a Maryland defense that allows just seven goals per game. The Terrapins have been particularly stingy in the tournament, giving up just 15 goals in three games while limiting opponents to 20 percent shooting.
“Maryland is just a very good defensive team. It is a very imposing group of defensemen and we're going to have to work extremely hard to generate scoring opportunities,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “We need to be very efficient on that end of the field.”
Seventh-seeded Virginia (12-5) is seeking its fifth national title and fourth under Starsia, who leads Division I with 328 career victories. Maryland (13-4) is attempting to capture its first national title since 1975, having lost five finals since then.
Stanwick has been the catalyst for the Cavaliers, piling up 20 points in the playoffs. A junior and finalist for the Tewaaraton Award as the nation's best player, the Baltimore native has become the focal point of a revamped offense.
Virginia reinvented itself late in the season after high-scoring midfielders and twins Rhamel and Shamel Bratton were suspended. Instead of playing an up-tempo style that featured the speedy Brattons running past defenders, the Cavaliers have slowed the pace and begun attacking opponents from behind the net.
“In the past, Virginia lacrosse has been known as run-and-gun, but we have changed this season and are putting more value on possession and working to get the best possible shot,” midfielder John Haldy said.
Stanwick has been largely responsible for controlling the ball and making sure Virginia takes smart shots.
“We needed somebody to step up and be the leader on the offensive end and Steele was the obvious choice to do that,” Starsia said. “Right now, our offense runs through Steele. He is a good decision-maker and gets positive things done for us.”
As in hockey, a hot goaltender can carry a lacrosse team in the postseason. Amato has been on fire in the playoffs, averaging almost 12 saves per game. He's gotten great support from a defense comprised of Brett Schmidt, Max Schmidt (no relation), Ryder Bohlander and Brian Farrell.
Amato, a red-shirt freshman who stands just 5-foot-8, doesn't lack for confidence. The Pennsylvania native has the word “swagger” written on his stick.
“Niko truly believes he's the best goalie in the country, and with the way he's played all season it would be hard to argue,” said midfielder Dan Burns, another key component of Maryland's defense. “We have total confidence in Niko because he makes all the saves he should and some he shouldn't. You saw (Saturday) that he can take away what seems like sure goals.”
Brett Schmidt held Stanwick to just one goal when Maryland defeated Virginia, 12-7, during the regular season. Starsia called that loss “the low point” of the season as Shamel Bratton was serving the second of what would be three suspensions while top defensemen Matt Lovejoy sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in the game. Losing Lovejoy prompted Starsia to switch to a zone defense that has proven very effective during the postseason.
Monday's title game at M&T Bank Stadium will be just the second time that schools from the same conference will play in the Division I final. In 1986, North Carolina defeated ACC rival Virginia, 10-9.