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Why New England should care about the NCAA lacrosse championships

05.22.09 at 4:33 pm ET

As the NCAA Men’€™s Lacrosse Final Four approaches this Memorial Day weekend at Gillette Stadium, the lacrosse fervor seems to be building. Good thing the Krafts didn’t double book the Patriots rookie training camp earlier this week with the NCAA finals like the debacle the WWE and the Denver Nuggets faced this past week at the Pepsi Center.

The tournament leading up to the finals has been full of surprises, from the 19-goal output by Virginia against last year’s National Championship runner-up Johns Hopkins to Syracuse goalie Alex Cavalieri’€™s unexpected start against Maryland after starter John Galloway came down with the flu. The games this weekend should be exciting, with most of the top seeds having advanced.

No. 3 Duke faces No. 2 Syracuse Saturday at noon. The Orange will try to defend their championship while taking on a revamped offense from Duke. Galloway will be back in goal to fight off the Blue Devils, who have never won an NCAA men’€™s lacrosse title.

No. 1 Virginia takes on No. 5 Cornell as the Big Red look for a way to stop the nation’€™s top-ranked offense. While all of this seems enticing, the question remains: why should Boston sports fans want to attend the games?

‘€œI know the sport is growing quite quickly in this area,’€ said Syracuse head coach John Desko said. ‘€œYou see more and more players from Massachusetts in rosters across the country. My brother lives in the area and his kids play so it’€™s a great opportunity for kids seeing and hearing about the game to come see it.’€

Max Quinizani, a Duxbury, Mass. native, said Duke head coach John Danowski often asks him about Boston-are lax players to recruit.

‘€œI think it’€™s great because the NCAA is all about opportunities and by having this type of venue and these teams lacrosse fans are coming from all over,’€ Syracuse head coach John Desko said. ‘€œHaving all the finals in Baltimore every year would not help the growth of the game.’€

Gillette minus the wind chill

Patriots fans are all too familiar with the chilly confines of a winter game in Foxborough — 30 degrees with a light snow fall and a wind chill making it feel as though your toes might fall off is customary for a mid-season December game. But how about tailgating in the warm sunshine of Memorial Day weekend in the parking lots behind Gillette? An enticing proposal that will be reality for thousands of fans cramming the lots this weekend to watch the top college lacrosse teams in the country battle it out on the same neighborhood as the 2002 Snow Bowl.

This gives us a chance to look at some of the worst game conditions in recent memory in Foxborough:

3. Cardinals vs Patriots 12/21/08 — Snowy, rainy Gillette in the low 30s with 18mph winds but the Pats pulled out a 47-7 victory

2. Patriots AFC Championship game 1/20/08 — Winds up to 30mph and temperatures in the low 30s again the Pats beat the Chargers 21-12

1.  The 2002 Snow Bowl at old Foxboro Stadium that featured the Raiders and Patriots 1/19/01 —  The tuck rule, the Vinateri FG in overtime for the 16-13 win, you know the rest

Do not fear — this weekend should shape up to be much better. Saturday will be partly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees according to for the double header Division I match up and Monday will be sunny and 70 degrees for the final. That’s more like it.

The local flair

Between the eight teams from Divisions I, II and III on the field at Gillette this weekend, 44 players have New England representing Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Cornell junior defender Andrew MacDonald from Longmeadow, MA (Longmeadow HS) and freshman midfielder JJ Gilbane from Rumford, RI (Providence Country Day/Deerfield Academy) are two of the Big Red’€™s happiest players this weekend.

MacDonald and Gilbane will have hundreds of family and friends flocking to the field at Gillette on Saturday when Cornell takes on Virginia. Yet it feels surreal for two players who grew up not far from the stadium itself.

‘€œActually, my first Pats game was two years ago at the AFC championship,’€ MacDonald said. ‘€œOur goalie Jake Myers is from California and his dad got us tickets because it was against the Chargers. We had seats on the fifty-yard line. It’€™s pretty awesome to come here and play on the same field as Tom (Brady).’€

As a freshman, Gilbane said he was crossing his fingers Cornell would make it to the Final Four this year in hopes of playing at Gillette.

‘€œI come to Pats games all the time with my dad, family and friends but never been on the field,’€ Gilbane said. ‘€œJust being here today and walking around is absolutely unbelievable experience, something I’€™ll never forget for the rest of my life.’€

The non-defending National Champs?

The first match up of the weekend places No. 3 Duke, with no NCAA titles, against No. 2 Syracuse, with 10 NCAA National Championships, its most recent coming last year against Johns Hopkins. Yet Orange head coach John Desko says his team is not focusing on last year.

‘€œI’€™ve talked to the guys from day one,’€ Desko said. ‘€œEveryone says we have to go out and defend your title. We’€™re not defending anything. We have the 2008 National Championship trophy. It’€™s going to be on a pedestal shortly. I told the team to put their rings in the drawer because we’€™re going to focus on the 2009 season and the 2009 National Championship. I didn’€™t want to feel like we’€™re defending anything. We want to climb the mountain, not stay on top of it.’€

Desko’€™s Orange has a tall task in order with Duke’€™s potent offense led by Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani. Danowski reorganized Duke’€™s offense with the departure of last year’s senior attackers. The head coach could not have made a better move in placing Crotty, a senior, at the attack from his natural position in midfield. Crotty leads the nation in 76 points with 53 assists, while Quinzani leads the Blue Devils with 41 goals. The Orange defense will have to be on its top game to fend of the Crotty-Quinzani combo.

Speaking of Max Quinzani’€¦

The revamped offense did Danowski well as the Blue Devils are one of the most potent offenses in the country. Twenty different players scored a goal for Duke this season with junior attackman Max Quinzani at the lead with 41 goals. Quinzani, the Duxbury native, will no doubt pose a threat for the Syracuse defense, yet he will not let you give him any credit.

‘€œAs the year’€™s gone on the team has built chemistry,’€ Quinzani said. ‘€œThere are a lot of new players at new positions. A lot of games this year we’€™ve had eight, nine, 10 different scorers. If everyone chips in with one or two goals I think we’€™ll give Syracuse some trouble.’€

Duke’€™s two wins against the top-ranked Virginia offense this season, in addition to its three wins against perennial powerhouse UNC, make the match-up even more appealing.

‘€œNone of the guys on the team have ever played Syracuse so it’€™s been fun for us to prepare for a team we have never played before,’€ Quinzani said. ‘€œWhen I was growing up playing lacrosse, Syracuse was a team I looked to and watched on TV. They are the most storied program in lacrosse, they won last year; we’€™re excited to play them.’€

Quinzani hasn’€™t forgotten his Bay State roots down in North Carolina. When the Bruins were in the playoffs against the Hurricanes, Quinzani and his friends attended Game 3 of the series in Carolina to support the Bs.

Quinizani’€™s one wish? That fans filling Gillette will be sporting Duke blue and not Syracuse Orange.

A Few Extras…

Lacrosse actually does have ties to New England as “The northeastern stick, found among Iroquoian and New England tribes, is the progenitor of all present-day sticks, both in box as well as field lacrosse”.

Philips Academy, Andover (Massachusetts), Philips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) and the Lawrenceville School (New Jersey) were the nation’s first high school teams in 1882.

A small taste of last years NCAA Finals should make no other choice than to check out this year’s games. Can Duke’s offense oust last year’s champion Syracuse? Will Cornell be able to hold off Virginia? By Monday we will know the answer.

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