College Lacrosse
(Photo Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)

College Lacrosse Playoffs Are Back: 2021 Quarterfinal Preview

Playoff lacrosse is back, as the 2021 college lacrosse tournament kicked off last weekend with eight first-round games. Like every other sport, college lacrosse felt the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sport had no practices, no conference games, and no playoffs. The 2021 college lacrosse season was particularly interesting, as teams like Rutgers and Drexel had promising seasons while blue-blood programs like Johns Hopkins and Syracuse fell short of their expectations. Most unusual of all was the lack of Ivy League teams in competition, as they canceled their sports for the entire year. In 2018, the sport was dominated by attackman Ben Reeves and the Yale Bulldogs, who won the championship that year. Yale was on a mission to repeat in 2019 until they met Virginia in the championship game, who defeated Yale to capture their first championship since 2011. The star power and talent in some of these games give this tournament the chance to be historically great. In addition, none of the five Tewerraton finalists have been eliminated, teams have elite defenses across the board, and a number of high-impact freshmen will have the chance to show their skills.

#4 Virginia (11-4) vs #5 Georgetown (13-2), May 22, 2021-12:00pm

Matchup History: Virginia and Georgetown have played three games and Virginia has beaten Georgetown in all of them. The last time they met in the postseason in 2003, Virginia beat the Hoyas 12-7.

Why Virginia: Virginia’s offensive personnel have elite scoring and distributing skills. Connor Shellenberger, Payton Cormier, and Ian Laviano combine to make a proficient attacking force rivaled by few across college lacrosse. Midfielder Matt Moore is a dynamic feeder and can create his own offense, but the other middies are question marks come game day. Keep an eye on captain Dox Aitken, too. Aitken missed five games this year and had his worst statistical year at Virginia by far with a mere 19 points in 10 games, but he has played his best lacrosse in May since arriving in Charlottesville, and his effectiveness could be the difference between a Virginia victory and a Virginia defeat.

UVA’s biggest areas of concern are its defense and goalkeeping. This Cavaliers offense is capable of scoring 12 goals, but whether or not the defense can get important stops is up in the air. Goalie Alex Rode has had a middling season, as he was top 20 in the country for save percentage but gave up nearly 12 goals a game. The Cavalier offense is going to score goals and if Rode has a solid day in net, Virginia should win.

Why Georgetown: Two names: attackman Jake Carraway and goalie Owen McElroy. Carraway, a Tewaaraton Award Finalist and elite scorer, finished the regular season second in the nation with 46 goals. The Maryland native also notched 5 goals in a first-round beat down of Syracuse that the Hoyas eventually won 18-8. Other than Carraway, guys like Declan McDermott, TJ Healy, Graham Bundy, and Dylan Hess need to have a big game. McDermott, Bundy, and Hess combined for 11 goals in the win over Syracuse, and with all the attention on Carraway, they need to step up and make plays.

On the other side of the field, Georgetown has the best goalie in the country in Owen McLeroy. McLeroy leads the nation in a number of goalie statistics including save percentage (61%), average goals-against (7.47), and is third in total number of saves (164). Georgetown is being slept on because the Big East does not have the blue-blood teams like the ACC or Big Ten, but Georgetown fared well against Denver, the best team in their conference, as they lost the first meeting between the two teams but went on to win the next two, including the Big East title game. This team is feisty and flying under the radar.

Outcome: Georgetown wins 12-10. I love Georgetown in this matchup, the Hoyas have dimensions that many teams in the tournament do not: elite scoring and elite goaltending. If McLeroy strings together a couple of early saves and Carraway and the Georgetown offense get hot, this game could get ugly for UVA.

#1 North Carolina (12-2) vs Rutgers (9-4), May 22, 2021-2:30pm

Matchup History: First-time matchup. UNC is the only team in the ACC that Rutgers has yet to play.

Why UNC: UNC comes in with the best offense in the country as well as the number one overall seed in the tournament. Carolina is led by a star on each side of the ball: attackman Chris Gray and defenseman Will Bowen. Gray, one of five Tewaaraton finalists, finished with 83 points and set a UNC record for most points in a season. He is natural-born scorer but he also possesses great feeding ability. Gray, who started his career at Boston University, set the Patriot League record for points in a season with 111 in 2019, when he also had 62 assists. The Tar Heel offense runs through Gray.

Like Gray, Bowen was named a First Team All American, and he is the anchor of Carolina’s defense. He ranks top 20 in the nation in caused turnovers and is an absolute freak when defending the ball. Bowen manages the top attackman on every team UNC plays and he has proven to be a nightmare for opposing offenses to work around. UNC had a great regular season, finishing 12-2, and they just need to focus on playing their game. Gray coupled with Will Perry, Jacob Kelly, and Nicky Solomon is a scary sight. If UNC rattles off a couple of early goals, they will be on their way to the semis.

Why Rutgers: Rutgers and Coach Brecht deserve a lot of credit, as they finished the regular season with a record of 9-4. The Scarlet Knights also had their best conference record under Brecht, with a Big Ten record of 8-3. Rutgers had a convincing win over the #8 seed Lehigh in the first round by a score of 12-5 but they have never won consecutive tournament games. If Rutgers wants to keep it competitive with UNC, they need to be aggressive from the jump. UNC is the number one scoring offense in the nation and if Bowen and the UNC defense are on their game, the game could be out of reach in a blink of an eye.

Adam Charalambides, Kieran Mullins, and Connor Kirst all scored three goals in Rutgers’ win over Lehigh, and all three were 50-plus point scorers this season, so if Rutgers is to get past the Heels, all three must show up in a big way. This is the biggest game in Rutgers lacrosse history. A win over UNC would be the high-ranked win against an opponent but more importantly, it would be Rutgers’ first Final Four appearance in program history.

Outcome: UNC wins 13-7. Rutgers just cannot slow down the Tar Heel offense. UNC has the best scoring margin in the country, scoring 238 goals while only giving up 147 on the season, so Rutgers must find a way to score at an elite level to keep up with UNC.

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#2 Duke (13-2) vs Loyola MD (10-5), May 23, 2021-12:00pm

Matchup History: This game is the blue-blood matchup of the weekend. These two teams have a history dating back to 1946, and the teams have met 34 times, with Duke holding a 22-12 record over the Grey Hounds. In the tournament, Duke again holds the series lead at 2-1.

Why Duke: Long-awaited freshman sensation Brennan O’Neill. O’Neill started from day one and made an immediate impact on Duke’s offense. O’Neill, Joe Robertson, and Princeton transfer Michael Sowers make up, in my opinion, the best attack unit in college lacrosse, and the team also possesses one of the most dynamic midfielders in the country in Nakiee Montgomery. The most crucial part of playoff college lacrosse is possessions, and Duke has the best FOGO (Face Off Get Off) player remaining in the tournament in Jake Naso. Naso has won 64% of his draws this season and his specific skill set could be the x-factor in a Duke victory.

Why Loyola MD: Loyola is coming off a first-round upset, beating Denver 14-13 in a thrilling fashion when Loyola goalie Sam Shafer made a crucial save with seconds remaining to give the Greyhounds the victory. Loyola’s victory was only considered an upset due to a positive COVID test on Loyola’s squad prior to the Patriot League championship. The positive test forced Loyola to forfeit a game, giving Lehigh an automatic birth to the tournament. This Loyola team is pissed and on a five-game winning streak. If Loyola is to take down the Blue Devils, two seniors must have great games: Aiden Olmstead and Kevin Lindley. They were first and second respectively in points scored for Loyola this season, and they must show up not only in attack but must produce in the midfield as well. Look for Evan James and Peter Swindell to create opportunities for their teammates, but Shafer needs to have another huge day in net to stop Duke’s prolific offense.

Outcome: Duke wins 14-10. This game will be closer than people think, but Loyola cannot match Duke’s scoring output. The Blue Devils simply have too many elite scorers, and Loyola’s defensive personnel will not match up effectively.

#3 Maryland (14-0) vs #6 Notre Dame (8-3), May 23, 2021-2:30pm

Matchup History: Notre Dame and Maryland have met 11 times, with a 6-5 record in favor of Notre Dame. The last time these teams met in the postseason, Notre Dame captured an 11-6 victory on their way to the championship game.

Why Maryland: Maryland comes into this game with an undefeated record on the season. Jared Bernhardt is the best player in college lacrosse, as he tallied 89 points on the year and averaged almost five goals a game. Bernhardt has been a stud since he arrived in College Park and he will leave as Maryland’s record holder in career points, goals & single-season goals. Bernhardt will draw Notre Dame’s top defensemen and first-team All-American Jack Kielty, which primes Bernhardt’s teammates including Logan Wisnauskas, Kyle Long, and Daniel Maltz, to have huge games. 

Why Notre Dame: Notre Dame had another solid season under coach Kevin Corrigan, going 9-3 and beating red hot Drexel in the first round 10-8. The Notre Dame offense runs through attackman Pat Kavanaugh – the sophomore attackman is the only non-senior Tewaaraton finalist and is second in the nation in assists. Kavanaugh’s dodging and elite vision make him a dynamic feeder and scorer from the X position, but with all eyes on Kavanaugh, Notre Dame needs midfield production from Wheaton Jackoboice, Quinn McCahon, and Eric Dobson. Goalie Liam Entenmann has been fantastic this season and has proved a constant spark for Notre Dame. In 11 games, Entenmann had a 59% save percentage and gave up the 12th fewest goals with 89. Notre Dame also gets a unique luxury in this tournament: home-field advantage. The games on Sunday are being played at Notre Dame, giving the Irish a chance to play in front of their home crowd, and in a time where fans are limited, home-field could end up an advantage for Notre Dame.

Outcome: Maryland wins 14-12. This game could be a shootout. Two elite offenses, two smart head coaches, and star players everywhere. Notre Dame will have the best defenseman and goalie on the field in Kielty and Entenmann, but do not think for one second that their presence is going to phase Bernhardt and the Maryland offense. Notre Dame will keep it close but Maryland squeaks out a victory on their way to eighth Final Four under coach John Tillman.

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