May 27, 2011

UnCensered: Six Players Who Must Rise to the Occasion in NCAA Final Four

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com


Denver midfielder Cameron Flint represents an emerging prototype of the dominant lacrosse player who grew up with fine-tuned stick skills playing box lacrosse and then thrives with athleticism in the high-end field game -- a combination that makes him as dangerous as any player in this weekend's NCAA championships, writes Joel Censer.

© Greg Shemitz

I remember my first NCAA championship weekend in 2000. I was an awkward eighth grader -- the big news that spring was I had my braces removed -- and my dad and I went up to College Park to watch the title game between Syracuse and Princeton. I was also a lacrosse neophyte, just learning how to throw and catch, not knowing the first thing about inverts or offset heads.

Looking back at that championship game, I don't remember much. The Tigers were a year away (Damien Davis, Brad Dumont, Owen Daly, etc., were just freshmen), and the Orange, led by Liam Banks' six goals and Ryan Powell's bull-dodging routine, rolled to a 13-7 win. Despite having to sit on concrete steps (this was before NFL stadiums were the venue of choice), I still had my championship t-shirt and some overpriced chicken tenders to leave happy.

A year later, I could tell the difference between a first and second slide, and was 100 percent hooked. I recorded that rain-soaked 2001 Princeton-Syracuse championship game rematch on VHS and watched Davis strip Mikey Powell in mid-stride and Ryan Boyle throw that spot feed to B.J. Prager in overtime so many times that the tape begin to skip. As I got older and my friends began to see Memorial Day weekend as an opportunity to go to the beach, I continued to drive up and down I-95 -- to Philly, Baltimore and Boston -- tailgating and taking in the games.

I was certainly treated to my fair share of awe-inspiring moments. Orange defenseman John Glatzel picking off a pass and sending a 60-yard bomb to Josh Coffman for a goal in Syracuse's 12-11 double-OT win over Virginia in the 2002 semifinal. Salisbury's Josh Bergey, Andy Murray and Eric Martin battling Middlebury's Mike Sarceni, Greg Bastis and Ed Brown on a rain-soaked grass field the following year. Paul Rabil cementing his Frank Urso/Del Dressel- like legacy by pouring in six goals for Hopkins in a 13-10 loss to the Orange in the 2008 final.

Now, having transitioned from the nosebleeds (when I was able to get out of the parking lot and to the games, that is) to the comfy press box confines, I'm still as giddy for this weekend as I was as a wide-eyed high school kid. And grateful that in lacrosse, close to 100,000 people carrying everything from gas grills to fiddlesticks, can come together for love of sport.

Here are six players I think will play a big role this weekend.

6. Bray Malphrus, senior defenseman, Virginia

Malphrus has always been a bruiser who made most of his headlines for physical play (taking Billy Bitter's head off in last year's Big City Classic; playing with a wooden stick in a fall tournament). But after getting moved from long stick midfield to close defense (the faster, more athletic Chris Clements was better suited for that role) after the Duke game, the senior captain has been key to the Cavaliers' late-season renaissance. Against Cornell, he was matched up against Rob Pannell in man-to-man situations and helped lead a stifling zone defense that held the Big Red to nearly four goals below its average.

This weekend, I have a feeling the Georgetown Prep product will be tasked with guarding Denver's Mark Matthews, a 6'4" 220-pound slab of Canadian box talent, and again be the point guy when the Cavaliers go to their now patented zone -- I know, it feels weird just typing it -- against a combustible Pioneer offense. Malphrus will also be vital in cleaning up the clearing game, an area where the Wahoos (21-of-28) frankly struggled at times against the Big Red.

5. Garret Ince, senior faceoff midfielder, Virginia

Ince's tenure in Charlottesville has been interesting. An Ontario native with box experience, Ince spent his prep years at New England's Salisbury School, making a name for himself at the Under Armour All-American game where he pumped in four goals and took home MVP honors. Instead of bringing burly pick-and-roll bonafides to the Cavalier offense, however, Ince has instead been relegated to the faceoff "X" his entire career. There, he's been hot and cold the past four years, but this season has arguably emerged as the most consistent option for the Cavaliers (52 percent).

Against Denver, the Canuck (along with fellow faceoff guys Brian McDermott and Ryan Benincasa) will face one of their toughest challenges yet. Because the Pioneers aren't just effective at crouching and clamping (although Chase Carrarro is plenty good at that), but with Jeremy Noble and long stick Jamie Macdonald (a Salisbury teammate of Ince's) patrolling the wings, they're also wildly athletic and dogged in their pursuit of ground balls.

Hopkins' Matt Dolente learned that the hard way last weekend when he ran into the buzzsaw. If Ince and company want to fare well, it's going to require not only winning the draw (or at the very least preventing transition), but also being able to run effectively away from pressure.

4. Cameron Flint, sophomore midfielder, Denver

Flint bursted, literally, onto the national scene in the NCAA quarterfinals against Hopkins in a way we haven't seen a midfielder do since Syracuse's Matt Abbott exploded for three goals in the 2008 semifinals.

For me, watching Flint carve up the Hopkins defense, I couldn't help but think that we were witnessing the future of lacrosse training and what happens when a special athlete, having spent his formative lax years playing indoors in Canada, is later exposed to high-end field lacrosse. (Like Ince, Flint is an Ontario native who played at the Salisbury School.)

I don't think Flint, who finished with three goals against the Blue Jays, will have the same ample opportunities he had last week. Certainly he won't get to dodge past Dolente clones (with a bunch of late slides) ever again. And I'm not sure how Denver plans to attack a zone.

But I'm excited to see how he responds to the increased attention. Because someone who is that good of an athlete and who is that skilled around the net is unique, and a new sort of protoype in today's game.

3. Jamie Faus, freshman goalkeeper, Denver

I admit I thought the Cavs were done post-Brattons. But after seeing Steele Stanwick and the rest of the UVA offense spit the Cornell defense out like they were VMI, count me a believer.

We know the 'Hoos are going to score goals. The question, then, is can Denver make it difficult and make them less efficient? It goes without saying that Faus (57 percent), a freshman netminder who has been nearly rock solid most of the year, is going to have ignore the 40- to 50-plus thousand fans and save some of his best lacrosse for this weekend.

2. Greg DeLuca, sophomore midfielder, Duke

Make no mistake about it: the ACC grudge match between Duke and Maryland is going to be won and lost between the stripes.

It's not often mentioned, but the Blue Devils haven't been very good facing off the past few games, and star long stick/resident draw man C.J Costabile is knicked up. He did most of his faceoff work from the wings in the Blue Devils' NCAA quarterfinal win over Notre Dame.

DeLuca, a 6'2" 200-pound specimen who never met a truck stick he didn't like, took the majority of draws, going just 3-for-9 on the day. Regardless of who lines up there, the Blue Devils are going need an answer for Terps technician Curtis Holmes, who went on an 18-for-24, Mike McDermott-like heater the last time these two teams met in the ACC championship.

If Duke wants some opportunities in the unsettled (where it thrives) and to prevent Maryland's own lethal transition game -- not to mention have some say in the pace of the game (the Blue Devils have always been better when it's up and down) -- it's going to have to start with their crouch-and-clamp guys.

1. Joe Cummings, junior midfielder, Maryland

Let's get one thing immediately out of the way: Duke's going to score more goals than Syracuse last week. First, the Blue Devils don't have the talent the Orange had on the defensive end, meaning the game won't come to a grinding halt. Not to mention with Jordan Wolf and Zach Howell at attack and a stable full of athletic midfielders who can break guys down, the Dookies are about 10 times scarier than the Orange in half-field offense.

So for Maryland to keep up, it must manufacture goals in a lot of different ways. The Terps have been successful in transition and in using two- and three-man games in the settled offense. Who knows? Maybe they have another hidden-ball trick in 'em.

But I think the key is Cummings. He's not a natural split dodger, but in a way that's representative of this entire Terrapin group. He's crafty, knows his strengths and has found his role as a gritty, opportunistic scorer. He struggled last week against 'Cuse (scoreless with two turnovers) and has nursed an injured hand. But the Terps need him to do his best Matt Poskay impression to win.


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