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No. 1-seed Maryland men’s lacrosse national championship preview: No. 7-seed Cornell

Both teams are looking for their fourth NCAA national championship.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

This is it.

The NCAA men’s lacrosse season comes to a conclusion this Monday on Memorial Day. Months of hard work have led to this moment, and one of the two teams left standing will leave East Hartford, Connecticut with a national championship.

In a rematch of the 1971 and 1976 title games, No. 1-seed Maryland and No. 7-seed Cornell will square off with the sport’s ultimate prize hanging in the balance.

With a win, Maryland would become the first team to complete an undefeated season since Virginia did so in 2006 and would be the first squad to ever finish a season 18-0. If they do, the Terps will be remembered as one of the greatest teams to ever play the game. If not, they will leave with extreme disappointment for the second consecutive season.

The Big Red are looking for their fourth NCAA championship and first since 1977. Maryland is also seeking its fourth NCAA championship.

“It would mean the world to me, especially as a guy from Connecticut,” Maryland graduate goalie Drew Morris said. “Everyone on the team has a job, whatever number on the depth chart [they] are.”

A seventh-seeded team has won the national championship on two separate occasions. Virginia’s 2011 team beat Maryland, 9-7, and Duke took down top-seeded Syracuse, 16-10, in 2013. The top seed has won the title 17 times.

Game information

Date/Time: Monday, May 30, 1:00 p.m.

Location: Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium (East Hartford, Conn.)

TV: ESPN

Streaming: WatchESPN

No. 7-seed Cornell Big Red (14-4, 4-2 Ivy League)

Head coach Connor Buczek has an opportunity to win a national championship in his first season coaching at his alma mater with a win on Monday. Buczek was a three-time All-American during his career at Cornell and was named Ivy League Player of the Year in 2014. He was the Big Red’s offensive coordinator for three years before being named head coach of the program before the 2021 season, a season in which the Ivy League did not compete. Buczek is the youngest head coach in Division I men’s lacrosse and earned Ivy League Coach of the Year honors.

“I think for a first-year head coach, for a second-year head coach, for a 30-year head coach there’s a lot of learning on the fly because there’s not many situations that replicate themselves exactly year-to-year,” Buczek said.

How did they get here?

After going 11-3 in the regular season, the Big Red fell to Yale in the semifinals of the Ivy League tournament but still earned the seventh seed in the NCAA tournament. As a result, they hosted a first-round home game against Ohio State and came away with a 15-8 victory. Cornell fell behind early, allowing the game’s first four goals, but seven goals from sophomore attacker CJ Kirst lifted the Big Red to the quarterfinals.

Cornell ran into the Delaware Blue Hens in the quarters, who knocked off the heavily-favored Hoyas. The Big Red fell behind in the first quarter again, but they took a three-goal lead after holding Delaware scoreless for over 26 minutes. The Blue Hens battled back and tied the game, but a 3-0 run to start the fourth quarter put Cornell ahead as they cruised to Championship Weekend with a 10-8 win.

In the semifinals, Cornell dismantled Rutgers en route to a 17-10 win. Fifth-year attacker John Piatelli had five goals and the Scarlet Knights looked uncomfortable all game long, scoring only five goals in the first three quarters. Junior attacker Michael Long added four goals of his own, and sophomore midfielder Hugh Kelleher used his six-foot-three, 220-pound frame to force his way towards the cage on multiple occasions, scoring thrice.

“You grow up [dreaming] of being in the championship and making it to the championship game,” junior faceoff specialist Angelo Petrakis said. “It’s great to be here, but we have a lot more to do.”

Players to watch

John Piatelli, fifth-year attacker, No. 41 — Cornell’s top scorer, Piatelli leads the nation in goals with a whopping 65 tallies this season. He also has 16 assists. Piatelli is no doubt one of the top offensive players in the country, and Maryland’s defense has a tall task of trying to keep his production to a minimum. He proved his ability to perform on the sport’s biggest stage with 12 goals in the NCAA tournament.

CJ Kirst, sophomore attacker, No. 15 — Kirst is the second-most productive player on Cornell’s offense, scoring over 50 goals and dishing out 23 assists in 2022. As the second cog of the Big Red’s two-headed offensive monster, he was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Kirst has had a huge NCAA tournament, which started with a seven-goal performance in the first round against Ohio State. He also performed well in the team’s semifinal game against Rutgers, netting three goals against his brother Colin, the Scarlet Knights’ goalie.

Gavin Adler, senior defenseman, No. 77 — Gavin Adler could make a solid case as the nation’s top defenseman. He was a unanimous selection as an Inside Lacrosse First Team All-American and to the All-Ivy League First Team. He has caused 32 turnovers — the most on the team — and scooped 68 ground balls, the most by any non-specialist on Cornell’s roster. Maryland’s offensive firepower has been well-documented as the best in the country, but Adler has the ability to shut down one of the Terps’ stars.

“He doesn’t give up a lot of leverage,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said. “He’s strong. He’s tough. He’s got a good stick.”

Strength

Defense. Anchored by the play of Adler, Cornell has a solid defensive unit that has performed at a high level throughout the NCAA tournament. The Big Red have held all three of their opponents to 10 goals or less. They have been aided by the impressive play of senior goalie Chayse Ierlan, who has recently put together three of his best performances and has a .632 save percentage in the tournament.

“I think it’s just more of being relaxed and I think the message throughout the locker room is just trying to have fun and enjoy it,” Ierlan said of his recent mindset. “Relax and smile. It’s supposed to be fun.”

Weakness

Clearing the ball. Cornell ranks 53rd nationally in clearing percentage with a success rate of .835, one of the worst marks of any team that made the NCAA tournament. Maryland is simply too good to afford providing it extra opportunities, and a couple mistakes on clearances by the Big Red could prove to be fatal. They went 20-of-23 on clears in the national semifinals against Rutgers.

“We’ll do our best to try to hustle and see if we can get back some possessions, but we’ve got to do a really good job,” Tillman said.

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland reverse its title game luck? Maryland has had well-documented woes in national championship games. Since the NCAA began sanctioning men’s lacrosse in 1971, the Terps have appeared in 15 title games and have won just three. John Tillman is 1-5 in championship games, winning a national championship in 2017. Maryland lost in last year’s national championship game on the same field they will play on Monday — a brutal 17-16 loss to Virginia that came down to the final play.

“When we came on the field on Friday, some emotions came in, kind of remembering what it felt like at the end of last year,” junior goalie Logan McNaney said. “[I] kind of use it as motivation. I think some other guys felt that too.”

2. Cornell connections. The Terps have multiple close ties to Cornell. Head coach John Tillman played at and graduated from Cornell under the leadership of the late great coach Richie Moran. Moran, who passed away earlier this year, graduated from the University of Maryland in 1960 after winning the 1959 national championship as a player. Also, graduate midfielder Jonathan Donville came to College Park via Cornell and graduated from the university last year.

“He’s a great teammate. He’s very professional,” Tillman said of Donville. “I just feel bad for him because I know he loves Cornell so much. It’s a place that he’s called home.”

“[I have] nothing but the utmost respect for him as a player [and] as a person,” Buczek added. “He’s one of the best players in the country.”

3. The opening minutes will be key. Maryland and Cornell have been polar opposites in the way that they have started games this season. Cornell frequently starts slow, having been outscored by 10 in the first quarter of games this season. Maryland, on the other hand, has a ridiculous +50 scoring margin in the first quarter. As underdogs, the Big Red get more and more dangerous the longer they can stay within striking distance. The game likely won’t be decided in the first quarter, but an early lead could certainly prove to be the difference.