Underdog Maryland men’s lacrosse looking to play spoiler vs. Notre Dame in NCAA final

PHILADELPHIA — The task for Maryland men’s lacrosse seems insurmountable: prevent what many consider to be the team of destiny from attaining the Holy Grail.

But if members of the No. 7 seed Terps are supposed to be cowed before tangling with overall No. 1 seed and reigning national champion Notre Dame in Monday’s NCAA Tournament final at noon at Lincoln Financial Field, they refuse to give in — or give up.

“They’ve had a great year, and we know that,” senior attackman Daniel Kelly, a Towson resident and Calvert Hall graduate, said of the Fighting Irish. “But for our group, we’re focused on ourselves. Just putting our best foot forward on Monday, and we know who we’re going against. We’re going to watch a lot of film and we’re going to be ready to go. But for us, we have a group of 50 guys that believe in one another. We’ve had ups and downs, but we do truly believe that we’re here for a reason and that we can get this done.”

Added coach John Tillman: “We know the spot we’re in. We get it. The only thing we can do is control what we do. I know they’re really good, but I have great faith in our guys, I have great faith in our coaches. We’re going to go in and just prepare as hard as we can. I feel like if we can play to our potential, we have a chance against anybody.”

That’s not to say upending the Fighting Irish (15-1) is impossible for Maryland (11-5). Since the NCAA Tournament debuted in 1971, 14 No. 1 seeds have lost in the title game and 10 of them entered the final with no more than one loss in their respective seasons.

And Georgetown spoiled any chance of Notre Dame going undefeated by completing an 11-10 win in overtime on Feb. 25 in South Bend, Indiana.

But that’s where the cracks in the armor seem to end. The Fighting Irish have strung together 13 straight victories — a streak that began with a 14-9 win against the visiting Terps on March 3.

Notre Dame is the only team at the Division I level ranked in the top seven in offense (15.7 goals per game), defense (9.2 goals) and faceoff win percentage (.586) and has scored at least 10 goals in every game this spring. And seven opponents suffered their most lopsided setbacks of the season against the Fighting Irish, including No. 5 seed Denver in a 13-6 loss in Saturday’s national semifinal.

That resume helps explain why some in the sport might view Monday’s proceedings as an inevitable coronation. But Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan dismissed that notion filtering down to the players and coaches.

“I think our players have embraced the idea that we are doing a good job of showing up and competing and trying to put our best foot forward,” he said. “I hope they’re not sitting around thinking about the totality of the season and everything else. There’s enough to do with what’s in front of us every day. All of that other stuff is for another time and for other people. Our guys and our staff and everybody, we’re just focused on what we need to do today so that we’re ready to go tomorrow.”

The Fighting Irish’s thorough dominance is reminiscent of the Maryland team that ran over its competition en route to forging the first 18-0 record in NCAA Division I history and capturing the 2022 title — the program’s fourth.

“Obviously, that ‘22 team was darn good, and Notre Dame’s is really good, too. So I can see why people might think that because [the Fighting Irish] just kind of do what they do, and they do it really well,” Tillman acknowledged. “They’re definitely not the most complicated team. You kind of know what’s coming, but they’re so good that you know it’s coming, and it’s just hard to stop because they are talented and the coaches have put in excellent schemes. Whether it’s offense, defense or the middle of the field, they’re really good there.”

If the Terps hope to reverse that setback in March, they must get a solid performance from their defensive midfield. In that loss, the starting midfield of graduate student Devon McLane, freshman Jordan Faison and senior Eric Dobson combined for six goals and seven assists.

In Saturday’s 12-6 upset of No. 6 seed Virginia, Maryland shut out the Cavaliers’ first midfield.

A year ago, Notre Dame was the No. 3 seed and (somewhat) surprised No. 1 seed Duke, 13-9, to collect its second national championship. The team has been in the position of the hunted all season, but graduate student defenseman Marco Napolitano waved off the idea that the pressure is on him and his teammates.

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“The way that we’ve been thinking about it, we just have one game versus Maryland,” he said. “If we come into it with that sort of attitude and approach, I think there’s basically no pressure. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day, and I think we’ve seen that throughout the entire season. So if we just come in with that approach, we’ll be successful.”

While the Fighting Irish boasts seven returning starters from last year’s title game, the Terps have only three from their championship team: graduate student goalkeeper Logan McNaney, senior defenseman Ajax Zappitello and senior midfielder Eric Malever. And because they participated in the second semifinal on Saturday, they will have had less time to recover and prepare for Monday’s final.

But Kelly, who was a member of the 2022 NCAA title squad, remained undaunted.

“We know what it takes to win in May, and we know what it takes to win a national championship,” he said. “So I think it helps a lot. But right now, we’re just focused on our preparation and putting our best foot forward on Monday.”

NCAA Tournament final

Notre Dame vs. Maryland

At Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

Monday, noon