As usual, the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse Final Four has a distinct Long Island flavor. But with Dylan Molloy (Setauket, St. Anthony’s), the nation’s leading scorer, unlikely to play for Brown because of a broken foot, the local spotlight falls on two starting goalies, one in each of Saturday’s semifinals at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Jack Kelly (West Islip) is a four-year starter and two-year captain for Brown who leads the nation with a 61.7 save percentage. He’ll be challenged by the patient, mistake-free offense of top-seeded Maryland, which has won 15 straight.
Brian Balkam (St. James, Smithtown East), is a sophomore in his first season as a full-time starter. Balkam has been very solid down the stretch for North Carolina, which faces another sizzling team in Loyola (Maryland), which is on a 10-game winning streak.
“Jack is as mentally tough a man as I’ve ever coached,” Brown coach Lars Tiffany said. “He never lets his guard down. He is a phenomenal leader emotionally and tactically. He’s a great stopper and also a field general.”
While Kelly took over cage duties as a freshman, Balkam had to grow into the role.
“He was nervous, he was anxious when he started the season,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “But he had to learn along with the rest of the guys. Being consistent is where he’s improved the most. His confidence and his command of the defense in front of him has really improved.”
Maryland vs. Brown: Brown coach Lars Tiffany playfully called this a “tortoise vs. the hare” matchup, punning off Maryland’s nickname Terrapins (turtles).
“We accept turnovers with our home-run feeds and aggressive plays,” he said of the Bruins, who push the pace and lead the nation with 16.4 goals per game. “Maryland is patient on offense. They’re not reckless like we are. They don’t make mistakes.”
The Terps have made the Final Four five times in the last six years, but their last NCAA title was in 1975. The Bruins’ last Final Four was 1994 and they have never won the championship.
North Carolina vs. Loyola: The Tar Heels turned things around after a 3-3 start and reached their first Final Four since 1993 with a team that was unseeded and unheralded entering the tournament.
“The star power may not be there, but they are making a name for themselves now,” UNC coach Joe Breschi said of a team that features a quick-strike offense averaging 12.7 goals. Loyola, the 2012 NCAA champion, has won 10 straight and features a top-10 defense and an offense led by the nation’s best freshman, attack Pat Spencer.
Tiffany said Molloy was in a boot on the sideline at practice and called it “highly unlikely” that the former Newsday All-Long Island selection would play. Molloy had 60 goals with 54 assists for 114 points, the fourth-highest single-season total in Division I history. But the Bruins still have firepower in Kylor Bellistri (62 goals) and Henry Blynn (50 goals) and All-Ivy goalie Kelly. Maryland’s offense is led by Matt Rambo (39 goals), with the defense anchored by All-Big 10 goalie Kyle Bernlohr.
North Carolina’s Steve Pontrello has scored 45 goals, and the Tar Heels have outstanding middies in Jake Matthai and Mike Tagliaferri. Loyola’s Spencer is the focal point of the offense with 47 assists, second nationally to Molloy, and 36 goals. Linemate Zach Herreweyers — “Robin to Pat’s Batman,” coach Charley Toomey said — has 34 goals.
The Greyhounds have been much better since inserting freshman Jacob Stover in goal midway through the season. He is second to Kelly with a 59.1 save percentage.
The faceoff ‘X’ is frequently the spot where big games are decided. Brown’s Will Gural is No. 2 nationally with a 70.8 winning percentage and could give the Bruins more possessions. Maryland freshman Austin Henningsen (Northport) is No. 12 at 61.6. North Carolina’s Stephen Kelly is No. 15 at 59 percent has the edge on Loyola’s Graham Savio (No. 36, 53 percent).
NCAA DIVISION I MEN’S LACROSSE FINAL FOUR
Saturday, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Noon, North Carolina (10-6) vs. Loyola (14-3), ESPN2
2:30 p.m., Brown (16-2) vs. Maryland (16-2), ESPN2
Monday, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Brown-Maryland winner vs. North Carolina-Loyola winner
1 p.m., ESPN2