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NCAA lacrosse tournaments begin this weekend

University of Massachusetts goalie #42 Tim McCormack reads

University of Massachusetts goalie #42 Tim McCormack reads Drexel University's offense in the third period. (April 14, 2012) Credit: James Escher

DURHAM, N.C. -- The power in college lacrosse long has been concentrated among a few schools. This might be the year that changes.

Neither of the No. 1 seeds in the 16-team men's and women's tournaments have won national championships. They begin pursuit of those titles this weekend when the first rounds are held at sites across the country.

Men's No. 1 seed Loyola of Maryland (15-1) has won just one NCAA tournament game since 2001 and hasn't reached the Final Four since 1998. Women's No. 1 Florida (17-2) is in just its third year of existence.

They're the top challengers to a power structure that has been dominated by the biggest names in the sport.

Eight schools have combined to win every title since the NCAA began crowning men's lacrosse champions in 1971. In the past 20 years, only four women's teams -- Maryland, Northwestern, Virginia and Princeton -- have won championships.

"Maybe with the exception of a couple of teams, everybody has a few losses. I don't see that much of a difference from the first team in country to the 16th," Syracuse men's coach John Desko said. "Parity in Division I lacrosse is here, and you can see it in this tournament."

The men's bracket includes plenty of those familiar names: No. 2 seed Johns Hopkins (11-3), No. 3 seed Duke (13-4), No. 4 seed Notre Dame (11-2) and defending champion Virginia (11-3), the No. 5 seed. But there are some capable challengers in the mix, too -- namely, No. 6 seeded Massachusetts (15-0), the only unbeaten team in the field.

"Of course there's expectations, but I think these guys have expectations of themselves more than anything," UMass coach Greg Cannella said. "I don't think they're concerned with the outside expectations. They want to make sure that they can look at the guy next to them and know that he's going to be ready to play."

Duke became the newest member of that exclusive men's championship club in 2010 when it won its only national title -- but the Blue Devils are the only program in Division I to reach the last five Final Fours.

They've made it there every year since John Danowski took over in the summer of 2006, when the program was embroiled in the infamous, since-debunked rape case that was brought against three players, and he says that's when the roots of this current run of success were planted.

"One of the things about being here in 2006-07 is that you learned how to live in the moment and just take one day at a time," Danowski said.

"And I think that was a great life lesson for myself and for all of us that experienced that year. So I think we kind of coach with that kind of in mind. ... We don't look back and see what we accomplished, because that's unimportant to this team at this time."

The Cavaliers will open defense of their title against Princeton. Virginia hasn't been playing its best lacrosse to end the season and is 0-3 versus the Tigers in the NCAA tournament. But Cavaliers All-American Steele Stanwick isn't overly concerned.

"I think we have an experienced group and we try not to look too far into things and we realize that May is when it really matters and May is when you've got to be playing your best lacrosse," he said. "So in the sense that we haven't played our best lacrosse yet, that is something we can take from last year -- that anything can happen in this tournament."

On the women's side, Florida's rapid rise from neophyte to national power has been remarkable.

The Gators became just the second third-year program to climb to No. 1 in the coaches' poll, after knocking off powerhouse Northwestern in the American Lacrosse Conference championship game. The Wildcats have won six of the last seven NCAA crowns with the only blemish being a loss to Maryland in the 2010 title game.

"These young women were trailblazers," Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said. She said athletic director Jeremy Foley spoke at a recent dinner at the school and "just reiterated the fact that they came here with nothing. We had nothing to show them.

We had no tradition, no field -- we had nothing, and they had to believe in what we were going to provide them. And after the last game, the ALC championship, they said, 'Definitely, Jeremy Foley delivered.'

"They could have gone anywhere in the country, but they decided to come here, make a mark on this program, and I certainly think they set a standard and one that we're just really proud of," she added.

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