Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ernie, Are You There?

The Duke lockerroom and the Notre Dame lockerroom underneath M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore yesterday evening were separated by about 10 yards in distance and about 10 light-years in emotion.

The Notre Dame players came out of their room, dressed in suits and ties, holding bags and sticks, with glassy eyes, saying nothing. To get to their bus, they had to go to the left, a path that took them past where Duke was celebrating its first NCAA men's lacrosse championship.

The Duke players, in 180 degree contrast to the Irish, were all smiles, all laughs, all hugs, all screams. They wore hats and t-shirts that said "2010 NCAA Men's Lacrosse Champion" on them.

At the end of a steamy day in Baltimore, it was all so simple: Duke won, Notre Dame lost. For those keeping score, it was 6-5 Blue Devils in the lowest scoring Division I men's lacrosse final ever.

Princeton coach Chris Bates said after the Irish defeated Princeton 8-5 in the opening round that "the finality of it was hard to stomach." It's even more final at the final, especially one that went the way that yesterday's did.

Notre Dame was led by its horse, goalie Scott Rodgers, who made 15 saves and became the first player from the team that did not win the championship to earn Most Outstanding Player honors since Michael Watson of Virginia won in 1996 after scoring five goals in the Cavs' 13-12 loss to Princeton in the championship game.

Still, there was nothing Rodgers could do to change the ending, not when Duke longstick C.J. Costabile won the overtime face-off clean, got a step to the inside and then ripped one into the top of the goal just five seconds into the overtime.

TigerBlog stood in the hallway between the two lockerrooms for about 15 minutes after the game ended and just marveled at the contrast. It's hard enough to get all the way to the final and lose; it's even more crushing to do so in overtime.

Princeton has won four of its six NCAA men's lacrosse titles in overtime, and the euphoria is unmatched. So is the drama that builds to it.

In the case of the Notre Dame-Duke final, the overtime - and Notre Dame's chances at the title - were gone in a blink.

TigerBlog saw all four Notre Dame playoff games (and three of Duke's), and he can't remember seeing a goalie who carried his team through a tournament the way Rodgers did. The end was almost unfair for him, as it was an unstoppable shot that came whistling at him off the draw. TB was pretty sure before the OT that Notre Dame was going to win, because he thought that Rodgers and his defense would stifle any 6-on-6 situation. Turns out that it never came to that.

For lacrosse, the weekend in Baltimore was a pretty good one, with 44,389 for the semifinals Saturday, 20,734 for the Division III and Division II finals Sunday and 37,126 for the final Monday.

For TB, this Final Four was the 16th in the last 19 years that he has been to, including each of the last seven. The only years in that stretch he's missed are 1995, 1999 and 2003, the only ones between 1992 and 2004 that Princeton was not in.

In those 19 years, the final has been decided by one goal 11 times, or nearly 60% of the time. Of those 19, six have gone to overtime.

Can any other championship event match that level of closeness and drama year-in, year-out?

Another beautiful part of the tournament is that, unlike maybe any other major sporting event (defined as drawing huge crowds to a major venue and being shown on ESPN or another major network), there is so little of the excess that destroys so many others.

There are not endless TV timeouts. There isn't a 9 p.m. start with an end that goes well past 11. There is hardly a sense of over-commercialization. The games are the show; they're not turned into a sidebar in favor of the production itself.

Even instant replay wasn't overused. In fact, there was one time in the five games that replay was used, and it was to confirm the fact that a goal came after the halftime horn for the D-II title game. There was no delay in the game, no destroying the flow of the play, no obvious attempt by the refs to make themselves bigger than the event.

Since 2005, TB has worked doing stats at the Final Four along with other members of the Princeton staff. It's a great way to spend Memorial Day weekend, and he's had a perfect view of some of the greatest games the sport has had.

The stat booth featured one person who did the entering on the computer, one person who called out the stats, one person on the headset to the TV truck, one person doing player participation and another on the headset to the field to confirm goals, assists and penalties and to give the person who entered the stats the updated season goal and assist totals. That last person was TigerBlog Jr., who was working his fifth Final Four.

TBJ had his headset on, and he in four of five games he was talking to Johns Hopkins Association Athletic Director Ernie Larossa, who was on the field. TBJ, ever diligent, spent much of the weekend making sure that Larossa was at his post, with a constant confirmation of "Ernie, are you there? Ernie, are you there?"

TB will remember the 2010 Final Four mostly for two things. The first is "Ernie, are you there," which will come to be a symbol of how much TB, TBJ and the rest of the people who work there enjoy the event.

The other is going to the silent ND players and the jubilant Duke ones, in their parallel universes separated by a short distance.

It's the way it works at the NCAA men's lacrosse championships, TigerBlog's favorite annual sporting event.

Of course, having Princeton in it next year would be okay as well.

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