FOXBOROUGH - They've won nearly as many NCAA men's lacrosse titles between them (17) as the rest of the Division 1 schools combined, but who'd have guessed that they'd be the last two varsities standing this afternoon?
Johns Hopkins, the defending champion, lost five of its first eight games and risked missing the tournament for the first time since 1971. And Syracuse, after coming off its worst season in more than three decades, had to rally from five goals down to beat Virginia, 12-11, in double overtime in Saturday's semifinals.
"Syracuse has done a lot of what we've done," said Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, whose fifth-seeded Blue Jays (11-5) will meet the third-seeded Orange (15-2) in the championship game at Gillette Stadium. "Both teams have done a lot of soul-searching, hit some potholes, and overcome them."
The Orange pothole came last year, when they went 5-8 and missed making the tournament for the first time since 1982. This season, Syracuse came busting out of the gate, took back-to-back overtime decisions from Georgetown and Hopkins, and went on to win 10 in a row.
"We won some big games early and gained a lot of confidence," said coach John Desko, whose squad has lost only once (to Colgate) since March 1. "I don't think we felt as desperate as we did a year ago."
Hopkins did its soul-searching at midseason, after five straight losses and an ugly 17-6 defeat at Duke made it likely they'd fail to qualify for the NCAAs. Since then, the Blue Jays have won eight in a row, including a 10-9 semifinal decision over the top-seeded Blue Devils.
Olympic hockey goalie Jim Craig reminded the Hopkins players in a day-before pep talk that the Americans had been blitzed by the Soviets just before they went to Lake Placid, but had rebounded to beat them in the medal round. This game, Craig said, would be the Blue Jays' legacy.
"Hats off to Hopkins," saluted Duke coach John Danowski, whose squad had lost only one of 19 games. "Those kids are warriors."
The Blue Jays, who'll be playing for the title for the fourth time in six years, have a raptor's instinct for the jugular. Against Duke, attackman Kevin Huntley scored with .2 seconds left in the third period. Then, just 28 seconds after their rivals had drawn even with 7:07 to play, Hopkins scored on the Blue Devils' only penalty of the game.
"They beat us," acknowledged Danowski. "Simple as that."
Beating Syracuse, which is playing in its sixth final in 10 years but its first since 2004, will be a huge holiday task. The Orange came from three goals down to pluck the Blue Jays, 14-13, in overtime in their mid-March victory, their first in Baltimore in a decade.
"They played us and they beat us, so they come into this game knowing they're the favorite," said Pietramala, whose squad will be playing Syracuse in the final for the fifth time, but the first since 1989.
The Orange looked all but dead in their semi against second-seeded Virginia, trailing by four goals with 12:30 to play before attackman Mike Leveille scored three of his five goals, including the winner as he was being knocked down. "We have great respect for Syracuse and their tradition," said Pietramala. "It's no surprise to us that they were able to win."
Nor to the Orange that the Blue Jays were able to come out of their midseason tailspin to play for yet another title. Hopkins has won nine of them now, including two of the last three. Syracuse, which claimed three of its eight between 2000 and 2004, wants badly to get back into the championship habit.
"It's been an up-and-down stretch for us," said Leveille. "We're just excited that our last game is going to be the championship game."
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.