2017 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament First Round
#4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-5) vs Marquette Golden Eagles (8-7)
For the second consecutive season, Marquette finds themselves in the national championship tournament. While they made it in to both the 2016 and 2017 tourneys by way of a Big East tournament championship and an automatic bid, this year’s appearance is much more surprising than last year. In 2016, Marquette was probably getting into the tourney without the Big East title. The wins over Villanova and Denver pushed Marquette to a national seed and a home game, but that was just some last minute shuffling of the deck.
This year, Marquette had no business getting into the 17 team field. They had no significant victories during the regular season and, in fact, actually started the Big East tournament at one game under .500 on the season. Then Marquette went out and stole a win off Denver, the Big East regular season champion and #2 ranked team in the country, and locked up the automatic bid with a triumphant win over Providence in the championship game.
Their reward for this improbable tournament appearance? A rematch with Notre Dame, a team that beat Marquette by just one goal earlier in the season. Marquette had their chances to win that game, as Joe Dunn had knotted it at 10 midway through the fourth quarter. It was ND’s Sergio Perkovic, however, that scored the game winning goal with 23 seconds left for his sixth marker of the game for the Irish.
Yet again, it may be Perkovic (22 G, 7A in 2017) that decides this game. The Michigan native missed Notre Dame’s regular season finale against Army (an overtime loss to the ranked service academy), and he was noticeably hampered in ND’s ACC championship game loss to North Carolina. By the time the game starts on Sunday, it will have been over three weeks off for Perkovic, but his status was still unknown as recently as Sunday when the ESPNU studio crew threw his status into doubt as well as mid-week in our Q&A with 18 Stripes. It’s not just Perkovic who was injured for the Irish, by the way, as Ryder Garnsey, Notre Dame’s leading point scorer, also sat out the Army game. He seems more likely than Perkovic to be ready to play, but Marquette head coach Joe Amplo told the Marquette Wire that he expects both men to be wearing their gold helmets on Sunday.
Other than the status of Notre Dame’s attackers, the other key to this game will almost assuredly be defense. These two squads played an 8-7 overtime game in 2016 before playing that 11-10 game earlier this season. While Sunday’s meeting, perhaps the first in a long line of postseason contests between the Golden Eagles and the Fighting Irish, may have the potential to be one of the, if not the best game of the first round, it’s most likely not going to be a highlight reel of goals. MU’s defensive crew of Jackson Ehlert, Nick “Swear Jar” Eufrasio, and Nick Grill helped goalie Cole Blazer win Most Outstanding Player in the Big East tournament, largely due to shutting down Denver, and they’ll probably need another performance like that to stop Notre Dame.
It’s been a weird season on offense for Marquette, as they don’t have a dominant scorer for the first time since Year 1 of lacrosse in Milwaukee. That first year, Tyler Melnyk and Conor Gately finished within two points of each other, but over the past three season, there’s been at least a 13 point gap between the top scorer and the next best guy. This maxed out last season when Ryan McNamara had 23 more points than Conor Gately. This year, McNamara has the team lead again, but his 33 points on the year (20G, 13A) are just three points better than Tanner Thomson (19G, 11A). Maybe the weirdest thing to see from Marquette this year is that McNamara’s not the leader in goals or assists. The current goals title belongs to Joe Dunn at 23, while Andy DeMichiei’s 15 helpers top that category. Even with that wide variety of shooters and passers on the roster, Sunday’s game could be decided on the shot of Grant Preisler. The senior from Mercer Island, WA, had seven career points coming into this season and seven points through the regular season...... and seven points in the two games of the Big East tournament alone. If Amplo and offensive coordinator Stephen Brundage managed to find a way to keep Preisler doing his Johnny Storm impression for at least one more game, odds are there will be at least one more game after Sunday to play.