Science and the calendar notwithstanding, summer begins Memorial Day weekend. Pools open, beaches are mobbed, and fallen heroes are honored.
The easing of pandemic restrictions figures to magnify this year’s family and community gatherings.
Team Teel will participate in many such activities, including a cookout where we’ll see some family for the first time in more than a year. But as usual, our sports-mad household will also keep an eye on the television(s).
Not because of the NBA or NHL playoffs, both of which can be addictive, or Major League Baseball, the Indy 500 or Coca-Cola 600.
No, we’ll be tracking two of our favorite niche sports: postseason college softball and lacrosse, and the involvement of state and ACC schools heightens the interest.
Lacrosse and softball are certainly different, but they share a rapid-fire pace that’s wildly entertaining, and come the NCAA tournament, they’re replete with tension and walk-offs — three of last week’s four men’s lacrosse quarterfinals went to sudden-death overtime.
Lacrosse hit my radar as an 11-year-old in 1970, when our family moved to Baltimore from the Jersey Shore. I stuck to baseball and basketball, but my two closest high school friends played lacrosse and helped UMBC win the 1980 Division II national championship.
The first 15 Division I men’s NCAA finals, from 1971 to 1985, included at least one Maryland team, and four were all-Maryland affairs. My godson and goddaughter played lacrosse in high school and at Bucknell.
So, yeah, I’ve seen a lot of lacrosse — in person and on television.
In 2010, I married a former Division III catcher, and Jill’s viewing habits hooked me on college softball. The mound is crazy close, the pitchers throw wicked hard, and the defense behind them is often exceptional.
The NCAA softball tournament is down to the super regionals, the sport’s equivalent of the Sweet 16, with James Madison and Virginia Tech, plus 2018 national champion Florida State from the ACC, still in the mix.
The Dukes dominate the Colonial Athletic Association, a far cry from the softball powers in the SEC and Pac-12, but dismissing them is unwise. This is their third super regional in the last five NCAA tournaments, and in those postseasons they’ve defeated programs such as Tennessee, Michigan and North Carolina.
Entering the best-of-three super regional Friday-Sunday at Missouri, JMU (37-1) leads the nation in winning percentage, is riding a 27-game victory streak, and its only setback was 5-4 to Elon in the back end of a late-March doubleheader delayed four hours by weather.
Conversely, Virginia Tech is among the final 16 for the first time since 2008, when All-American Angela Tincher pitched the Hokies to the Women’s College World Series. Like 13 years ago, this squad has an undisputed ace.
Keely Rochard is the ACC pitcher of the year, and she threw three complete games in as many days, 344 pitches in all, as Tech swept the regional in Tempe, Ariz., last week. No one familiar with her career at Warhill High School in Williamsburg is surprised.
As a senior in 2017, Rochard threw a 282-pitch complete game in a 1-0, 18-inning victory over Brookville in the state championship game. Her pitching rival that afternoon, Jordan Dail, was a travel-ball teammate who also signed with the Hokies — she transferred to Oregon after one season.
But as talented and durable as Rochard is, super regional opponent UCLA is even better in the circle. The tournament’s No. 2 overall seed and the 2019 NCAA champions, the Bruins lead the nation in team ERA at 1.21.
Adding to Tech’s challenge Thursday-Saturday in Los Angeles: UCLA is 28-1 at home this season, the only defeat to Washington, which travels to top-seeded Oklahoma in the super regionals.
While Jill sold me on softball, she required no convincing on lacrosse. Long a fan, she embraced road trips to games as my idea of a quality date.
This weekend, ACC teams comprise three of the four semifinalists in both the men’s and women’s lacrosse tournaments.
On the women’s side Friday, Boston College faces undefeated North Carolina, followed by Syracuse versus unbeaten Northwestern of the Big Ten. Saturday the men command center stage, with Virginia against North Carolina, followed by Duke versus the Big Ten’s Maryland.
Only Maryland’s quarterfinal overtime conquest of Notre Dame foiled the first all-ACC Final Four in any sport. And of all the schools to do it — the Terps were charter ACC members but defected in 2014.
Virginia owns six NCAA championships, UNC five, but unlike the Tar Heels, the Cavaliers have never repeated. After UVA’s 2019 national title and the 2020 tournament’s cancellation, this weekend provides an opportunity to make program history.
But the chance to extend Virginia’s reign isn’t foremost on coach Lars Tiffany’s mind.
“The most exciting facet of earning a spot into our championship weekend,” he said, “is simply having more time together as a team … especially so this year, due to the fact of all the COVID protocols. … It’s liberating to again … make that human connectivity that’s so important.”
As we all regain varying forms of routine, Tiffany’s sentiment rings oh so true.