Previewing the NCAA men's and women's lacrosse final four weekends

Memorial Day weekend, often viewed as the unofficial start of summer, is a big one for fans of many sports. For lacrosse aficionados, it’s the biggest.

The collegiate season wraps up with championship weekend, with women’s Division I semifinals set for Friday in Cary, North Carolina., and the men taking the stage Saturday in Philadelphia.

Though still most popular in the eastern part of the country, the sport’s niche has become more national in recent decades thanks to tremendous expansion at the youth and high school levels as well as increased TV visibility. If you’re a follower of the sport you already know this, of course. But if you’re new to the game and happen upon it while channel surfing this weekend, do stick around. You might like what you see, whether it’s a program bringing home its first title or an established power adding to its trophy case. Either way, here’s what you need to know.

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NCAA men’s lacrosse semifinals

No. 1 Duke (15-2) vs. No. 5 Penn State (11-4)

Time/TV: Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2.

How they got here: Duke – Defeated Delaware 12-11, Michigan 15-8; Penn State – Defeated Princeton 13-12, Army 10-9.

National championships: Duke three (last 2014), Penn State none.

Players to watch: Duke – A Brennan O’Neill (51 G, 40 A); A Dyson Williams (57 G, 4 A). Penn State – A T.J. Malone (33 G, 31 A); M Matt Traynor (30 G, 7 A).

Notable: The Blue Devils head a trio of ACC representatives in the semifinals, a far cry from last year when the entire league was shut out of Championship Weekend. … This is the Nittany Lions second semifinal berth, but they’re in a somewhat different position this time as underdogs than in 2019, when they came in as the No. 1 seed but were upended by defending champion Yale. … If nothing else, the Lions are accustomed to close finishes. Five of their last six games have been decided by margins of two goals or fewer. … Keeping tabs on Duke’s O’Neill, one of three men’s Tewaaraton finalists who will be in action Saturday, could be a challenge for Penn State, especially if standout defenseman Jack Posey, who left last week’s quarterfinal win against Army with an apparent leg injury, is unavailable.

No. 2 Virginia (13-3) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-2)

Time/TV: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2.

How they got here: Virginia – Defeated Richmond 17-8, Georgetown 17-14; Notre Dame – Defeated Utah 20-7, Johns Hopkins 12-9.

National championships: Virginia seven (last 2021), Notre Dame none.

Players to watch: Virginia – A Connor Shellenberger (27 G, 51 A); A Xander Dickson (60 G, 21 A). Notre Dame – A Pat Kavanagh (23 G, 50 A); M Eric Dobson (28 G, 10 A).

Notable: The good news for the Fighting Irish as they seek that elusive first title is they enter the semifinals with just two losses on the season. The bad news? Both came at the hands of Virginia. … The Cavaliers look to bring home the trophy for the third time in the last four NCAA tournaments held. A constant during that stretch for UVa dating back to 2019 has been veteran face-off man Petey LaSalla. He sports a .561 win percentage this year while adding 11 goals and an assist. … Pat Kavanagh, Notre Dame’s Tewaaraton candidate, was limited to a single assist by Johns Hopkins last week. But his brother Chris, who has 43 goals on the season, and the deep Irish midfield took up the slack.

Championship game: Monday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN.

Virginia attack Connor Shellenberger (1) moves the ball against Maryland defender Nick Grill (54) during the second half in the NCAA men's lacrosse championship game at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.

NCAA women’s lacrosse semifinals

No. 1 Northwestern (19-1) vs. No. 5 Denver (22-0)

Time/TV: Friday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU

How they got here: Northwestern – Defeated Michigan 8-7, Loyola (Md.) 16-6; Denver – Defeated Southern California 10-7, Albany 8-6, North Carolina 5-4.

National championships: Northwestern seven (last 2012), Denver none.

Players to watch: Northwestern – A Izzy Scane (89 G, 31 A); A Erin Coykendall (53 G, 45 A). Denver – A Julia Gilbert (58 G, 10 A); G Emelia Bohi (6.00 GAA, .526 Sv%).

Notable: The seven titles amassed by the Wildcats under coach Kelly Amonte Hiller since the program’s reboot in 2000 are hard to ignore. But while the Pioneers are making their first semifinal appearance, their quarterfinal win that eliminated defending champion North Carolina was the 300th career victory for coach Liza Kelly between her 17-year tenure at DU and her prior five-year stint at Boston University. … These are arguably the hottest teams in the field. The Wildcats dropped a 16-15 decision to Syracuse way back on Feb. 11 in the season opener and haven’t lost since, while the Pioneers’ undefeated mark includes wins against fellow semifinalist Boston College and perennial power Maryland. … It’s safe to say these teams win in very different ways. The Wildcats are the highest scoring squad in the nation at 17 goals a game, while DU leads the country in scoring defense surrendering just 5.82 goals per contest. Scane and Coykendall, both finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, are joined on the Wildcats’ prolific attack by Hailey Rhatigan (55 G, 11 A). The pressuring Pioneers’ defense is spearheaded by Sam Thacker, who has amassed 53 caused turnovers, 55 ground balls and 41 draw controls this season.

No. 2 Syracuse (18-2) vs. No. 3 Boston College (18-3)

Time/TV: Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU

How they got here: Syracuse – Defeated Johns Hopkins 25-8, James Madison 13-7. Boston College – Defeated Penn 9-7, Notre Dame 20-6.

National championships: Boston College one (2021), Syracuse none.

Players to watch: Syracuse – A Meaghan Tyrell (55 G, 52 A); A Emma Ward (36 G, 56 A). Boston College – A Jenn Medjid (77 G, 24 A); M Belle Smith (49 G, 31 A

Notable: The Orange women are no strangers to championship weekend as they prepare for their eighth semifinal appearance, but they’re still trying to break through for their first title. They’ve reached the final three times but come up short, most recently in 2021 when Boston College claimed its first crown. … Eagles’ coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein, in her 11th season helming the BC program, has participated in 19 of the last 20 NCAA tournaments including her time as a player at Maryland and an assistant for Amonte Hiller at Northwestern. … Kayla Treanor, a former standout player for Syracuse in her own right, is in her second year as head coach since taking the reins when Gary Gait moved down the hall to coach the Orange men’s team. … There won’t be many secrets between these ACC rivals. The Eagles took this year’s regular season meeting 17-16 on April 20, so another high-scoring contest could be on tap.

Championship game: Sunday, noon ET, ESPN.