Memorial Day weekend has meant a road trip for Patriots coach Bill Belichick in recent years, but he'll be right at home this weekend.
Instead of traveling to see the NCAA Division 1 lacrosse Final Four, he can simply walk the few hundred yards from his office to the Gillette Stadium playing field to see the showcase event.
The action begins tomorrow when third-seeded Syracuse faces No. 2 seed Virginia at noon. Top-seeded Duke meets No. 5 seed Johns Hopkins at 2:30 p.m.
"I'm excited about it," Belichick said yesterday. "I love the sport, and you couldn't ask for four more established, tradition-rich teams. It's good to see that quality of lacrosse and the caliber of players coming up here."
Belichick said he's enjoyed seeing the growth of lacrosse in New England, and reflected on his own playing days, at Phillips Academy, Andover, then at Wesleyan University.
When Belichick returned to New England in 1996 as a Patriots assistant, he noticed that the popularity of lacrosse had spread. Most recently, when Gillette Stadium was bidding to host the Final Four in 2008 and '09, Belichick gladly supported the effort.
Belichick's roots in lacrosse trace to when he was growing up in Annapolis, Md. The Naval Academy dominated college lacrosse throughout the 1960s, and Belichick not only enjoyed watching the sport, but also seeing many of the school's football players excel on the lacrosse field.
Belichick picked up the sport in the seventh grade, and he's passed on his passion to his children - Amanda, Stephen, and Brian - helping coach their youth teams. Amanda is the girls' lacrosse coach at the Choate Rosemary Hall School in Wallingford, Conn.; Stephen is a freshman on the Rutgers lacrosse squad; and Brian is playing at the high school level.
Past trips to the Final Four have usually been family excursions, and this year figures to be the same.
"It's worked out well because their seasons are over, and everybody kind of has that fever," Belichick said. "Another nice part is some of the connections to different teams and coaches, which makes it fun, too, when you know some of the coaches, or have family and friends who went to the schools."
At the 2004 Final Four, for example, Belichick spoke to the Navy players prior to their semifinal win over Princeton. That same year, he met Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala for the first time. The two discovered they have mutual friends, such as Patriots assistant coach Pete Mangurian, who was head football coach at Cornell when Pietramala was the lacrosse coach at the school. Pietramala has since been a visitor at Patriots training camp, with Belichick carving time out of his offseason schedule to watch the Blue Jays play.
Belichick, who was scheduled to speak at the NCAA Final Four dinner last night, said part of the appeal of lacrosse is that "it's fast, there is contact, there is skill with the stickwork, and when you combine those elements, it makes it pretty exciting."
He believes this weekend's Final Four, which also includes the Division 2 and 3 championships, will feature "probably the best lacrosse that the sport has to offer."
"Not to take anything away from the professional level, because there are a lot of talented players there, but in college there are a lot more practices. You don't have the same kind of time to commit to coaching and preparation that you see in college lacrosse," he said. "These guys have been playing for a long time, they're well-coached, and they've been in a lot of big games.
"It's the height of competition in their sport."