SCHENECTADY — Playing in a national championship game will be fresh ground for the Union men’s lacrosse team.
Playing RIT will not.
As the Dutchmen began preparation on Tuesday afternoon with their first practice since defeating York 11-8 in the NCAA Division III semifinals last Sunday, they looked forward to a new experience while also trying to put together a gameplan to beat a team that they know all too well.
This they also know: RIT has beaten Union 20 straight times and owns a 25-3 record overall in the history of the matchup. The stakes have never been higher between the Liberty League rivals, so the prep work this week will strive for a balance between getting ready for the biggest game of the Dutchmen’s lives while also trying to figure out how to beat the Tigers.
“There’s some familiarity there,” Union head coach Derek Witheford said.
The national championship game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.
Union is 18-2, with a 14-13 loss to defending national champion RIT on April 9 and a 15-9 loss to St. Lawrence in the Liberty League Tournament on May 4.
The Tigers are 21-1, losing to RPI 13-12 on April 2.
The Dutchmen received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and have won four straight to reach the championship game.
Last weekend was particularly grueling, with a last-second 14-13 win over Gettysburg on Saturday in the quarterfinals and the win over York a day later, followed by a bus ride back from Newport News, Virginia.
“We need to be crisp [in practice], and we need to be laser-focused, because we’ve got a big task ahead of us,” Witheford said. “I think we’ll be mentally prepared, physically, from a rough weekend this past weekend. We’ve got to recover as fast as we can and just stay focused.”
Since Union has never reached a national championship game, Witheford has enlisted colleagues at all levels of college lacrosse for advice.
He also thanked the Union athletic administration and some alumni for lightening his load on the off-the-field logistical challenges. That should allow the Dutchmen to concentrate on solving the RIT puzzle.
“It’s definitely one,” Witheford said, of the psychological hump the Dutchmen need to hurdle. Union hasn’t beaten RIT since March 8, 2008.
“It presents a unique challenge, and I think it’s one they’re looking forward to,” Witheford said. “When they saw RIT’s name, I think they wanted to redeem themselves.
”I’m very proud of this team, and we can’t wait to compete on Sunday.”