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February 28, 2011

Making Sense: Conquering the Double Down

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Even if you're a traditional MCLA power like Colorado State, sometimes it's best to take a knee and look to a higher power to win a weekend Double Down. It worked for the Rams this past weekend as they took down No. 9 Cal Poly and No. 11 UC Santa Barbara.

An MCLA team hops on a plane and travels hundreds, if not thousands of miles, for the chance to play the kind of high-quality competition that makes the selection committee swoon. There is nothing terribly interesting about that. But what if a team does so while also putting itself at a massive competitive disadvantage?

That's when we have the Double Down.

The Double Down occurs when a lone team travels to play two games in the span of two or three days against ranked teams while the hosts clear their schedule for that one game. The first glimpse of the phenomenon this year was when a ranked Florida team went up to play No. 1 Michigan on a Saturday and No. 7 Michigan State on a Sunday, with neither of the CCLA teams picking up a second contest. The results: pain.

The latest manifestation of the Double Down was this past weekend, when both No. 3 Colorado State and No. 10 Simon Fraser traveled to California and Utah, respectively. Fraser lost in overtime to No. 23 Utah before getting smashed by No. 4 BYU the following day. CSU, however, conquered their Double Down.

The Rams went into two of the toughest venues to play -- No. 9 Cal Poly and No. 11 UC Santa Barbara -- and came away with the sweep. Colorado State coach Alex Smith doesn't view the Double Down as the optimum scenario, but simply a fact of life in the MCLA.

"I guess it's kind of missing the competitive spirit of it. If someone else is going to go through it, I want to go through it, too," Smith said. "But you've got to get past that, because if you want to get those quality games and get that competition, you've got to play those games in bunches like that. It's kind of what we do in the MCLA."

Nearly all of the contending teams in the MCLA face the Double Down, or a close variation, at some point during the season. It's a stress test. It is, however, a relatively new situation in the association brought about by the increased number of competitive teams. When Colorado State was at its pinnacle and Smith played for the Rams, the concept of creating a competitive disadvantage was laughable.

"You went to one place for one game, and anything else you got around there was gravy," Smith said. "You didn't worry about it, because you were going to walk over whoever it was. We used to go off and play four games in four days or five games in nine days and stuff like that. That's a little ambitious now considering how much better everyone is."

To help his players -- and maybe himself -- forget about the disadvantage, Smith tries to frame the Double Down through the lens of the national tournament, which is a grueling four games in five days.

While he was walking through the Denver airport for the flight to SoCal, a curious person asked if the Rams were heading to a "tournament." Smith wrinkled his nose at the silly idea of playing an in-season lacrosse tournament, but after a while, it made sense.

"That's a weird way to look at it, but that's kind of what we do," he said. "Cal Poly was the semifinals and UCSB was the finals. You have to win two mini-tournaments on back-to-back days to win a national championship, so it fits."

With an attractive travel partner in Colorado just an hour away, Colorado State could undoubtedly used the Double Down to its advantage, but Smith feels it's an inefficient way for MCLA teams to operate. With financial resources a constant concern, luring as many teams to the same spot is the way to go.

"It's to their advantage to get another team in there, too. You want to play the best possible teams you can, so if you're shying away from that, you're missing the boat. I was in constant contact with [Colorado coach] Mike Ryder during the scheduling process all year to make sure we're working on the same teams," Smith said. "If he's working on one team, I'm working on another team. That way we can turn it into a weekend."

Ultimately, Colorado State has the talent and reputation to not only set its own schedule, but overcome many of the competitive disadvantages it faces, such as doubling down on Cal Poly and UCSB in a three-day span.

Where the Double Down will remain a harsh reality is with the fledgling contenders who are trying to get the games they need to be in the at-large hunt, or those geographically isolated. They may not have the gravitas to draw in a fourth team to even out the competition, leaving them with the false choice of finding weaker competition or enduring the Double Down.

"Up and coming teams must play the best possible teams they can play to see how close they really are and find out what they need to work on," Smith said. "You just have to get out there to see where you're at."

Simon Fraser has shown that it's worth the risk. Despite going 1-6 in its last three Double Downs, the Clansmen were able to parlay that experience into a trip to the national semifinals last spring. The team they beat to make the semis: Colorado State.

It's the most difficult, and perhaps unfair, aspect of an MCLA schedule, but doubling down has its rewards.

Game Balls

Vinnie Alexander -- Attack, LeMoyne
Names like Harmatuck and Chadderdon may pop into your mind when you think about the Dolphins offense, but it was this senior who carried the day against Seton Hill, notching three goals and five assists for a career-high eight points. Alexander is nearly a quarter of the way to his entire points total (32) from 2010.

Joe Banno -- Goalie, Haverford
The Black Squirrel offense is trying to find itself -- nine goals in two games -- but the junior made sure the six Haverford markers posted against Cabrini were enough. Banno made 19 saves, including 13 in the first half to keep the Fords close enough in a 6-5, comeback win.

Chad Carroll -- Attack, Michigan
After breezing past Florida in the first game of the season, the Wolverines found themselves in a double overtime affair against Oregon. The senior made sure Michigan walked away with the victory when he potted the game winner -- his fourth goal of the game, along with two assists.

Joe Costello -- Attack, St. Thomas

Big games mean big players, and Joey C. was his usual self with four goals and three assists in the top-ranked Tommies' 13-11 victory over No. 3 Dayton. He also added a combined seven points in wins over UNC-Charlotte and No. 11 Elon in UST's 3-0 weekend.

Nicolas Phillipi
-- Midfield, Stevens

With the score tied at seven against Endicott, the sophomore netted a natural hat trick bridging the third and fourth quarters to spark the Ducks pivotal run that led to the 15-9 victory. Phillipi ended with five goals on the afternoon.

Power Fives
NCAA Division II

1. C.W. Post (5-0) - Eddie Plompen is averaging four-plus goals per game. Things get tougher, however.
2. Le Moyne (1-0) - Le Moyne squares off against Limestone in another intra-regional clash this weekend.
3. Mercyhurst (1-0) - Solid win for the Lakers over a decent Wingate club.
4. Merrimack (1-0) - The Warriors have a big chip in their pocket now that they've knocked off NYIT.
5. Limestone (2-0) - The Saints have mauled teams so far, but let's see what they can do against the Dolphins.

NCAA Division III
1. Tufts (0-0) - Nothing to see here. Move along.
2. Cortland (1-0) - It's really hard to shutout a team, especially an NCAA qualifier from the year before.
3. Salisbury (3-0) - After the grinding win over W&L on Wednesday, the Gulls took the weekend off.
4. Stevenson (3-0) - I'm taking Stevenson over Hood on Wednesday. Anyone want in on that one?
5. Roanoke (2-0) - 'Noke alum Andy Bonasera and Birmingham Southern face the Maroons next week.

MCLA Division I

1. Michigan (2-0) - You never want to play in the rain against the Ducks. (See what I did there?)
2. Arizona State (2-0) - Boston College and A&M shouldn't be much cause for alarm next week.
3. Colorado State (2-0) - Rams get the bump after the grueling road sweep.
4. Chapman (4-0) - Whatever the hype, the Chapman-Michigan games never disappoint.
5. BYU (5-0) - Biggest test of the year on Friday night when No. 8 Duluth comes calling.

MCLA Division II
1. St. Thomas (3-0) - The rest of the Fives should probably be vacated after the Tommies' showing.
2. Davenport (5-0) - The Panthers will take another week off before the stretch run.
3. Western Oregon (5-0) - We'll chalk the Western Washington near-miss to a rivalry game.
4. Dayton (2-1) - Despite the loss, the Flyers proved they could hang. Dayton sticks around.
5. St. John's (3-0) - As expected, the offense may be the Johnnies signature unit this spring.

Slides & Rides

NCAA Division II

- The trip from Long Island back to North Andover, Mass., was more palatable for No. 7 Merrimack and Mike Morgan after the Warriors went into the Bears' den and pulled off an 11-8 victory over No. 5 NYIT. While it was just the first game of the season, there were a lot of postseason implications on the line.

"The difference today was the goalie play by [sophomore Connor] Reagan, our defense and the way we played together on offense," Morgan said. "It was very hard fought by both sides. I think our offseason hard work paid off as the game went on."

Reagan, who was starting his first collegiate game after operating in the shadow of All-American Cory Spinale last spring, finished with 11 saves and, along with the defense, was able to blunt a second-half surge by NYIT. The game was a penalty-filled affair, with 10 of the 19 total goals coming on EMO. Merrimack was 4-for-13 with an extra man, while the Bears were 6-for-11, including three goals in the last 20 minutes. In theory, the Warriors get a little breather, as they will be favored in all six games they play in March. NYIT also has some time to tighten its game before hosting No. 6 Dowling on March 19.

- One score I didn't see coming this weekend was Pfeiffer's 19-3 dismantling of No. 12 St. Leo. Sure, the Falcons were going to be better than last year, when they finished with an 8-9 record, and they might get a little closer than the 12-7 score by which they lost to the Lions in 2010. But a 21-goal swing? What makes the final more bizarre is St. Leo dominated faceoffs. It basically boiled down to shooting accuracy: Pfeiffer converted nearly half their shots, while the Lions were 3-for-42. Obviously, we should give a little credit to Falcon freshman goalie Hayden Kirk, who finished with 19 saves.

- Solid performance by Chestnut Hill's sophomore goalie Dakota Maurer, who had 16 saves in a 13-7 loss to defending champion C.W. Post...They might have lost, 13-6, to Le Moyne, but Seton Hills is making great strides. They might not be in the mix in this, the Griffins' second year in the ECC, but they are on the right trajectory...Next Sunday's game between Le Moyne and Limestone should be very interesting with the way the Saints are scoring...Dowling's Vito DeMola continues his hot hand with six more goals against Wheeling Jesuit after netting seven against Queens... Visiting as many websites as I do, sometimes I stumble upon some interesting items. Wingate's Derek Watts' head shot definitely falls in that category.

NCAA Division III

- The biggest victory over the weekend was Hampden-Sydney's triumph of Gettysburg – a win that will likely vault the Tigers into the top 15 this week. It was a bizarre road victory, as HSC was statistically dominated by the Bullets, including a 2-to-1 advantage in shots, but the Tigers never let the hosts get on a big roll and put the game away. That's what happened last year when Sydney held a 10-9 lead after three quarters, only to watch Gettysburg go on an 8-0 run in the fourth to take the 17-10 victory. There's a long way to go, especially in a power conference like the ODAC, but this win will keep Ray Rostan's club afloat for a long time.

- As partly chronicled in my story Friday about Stevens, faceoffs killed the Ducks last year, as they finished 41 percent as a team. Stevens went 6-for-28 (21 percent) against Endicott in the season opener on Saturday. That's the bad news. The good news? The Ducks outclassed the Gulls, cruising to a 15-9 victory. It's a testament to a solid defense, backstopped by Eric Yando (19 saves), along with an opportunistic offense. Stevens' faceoff unit will get better as it becomes more experienced, which means the Ducks will be tough out. Coach Gene Peluso and Nicolas Phillipi (five goals) talked about the win after the game.

- Alright, it's time to stop doubting the Devils. At least time for me, anyway. I thought Dickinson wouldn't be able to live up to their 2010 accomplishments, and so far they've shoved that down my throat. The 15-7 win over St. Mary's not only showcased the Red Devils talent, but also the high confidence level they have after last year's performance. Montclair State and Roanoke in the next two Saturdays will be testers, but they're games I'm starting to think Dickinson can win.

- Eighth time is the charm for Springfield. After bowing in all previous seven meetings with Nazareth, the Pride finally broke the streak, notching an 11-8 victory over Nazareth. "The key to the win was solid defense; trying not to let their middies get to the goal as well as good, solid slides," said Springfield coach Keith Bugbee. "Also, good ball control and smart, assisted goals." Knowing Springfield's nearly guaranteed spot in the NCAAs through the Pilgrim AQ, the win might look like gravy, but this was an important victory. With games against Endicott, Stevens, Middlebury, Keene State and Bowdoin -- all potential conference champions -- a home seed could be in the offing if the Pride plays with confidence heading into its conference slate.

- Roanoke has scored at least 20 goals in seven of its last nine February games. The only two times it didn't happen were in games against F&M. The Maroons scored 19 both times...The Jim Rogalski era at Scranton started off with a 10-3 win over DeSales...Franc Cook was back in goal for Lynchburg, as the Hornets took care of Ohio Wesleyan, 10-3. Cook finished with 11 saves and went the distance...Washington College has to be pleased with its start. Anytime you can go on the road and beat out a past-year NCAA qualifier -- and likely conference champion -- it qualifies as a good start to the season. The Shoremen showed a strong defense and just enough offense in the 7-6 overtime win over Goucher...Montclair State held a moment of silence for John Greco, who passed away in November, and then proceeded to go out and beat Muhlenberg, 9-5, in the season opener...I'm not sure whether Wittenberg got caught napping after its gritty win over W&L, or if Sewanee has greatly improved, but that 6-5 final for Witt was surprising.

MCLA Division I

- In a game eerily similar to last year's rainy overtime venture in Texas, it took two sessions of extra time for top-ranked Michigan to tame Oregon, 9-8, in Los Angeles. Unlike last year, Oregon entered this encounter with an 0-2 record and unranked in the MCLA poll, although it appears someone forgot to tell the Ducks. Was Wolverine head coach John Paul nervous he might get ambushed? "Sure, nervous. But we've been there before," said Paul, displaying the sanguineness available only to three-time defending champions. "The guys stayed confident."

- As far as the PNCLL goes, this wasn't a weekend to remember. Although they can take some consolation from some narrow margins, the top two contenders for the conference championship – Oregon and No. 10 Simon Fraser – posted a combined 0-4 mark against ranked foes. In addition to the Michigan loss, Oregon lost to No. 5 Chapman while the Clan lost to No. 23 Utah in overtime, 12-11, and then to No. 4 BYU the following day, 16-8. The teams will try to salvage from dignity next weekend when they both host No. 7 Michigan State and the Ducks add No. 18 Sonoma State.

- Are you a half-empty or half-full guy? It's a question for GRLC coaches and players. Half-empty: the GRLC is the worst conference in the MCLA-I and the winner of the league will be Wolverine-bait (aka, the No. 16 seed). Half-full: all of the I-A, and maybe even a couple of I-AA programs, have a crack at the AQ if they can grab one of the six conference tourney spots. What's that World Series of Poker adage: you just need a chip and chair? In the GRLC-I this year, all your team needs is a berth to St. Charles and a bus ride. With that, your team could be cashing in a trip to Denver.

- Is it time for N.C. State to enter the Top 25? I think so. Nothing extravagant, but the No. 25 spot would be a nice fit for this 5-0 team...speaking of the SELC, congrats to Clemson on the solid run, which came to an end via a 19-12 loss to Florida State on Sunday. We'll see the Tigers in the conference tourney...after the loss to Tennessee, it might be time for Florida to start bracing itself for the fact it might not make the SELCs. If they lose to Central Florida – and you have to believe they will – at the end of March, they would need to beat Florida State...damn you, Jayhawks! Actually, congrats. Kansas went up to the Iowa Bubble and knocked off my Hawkeyes along with Iowa State, wrapping up their bid to the GRLC tourney...under the radar win: Minnesota handling Mankato State in the season opener. Nice work by the Gophers.

MCLA Division II

- Dayton coach Charlie Mark is prone to hyperbole. In a story that will also run today about the Dayton-St. Thomas game, Mark said that Tommies' All-American attackman Joe Costello was like Kobe Bryant in some of the things he does on the field. He wasn't done. He also had high praise for Elon junior midfielder Colin Madden, who nearly brought the Phoenix back from a late four-goal deficit before Elon finally fell, 14-13. "He was quick and his change of direction was Casey Powell-like," said Mark. "He stopped short, and then had explosive speed. Very nice right, very nice left. Very tough."

- SCAD's surprising loss to Emory combined with Kennesaw State's win over Tennessee Wesleyan makes it look like the Owls are the biggest threats to Elon's crown at this point...Sam Houston State is doing awful, awful things to the rest of the LSA. I'm still not sure if they can escape the No. 16 seed with that schedule, however...very interesting game between No. 24 Concordia and No. 8 Westminster on Monday.

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