Blogs and Commentary

posted 09.14.2012 at 10.01 a.m. by Jac Coyne

NCAA Division III Summer Notebook

There aren't a whole lot of people in Division III who will shed a tear for the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) considering the nearly unfettered access the league had to as many as three Pool B berths on an annual basis. That conference, however, is facing a Catch-22 moving forward now that the addition of DePauw and Hiram have pushed them over the automatic qualifying plateau.

The dilemma? The NCAC teams who have notions of staying in the at-large hunt and/or getting a workable draw in the first round of the tournament – led by the likes of Denison and Ohio Wesleyan – must play a national schedule against teams located a relatively large distance away. At the same time, if the NCAC schools want to get the most out of their budget, they need nearby leagues – the Midwest Lacrosse Conference and the MIAA, in particular – to improve in order to facilitate midweek competition.

That means those leagues need to be playing Denison, OWU and the other competitive programs on a regular basis. But with just 14 dates available and half of those going to league play and another big chunk going to high-end opponents, there's not a whole lot of extra room on the slate.

"The tough thing is getting quality midweek games," said OWU head coach Mike Plantholt. "You can travel on weekends, and people can travel to you, but it gets a little tougher during the week. You have to find teams that are relatively close geographically that will play you on the weekdays that aren't teams you completely roll over."

So does the NCAC have a duty to raise the play of other programs by utilizing one of its open dates against an up-and-coming program, or should its teams be solely looking out for No. 1.

"That's the million dollar question," said Denison head coach Mike Caravana. "You can't play this national schedule and then play a regional schedule. There are only so many games you can play. If you play four national games and seven teams in your league, that only leaves three other dates in the region. That's it. If you're looking at a national schedule like us, you're looking at least two weekends where you're traveling. So you have to play this regional schedule where it's got to be within three hours because it's going to be a midweek game. That becomes challenging."

The Midwest is not entirely bereft of decent programs. It took Denison two overtimes to subdue Adrian, which was then part of the MLC and is now a member of the fledgling MIAA. Other teams have showed promise, like Carthage, Aurora and Augustana, but a.) they are still a good distance away despite being in a neighboring conference and b.) they will provide an NCAC program virtually no benefit to its resume.

"It's a lot easier to play in Philadelphia or New England and have a good schedule because if you draw a three-hour radius, you're going to find some really good teams," Caravana said. "For us, every time we play a team like Cabrini, W&L or Haverford, that's an overnight trip. With buses, that's a $5,000 or $6,000 investment, which is a lot more of investment than a day trip, which might cost $2,000. That's a big difference. It's not easy for schools like us to make all those trips. It's going to be a challenge for the teams in the west to play as challenging a schedule overall like some of those other teams. For us to play four or five games outside of the conference against pretty good teams is a pretty good statement."

What also hurts is the addition DePauw and Hiram also shortens the NCAC season by two weeks. Not only do the two teams take up a week (likely a Wednesday-Saturday scenario), but their addition has triggered a conference tourney, which will burn another week. For a western team – and the NCAC considers itself a western league – weekends are gold, and they just lost a pair with potentially very little to show for it, at least from an at-large perspective.

Should the NCAC get a discount if they have a worthy at-large candidate in the mix this year? There's nothing in the criteria that says they should. However, having traditional powers operating outside of the hotbeds is important for the growth of the sport, so it might be something worthwhile for the committee to keep in the back of its mind.

Expansion Impacting ODAC Schedules

The NCAC is not the only league that is dealing with expansion. The ODAC welcomes both Shenandoah, which moves over from the CSAC, and Bridgewater, which will play its first varsity season in 2013. These additions balloon the conference roll to 10 teams – the second largest league in Division III behind the NESCAC (and tied with the GNAC).

This will tighten up the non-conference slate for ODAC teams, meaning there will be fewer games against weaker opponents. This is significant because the ODAC – generally regarded as a power conference – has had only one at-large entrant to the NCAA tournament in the past six years (for comparison, the NESCAC had three just last year).

"You just don't have as many dates, so you have to be more selective out of conference," said Lynchburg head coach Steve Koudelka. "So we have seven out of conference games, which are against Salisbury, F&M, Cabrini, Marywood, Gettysburg, McDaniel and Stevenson. I don't know if that is smart or not, but we've been doing it for years and the guys like it. We like trying to compete against that type of schedule."

"It really limits the out-of-conference play," added Washington & Lee head coach Gene McCabe. "We're not going to be able to play that out-of-region NESCAC team this year. It will be tough to play moving forward because the conference schedule takes up two more spots on the calendar."

The addition also condenses the timeline in which ODAC teams have for their non-league slates. Because teams won't have mid-week openings once the conference slate begins, out-of-conference contests have been bunched tighter at the beginning of the season. W&L, for example, will play Salisbury, Denison and Washington College – three tourney teams from '12 – in a 10-day span starting in late February.

Ultimately, the non-league schedule is a secondary issue because the ODAC, as a whole, needs to improve in order to make sure they can count on getting at least one at-large bid on an annual basis. While Roanoke, Lynchburg, W&L and Hampden-Sydney have strong historical pedigrees, teams like Randolph-Macon, Virginia Wesleyan, Guilford and now the two new additions need to break through to give the conference some heft. Finding a team to chalk up the conference's first national championship wouldn't hurt, either.

Salisbury Being Salisbury

The defending champions are also dealing with a conference shake-up. The Capital Athletic Conference has bid farewell to Stevenson and Hood for this season and will be welcoming in Christopher Newport and Southern Virginia for 2014.

Gulls head man Jim Berkman didn't seem particularly worried about the changes, however.

"This year we have a few more out of conference games to replace those other two, but you play who you got," said Berkman. "You can't fret over it. It's your league and you don't have any control over it."

When you've got 10 national titles to your name, you don't tend to sweat the little stuff. Not to say there aren't questions facing Salisbury this spring. The Gulls graduated a prolific senior class, led by the incomparable Sam Bradman, and there are very few points returning in '13.

"Obviously we have a lot of guys to replace and we're going to have some new faces playing," Berkman said. "Hopefully some guys got better over the summer and there are some new guys emerging that might make a direct impact. As good as anyone you think might be coming in, they have to prove it on the field. Sometimes they are better than you expected and sometimes they aren't as good as you expected. That will sort of play out in the first week of fall ball. There are definitely guys who have been waiting in the wings and hopefully they'll be ready for the challenge."

Anyone who has followed Salisbury, or Division III, for any length of time doesn't worry about the talent level at the Eastern Shore factory, but having effective leadership among that talent could determine whether the Gulls are in the hunt for No. 11.

"We've got a couple of good leaders who are in the senior class, but we'll have to let some of the other leadership and captains roles evolve as fall ball goes," Berkman said. "There are a lot of guys who got a lot of votes [for captain], but nobody stood out more than one or two guys. We're going to let those one or two guys lead and let the other guys step up and emerge as future captains."

With Stevenson out of the mix in the CAC, even a leadership void won't derail Salisbury's quest for the automatic bid to the tournament. In that respect, the early season version of the Gulls will have little bearing on what we should expect in May.

Despite Huge Expectations, Camels Stay Grounded

Just because they return a huge chunk of their team from a tournament-qualifying squad, don't expect Connecticut College players to enter the 2013 campaign with entitlement issues. It's not just because of what they saw happen to Amherst last year – a team loaded and coming off a quarterfinal run only to flame out during the course of the NESCAC season.

No, most of the Camels know first-hand that there are no guarantees from season to season. They learned that in 2011, when Conn. College came off a spectacular 14-3 season only to fall flat, finishing 6-10. Granted, there's a lot more talent returning in '13 than '11, but the memory still lingers.

"The guys who are going to be seniors have been to two NCAA tournaments and they got to experience a bad season," said head coach Dave Cornell. "They've played in big games and pressure games. Honestly, when we were 1-4 last year, every game going forward was basically a win-or-go-home type deal. It doesn't scare us at all. This is where we envisioned the program getting to when we took it over and hopefully we'll be able to continue this."

Cornell has bolstered the NESCAC schedule with non-conference games against Babson, Montclair State, Plattsburgh and UMass-Dartmouth, meaning there won't be a whole lot of days off this spring.

"We can lose to any one of these teams, but we can beat all of them, too," Cornell said. "We'll see."

Conn. College will lean on senior middie John Lyons to carry much of the offensive load, and have a host of goalies who will be vying to replace the departed Rob Moccia, led by Hofstra transfer Nate Roy. There are six transfers in total on this year's roster, highlighting one of Cornell's roster-building techniques.

"Transfers have been good to us in recent years," Cornell said. "It's just a matter of having a relationship with high school and club coaches. What we're seeing now is these kids are committing so quickly to Division I schools. But is this really what they want? Truth is, they probably won't be starting anytime soon and they can use their lacrosse to get into a NESCAC school. Whatever reason, it has worked out very well for us here."

Transfers and talent won't impact the mindset of this Camels team.

"Our guys aren't going to come in cocky," Cornell said. "If anything, they'll be motivated. They think we can be pretty good this year."

Golden Bears Bumping It Up

All of the usual suspects will be in the hunt again in 2013, but there is one program that has the potential to crash the semifinals party. Western New England has a stacked defense and a confidence level that could make them dangerous.

"We're excited," said WNE head coach John Klepacki. "The players who have been competing during the last couple of years are the guys who have played in big roles for us. Some of them were underclassmen and now they are getting to be that junior-senior type age. We're hoping that our junior class is going to help us a bunch offensively, as well as the sophomores. Last year we had a great mindset. All of the players were engaged. It's definitely going to be exciting."

We'll find out just how good the Bears are before they even get into the Commonwealth Coast schedule. WNE will face a murderous non-conference slate including seven 2012 tourney qualifiers and three of the four semifinalists - RIT, Stevenson, Trinity, Conn. College, Tufts, Cortland and Springfield.

"We just keep bumping it up," said Klepacki of the schedule.

We'll see how far the bump will take them.

Cabrini Not Just Happy to Be There

The first time Cabrini advanced to the national quarterfinals in 2008, losing to Salisbury, there was a certain level of satisfaction at breaking down a barrier in the program's evolution. Last year, when the Cavs made their second quarterfinal appearance, again losing to the Gulls, the sentiment was different.

"I've been telling a lot of recruits when they are in my office about how the season ended last year to Salisbury that there was a feeling of disappointment," said Cabrini head coach Steve Colfer. "Not that the season was over or that we had to say goodbye to the seniors – although that was obviously part of it – but we really were disappointed that we weren't able to go to our first final four. Nothing against Salisbury; they had excellent players and Coach Berkman does a great job. But there is an unfinished business feeling and I hope that feeling continues to burn this summer. I know we're going to churn it up in the fall and talk about it a lot and watch that Salisbury film to find out where we can get better and have our young guys see it and get them up to speed."

Considering what Cabrini has returning this year – the Cavs never had four All-Americans coming back before – anything less than a return to the quarterfinals (at minimum) will have to be considered a disappointment.

NOTES: Jason Archbell has been tabbed to replace Tom McCabe at Bowdoin and has hired former Lynchburg offensive coordinator Max Silberlicht to join his staff...Derek Witheford has been added to the Union coaching staff, replacing Tucker Kear, who was hired to be the head coach at Bard...Skidmore added Peter Mezzanotte, who was a four-year starter at Towson, to its staff...Lynchburg will be hosting Division I Virginia in a fall ball scrimmage on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m...Cortland will scrimmage against Le Moyne.

Springfield head coach Keith Bugbee said he wouldn't be surprised if a NEWMAC (New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference) league comes on the radar soon. The NEWMAC is the Pride's traditional conference, but Springfield plays in the Pilgrim, which is a lacrosse-only league. Wheaton, MIT, Clark and Babson are other NEWMAC schools in the Pilgrim, so it would just take two more teams, perhaps as associate members, to hit the AQ mark. Regis and Mass. Maritime are the two other teams...there will be a competitive "Coaches Versus Cancer" event in Rochester over the weekend of March 16. Commonwealth Coast reps WNE, Endicott and Roger Williams will make the trip to Roc City where RIT, Nazareth and St. John Fisher await. Each team will get two games.