MJ: Can St. Lawrence Return to Form?
There were plenty of surprising storylines from the 2011 NCAA Division III season. RIT and Colorado College cruising to undefeated regular seasons. Amherst and Trinity emerging in the NESCAC. Roanoke upsetting Stevenson in the quarterfinals. Salisbury waxing Tufts in the championship game. The list could fill this entire space. For my money, one of the largest overlooked narratives was the bottoming out of St. Lawrence.
Nearly every program has their ups and downs over the years, so the Saints failure to make the Liberty League tournament isn't groundbreaking in itself. However, when one considers that just two years earlier, St. Lawrence stood as the only champion in the conference's history with nary a loss to a league team, the Saints' 0-6 mark in the Liberty – including a 5-4 home loss to Vassar – was stunning.
For head coach Mike Mahoney, one of the most successful coaches in Division III, it was equally troubling. Not surprisingly, this past summer was filled with plenty of introspection.
"It makes you take a look in the mirror and really evaluate every aspect of the program," said Mahoney, who has a 144-68 record over 14 years at his alma mater, including four-straight trips to the NCAA tourney second round from 2006-09. "We had to find out what needs to be done and whether there are ways we can better. Obviously there are, and that's the approach that we've taken."
One of the changes is the expansion of the coaching staff to allow for a more intensive level of teaching with all of the units on the field.
"I think it is something that was a long time coming, and maybe because we were having some success, it was an overlooked piece of the puzzle," said Mahoney. "There are things that we need to do as coaches and things that the players need to do in combination to get us back on track. As much as the players were excited to be back here, I was excited to get back with them this fall and put that foot forward to get the program back on track."
The most prominent trait of St. Lawrence under Mahoney has been its defense, and it remained a constant last year, as well. Opponents broke the 11-goal barrier just four times in 14 games in 2011, with half of the foes failing to crack double-digits. It's an impressive accomplishment considering the Saints lost starting goalie Jeff Goeke, then a sophomore, after just four games because of a knee injury. The offense, however, struggled.
Starting the season against consecutive non-conference foes Haverford, Geneseo, WNEC, Colby and Nazareth without an effective attack meant a 1-4 start to the season
"As long as you can get out of those games healthy and with some confidence, I think we would have been in good shape when we got into the ever-critical conference games," said Maloney. "Last year, we didn't come out of them as healthy as we had hoped, and maybe our confidence level wasn't where it needed to be, either. The combination of those things didn't help us as the year went on, but we're anxious to get back out there and get back on our feet."
The non-league portion of the schedule is a bit more reasonable, although SLU will kick off the season with Haverford once again. That said, the Liberty will be much tougher. RIT is now in the conference and Union, RPI and Skidmore all have NCAA aspirations. Throw in an improved Clarkson team and the Saints will be hard-pressed to make the four-team conference tourney, never mind win the automatic qualifier. Mahoney knows that, and isn't going to waste a lot of time talking about it.
"Talk is cheap," he said. "But even as we've gotten going with a week of fall ball and seen how the players are approaching things, we've been very pleased with how they've come back."
If St. Lawrence can come all the way back, it will be one of the top storylines of 2012.