May 11, 2012

MD1 Notebook: Lehigh's First Tournament Game Brings Excitement

by Gary Lambrecht |

Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese and the Mountain Hawks will host their first-ever NCAA tournament game in front of a standing-room crowd Sunday against Maryland. "It's funny," Cassese said, "winning the league was our whole mission all year. But we never talked about what happens once we get there."
© Greg Wall

Long before he helped to create the biggest victory in the history of Lehigh lacrosse, Kevin Cassese, the Mountain Hawks' fifth-year coach, was no stranger to huge wins.

As a two-time, first-team All-American midfielder (2002-2003) at Duke, Cassese led the Blue Devils to a pair of ACC titles and three NCAA tournament appearances. He went on as a professional to help the U.S. team win a gold medal at the ILF World Championships. As a former assistant at Duke, he helped the Blue Devils advance to the NCAA championship game in 2007. As a Duke graduate, he was well-schooled in watching big-time accomplishments on the playing field, starting with its storied men's basketball team.

All of which, for Cassese, adds an interesting twist to what is happening this week on the Lehigh campus in Bethlehem, Pa.

The Mountain Hawks, champions of the Patriot League for the first time with a 14-2 record, are preparing to host their first-ever NCAA tournament game at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Unseeded Maryland is paying a first-round visit to the seventh-seeded Lehigh, where a capacity crowd of 2,000 (seated and standing) will pack the Ulrich Sports Complex. Tickets sold out in fewer than 24 hours, and the athletic department this week was seeking ways to fit more spectators in.

For Lehigh, there will never be another time quite like this in the sport. There will never be another first time. It has produced a special blast of energy, from the locker room to the campus at large.

"I can still see [Lehigh attackman] David DiMaria, running around the field in circles, not knowing what to do," said Cassese, recalling the final seconds of Lehigh's riveting, 16-14 victory at Colgate that won the Patriot League title. "The whole experience of winning the Patriot League has created this huge excitement for the guys. It's funny. Winning the league was our whole mission all year. But we never talked about what happens once we get there.

"Now, we get to hit the reset button and create new goals. We have to answer the question, 'Are we happy just to be here?' These guys have proved their maturity all year. I haven't seen that deer-in-the-headlights look in practice this week. I think [Lehigh and Maryland] are evenly matched. The challenge is it's the big Maryland against the little Lehigh."

If the Mountain Hawks can make history nearly two months after its men's basketball team won its first-ever NCAA tournament game – as a No. 15 seed against Duke, of all schools – Cassese will be curious to see how Lehigh's fans react.

"It was fun to watch the [Lehigh] campus that night [in March]. People really didn't know what to do or where to go. They were just running here and there and yelling and screaming," Cassese said. "At Duke, we knew what to do when we beat Carolina. You lit bonfires. You burned benches. You gathered in certain areas. It was a planned celebration. This is uncharted territory for us."

Johns Hopkins Has 'Endured'

If you say that No. 2 seed Johns Hopkins is not the most gifted and talented team in this year's tournament, you won't get an argument from 12th-year head coach Dave Pietramala.

But there might not be a team in the field as scarred and battle-tested as Hopkins, which plays hosts to Stony Brook at 3 p.m. Sunday, and has plenty going for it as it gears up for a run at its seventh final four and third title under Pietramala.

For starters, the Blue Jays weathered a brutal, two-week storm – back-to-back losses to Maryland and unranked Navy that yielded three goals over 90 minutes – by scoring a combined 23 goals in their past two victories. That included a huge overtime win at top-seeded Loyola, making Hopkins to only team to beat Loyola.

Go deeper, and you find a minefield of adversity Hopkins has overcome. It started with the season-ending injury to budding star defensive midfielder Phil Castranova last fall, and continued with the exit of midfielder Eric Ruhl from the program.

It continued further with the broken collarbone suffered by senior attackman Chris Boland, last year's leading scorer, who went down after scoring his fourth goal in the season opener and missed seven games. During that stretch, freshman attackman/midfielder Wells Stanwick went down for three games. Then, junior first-line midfielder John Greeley blew out his knee against Navy.

In the midst of the parade of injuries, junior midfielder John Ranagan (14 goals, seven assists) has struggled mightily with his shooting (16.7 percent). Junior attackman Zach Palmer recently went through a nearly month-long scoring slump.

"That's a lot for a team to endure," Pietramala said. "But what we've done as a team this year is to endure."

Duke's Tough Draw

Here's a juicy bit of speculation regarding the tournament bracket. The talk in some coaching circles is that Duke drew unseeded Syracuse in the first round for reasons that go beyond simple selection criteria.

The third-seeded Blue Devils (13-4) seemed destined for a top two seed, given their uniquely high ranking in RPI (3), strength of schedule (2) and quality win factor (2). Syracuse, which at 9-7 slipped into the NCAAs by virtue of the AQ it earned as Big East champions – the Orange crushed Villanova and St. John's – seemed destined for possibly Hopkins (RPI 4, SOS 14, QWF 4) or Notre Dame (RPI 5, SOS 16), presumably as No. 3 and No. 4 seeds.

How did Duke end up in a rematch with an improved Syracuse team it beat during its 10-game winning streak? Possibly by dropping its regular-season finale, 15-9, in Denver on April 27, the night coach John Danowski started a team of backups. The Pioneers (8-6) jumped out to a big early lead, were never threatened, and walked through the door with a controversial, at-large bid – as the fourth-place team in the ECAC.

As one coach said, "No one will say it in the open, but everybody is talking about it. Duke got Syracuse as punishment for what happened out in Denver."

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