May 15, 2012

So Close, Yet So Far: Remember the First Round Losers

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

Joe Breschi (right) and the North Carolina coaching staff eventually settled on a way to use the Tar Heels' plethora of talent. They found a rhythm in the second half of the season, but came up short against Denver on Saturday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
© John Strohsacker/

Only one team gets to hoist the national championship trophy on Memorial Day. Only one team ends the season with a meaningful victory. The others? Well, they go home empty-handed to wonder "what if." Last weekend, in the NCAA tournament first round, eight teams were eliminated from the post-season discussion and eight kept their dream alive. Let's take a look at some of the teams whose seasons already ended — the teams that are normally forgotten about in May...

North Carolina (11-6)

Joe Breschi walked into the Fetzer Field media room full of reporters after the Tar Heels were out-lasted in a high-scoring barnburner by Denver, 16-14. He took a seat at the tables assembled as a makeshift podium for the post-game press conferences. Likely exhausted, Breschi took a deep breath. North Carolina's season had concluded 10 minutes earlier — sooner than many expected. Appearing not upset so much as frustrated, Breschi made his opening statement: [Denver] generating 15 more possessions at the faceoff X was pretty key," he said. "But our guys fought like hell."

There was no questioning Carolina's want-to, but the Tar Heels lost a home playoff game for the second straight year. And, as Breschi later added when asked about summarizing the season, he said: "It was an up-and-down year. But I commend our guys for great effort throughout the season."

The topsy-turvy season is best described in a five-game stretch in late February and early March. The Heels rallied from behind to beat Navy 9-8, then lost back-to-back games against Lehigh and Penn. It looked like they were reversing course against Princeton with a 9-8 win in the Face-Off Classic, but they lost 13-11 to Duke the next week. In the fourth quarter of Carolina's loss to its crosstown rivals, Breschi decided to go young. He inserted highly regarded freshman jitterbugs Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey on attack, and bumped down junior Marcus Holman to play alongside them. Transfers Davey Emala and Jack McBride started running with second midfield unit, while Canadian freshman Chad Tutton got more looks. Returning All-American Nicky Galasso was used mostly as an extra-man specialist, though he came through the box occasionally.

"I know we had a lot of young guys," Breschi said after the Denver loss. "We made some decisions this year to make some changes and play some younger guys. They really responded."

Carolina won four of its next six games after the adjustments — the losses came against No. 1 Virginia and No. 7 Duke — and the Tar Heels looked like a legitimate national title contender. They had a dynamic offense and could play make-it, take-it with R.G. Keenan dominating at the X. Their defense wasn't disciplined, but they were playing better as a unit in front of goalie Steven Rastivo. In short, Carolina was following two of its favorite sayings: "Play fast, play loose" and "Stay smart, stay aggressive."

But on Saturday, Keenan ran into the Chase Carraro buzzsaw and Carolina couldn't contain Denver's multi-faceted, hybrid offense. Keenan, a sophomore this season, will return. He's one of the best specialists in the country. More than anything, in 2013 the Tar Heels will be tasked with improving on the defensive end of the field, where they graduate close defender Charlie McComas and long-stick middie Mark Staines. The rest of the team will remain largely in tact, though McBride, Jimmy Dunster and Thomas Wood depart.

Breschi deserves a bunch of credit. He had the wherewithal to make necessary in-season adjustments to put a starting lineup on the field that gave Carolina a chance to be the best team possible — no easy task, with a roster full of immensely talented players, including returning All-Americans and big-name transfers. Despite the deck being shuffled, Carolina played hard.

Expectations undoubtedly will be high in Chapel Hill next year. Holman is a bonafide All-American candidate and will be an early Tewaaraton favorite, and they have one of the nation's top-rated recruiting classes. But expectations aren't anything new for Carolina. Look at the Tar Heels' position in Lacrosse Magazine's last four preseason polls...
2012: 6
2011: 3
2010: 4
2009: 5

Carolina is a program with a rich lacrosse legacy, but it hasn't made championship weekend since 1993. Can the Tar Heels snap the 30-year streak? It will have to wait 'til next year.

Syracuse (9-8)

Rich lacrosse history? Any conversation on the topic has to include Syracuse. The Orange avoided becoming "that team" by taking the Big East Tournament and grabbing the conference's automatic qualifying bid, but they bowed out of the NCAA tournament with a 12-9 loss to Duke on Saturday.

Syracuse ended its season one game above .500, finishing with a winning record for the 36th time in the last 37 seasons. But next year's senior class — JoJo Marasco, Brian Megill, Luke Cometti, Joe Fazio to name a few — will enter 2013 as the first group since 1982 to have never played in championship weekend. The Orange have one playoff victory in the last three seasons. Granted, before those players arrived, Syracuse won back-to-back national championships in 2008 and 2009.

So how does Syracuse return to form? It will start at the faceoff X, where the Orange struggled on Saturday. Duke won 17-of-24 draws, including 8-of-10 in the third quarter while mounting a lead, without using CJ Costabile. Megill, Ricky Buhr and Chris Daddio couldn't get anything going against Brendan Fowler and Greg DeLuca.

Syracuse won just 46.4 percent of faceoffs this season, a sub 50-percent mark for the second consecutive year.

"[Faceoffs] were a common theme this year," coach John Desko said. "We're going to keep working at it, obviously. Recruiting-wise, we're going to be looking for anybody that we think can be coming in and helping us out right away. We're going to evaluate the faceoff guys that we have coming in for next year against our group. You look at a lot of the people that we go against. A lot of them are seniors and graduating, and our guys [Buhr and Daddio] will be juniors next year and hopefully step up into their own."

Losing the faceoff battle often put Syracuse in a position to play "catch-up," as Desko described it, forcing its offense to "play frantic in the second half." As a result, the Orange didn't have the best shot selection; the unit converted at a 28.5 percent clip (32nd nationally).

In the ebb and flow of college sports, the Orange were unproven on defense entering this season and their offense returned several key playmakers. Next year, the defense — Megill, Matt Harris, Brandon Mullins and David Hamlin — will be one of the strong suits. It's an athletic bunch. But the Orange will graduate three of its top five scorers: Tommy Palasek, Tim Desko and Bobby Eilers.

Marasco, Derek Maltz and Hakeem Lecky registered one combined point in the loss to Duke, and more of the pressure will be placed on them next year. Freshmen Matt Walters and Henry Schoonmaker, who played more prominent roles later in the season, could start on attack.

Much like Breschi, Desko should be recognized for making changes mid-season when it looked like the ship was sinking. Freshman goalie Bobby Wardwell was inserted between the pipes and gained confidence with experience. Megill took faceoffs and had success. The Orange speciality units were much improved. Syracuse was playing what it described as its best lacrosse all season. They just couldn't carry the momentum into the postseason.

There's plenty of talent for 2013. Who will step up?

Lehigh (14-3)

Lehigh's coming out party is now over. What will they do for an encore?
© Kevin P. Tucker

What does Lehigh do for an encore? That'll be the question posed in 2013 to the Mountain Hawks, who lost a 10-9 nail-biter to Maryland on Sunday evening. They won't be an unknown any longer. They have the nation's respect. It likely will emerge in the preseason polls as a top-10 team. How will having a target on their backs affect them after a breakout season?

Are they a one-hit wonder, or can they sustain the success? The guess: Coach Kevin Cassese and Lehigh are here to stay.

"[The seniors] have been unbelievable for the program, building a tradition of winning," sophomore defenseman Ty Souders said after the Mountain Hawks' 10-9 loss to Maryland on Sunday. "There's only brighter things to come as the program continues to grow and as we as a team continue to grow and mature."

Lehigh will lose midfielders Roman (20g, 6a) and Cameron (13g, 9a) Lao-Gosney, plus attackman Adam Johnston (22g, 3a). But it returns a strong class of soon-to-be seniors, led by David DiMaria, Dante Fantoni and Mike Noone. The nation's top-ranked scoring defense, with freshman goalie Matt Poillon, remains in tact. And freshmen Patrick Corbett and Dan Taylor, both double-digit scorers, should step into the Lao-Gosneys' spots.

How cool was it seeing "little Lehigh" ride the energy of a sold-out crowd in Bethlehem, Pa., to a 7-0 run that gave them a fourth-quarter lead over "big Maryland," using Cassese's descriptors? There were few moments as powerful in the tournament's opening round.

"I'm very proud of the season that we had," Cassese said. "Obviously, it always stings, only one team is going to finish out the season with a win when you make the NCAA tournament. I just want our guys to hold their heads high. ... I said to them in the locker room before the game just to take a minute before the game starts and look around. They did this. They brought this scene here to Lehigh and that's very special and I want them to remember that for the rest of their lives."

Then Cassese tweeted on Monday morning: "Woke up this AM with a tremendous sense of pride to be associated with a special collection of men. Winners 4 life! #golehigh #good2great"

Stony Brook (7-10)

The man who laid the foundation for Colgate's explosion this year: Jim Nagle, a Long Island native who left the Raiders after 10 seasons to become the head coach at Stony Brook. Now Nagle hopes to build something similar with the Seawolves, after taking over for Rick Sowell, who left for Navy.

Let's put the coaching carousel aside. Stony Brook started the season 1-7 but rallied to win four of its next six games, and then won the America East Tournament to capture the automatic bid. Six of the Seavolves' losses were one-goal games. Stony Brook wasn't able to slow Johns Hopkins on Sunday in the NCAA tournament, dropping a 19-9 decision.

The aim? Grow from the experience, and take a step forward in 2013.

"We had a lot of guys playing minutes for the first time, so you're always going to make mistakes and they're not going to be able to relax and be themselves," Nagle said. "So hopefully those guys that got a lot of minutes, and there were a few of them, will be more experienced and more poised when they come back next year."

Redshirt freshman Mike Rooney and sophomore Matt Bellando, the team's two leading scorers, will be back, though it loses senior midfielders Robbie Campbell (24g, 17a) and Russ Bonanno (21g, 13a). Sean Brady, a two-time high school All-American in goal, should take another step forward in his first full season as the starter.

Nagle's Long Island ties should provide a spark on the recruiting trail, and recently the Seawolves have been successful tapping into Florida, the Midwest and Canada.

It's an old cliche that teams make the most improvement between weeks one and two of a season. The same could be said for seasons one and two under a new coach.

The Others

UMass (15-1)
Key Returnees: Will Manny (44g, 33a), Kyle Smith (33g, 19a), Colin Fleming (26g, 8a)
Key Losses: 11 seniors. Art Kell (33g, 20a), Anthony Biscardi (21g, 7a), Mike Fetterly (7g, 19a), Tom Celentani (32gb, 24ct), Greg Anderson (26gb, 5ct), Tim McCormack (7.09 GAA, 60.6%)

Princeton (11-5)
Key Returnees: Tom Schreiber (32g, 28a), Jeff Froccaro (27g, 12a), Mike MacDonald (22g, 8a), Tucker Shanley (20g, 8a), Forest Sonnenfeldt (17g, 6a)
Key Losses: 13 seniors. Alex Capretta (23g, 11a), Mike Grossman (7g, 8a), Chad Wiedmaier (32gb, 33ct), Jonathan Meyers (50gb, 14ct), Tyler Fiorito (7.07 GAA, 59.5%)

Yale (11-5)
Key Returnees: Deron Dempster (37g, 2a), Brandon Mangan (26g, 11a), Conrad Oberbeck (20g, 6a), Michael McCormack (55gb, 34ct), Jack Meyer (8.69 GAA, 48.7%)
Key Losses: 10 seniors. Matt Gibson (28g, 33a), Gregory Mahony (20g, 8a)

Canisius (6-8)
Key Returnees: Tim Edwards (13g, 19a), Nick Caldiero (5g, 5a)
Key Losses: 16 seniors. Simon Giourmetakis (34g, 13a), Jimmy Haney (29g, 10a), Travis Gibbons (26g, 9a), Justin Maderer (21gb, 6 ct), Sean Callahan (11.33 GAA, 48.3%)

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