June 11, 2012

UnCensered: Parity? Maybe. Growth? Definitely

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Colgate's Peter Baum, an Oregon native, put together a near 100-point season to win the Tewaaraton and Loyola took home the Division I men's national title. It wasn't a great year to be a lacrosse prognosticator, writes Joel Censer.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

This wasn't a great year to be a lacrosse pundit.

Back in January, we media types were all pointing to teams other than Loyola. Virginia, fresh off its unexpected title run, returned almost everyone. Duke and Denver both seemed primed to make the final four again. North Carolina, after adding a couple high-profile transfers and another gold-plated recruiting class, looked ready to shake that 20-year-old Championship Weekend gorilla. Hopkins' talented junior class spurred Lacrosse Magazine to buy ink/bandwidth and the Homewood faithful to furiously type message-board posts.

As for the personal awards, reporters seemed ready to cast Tewaaraton votes for either Cornell's Rob Pannell or Virginia's Steele Stanwick as soon as the 2011 season ended. Who you voted for probably said more personal preference than anything else. Long Island or Baltimore? A square-shouldered pitbull who could get a step on anyone or the more traditional quarterback with the traditional string job? The "Red Mamba" or the "King of the Restart"? If there were a wrench to be thrown in the projected two-man race, we all expected it to be tossed by Denver's Mark Matthews (who could throw in a toe-drag and a box fake for good measure).

Maybe the Mayans stumbled on to something. Because in 2012, predicting what was going to happen in late May meant ignoring both precedent and pedigree.

On Memorial Day, it was Loyola — which hadn't been relevant since program-builder Dave Cottle bolted for Maryland — that cut down nets and rapped about being champions. The next week, Colgate's Peter Baum, an Oregon native whose near 100-point season often had to be tracked through live stats and live streams, won the Tewaaraton bronze.

At the podium, the junior professed: "I wish I could say this was something I dreamed of growing up. But I don't even think that in my wildest dreams I could have imagined this, growing up playing lacrosse in Oregon." Stanwick watched from the audience. Pannell, who missed all but two games with a foot injury, is returning to Ithaca for another year.

Were the past few weeks a watershed moment for the sport? Loyola was only the ninth school to take home an NCAA title and just the second new winner since 1992. Unlike Duke, the Greyhounds weren't some warm-weather ACC superpower with enough resources and ranked recruits to make a championship seem inevitable. But whatever institutional advantages Charles Street's second-class citizen may have lacked, in 2012 Loyola was the best, most complete team in the country.

So what does this all mean? Has parity arrived? Can more schools now compete for post-season hardware? Who knows? I'm not going to pretend like I'm some sort of lacrosse Miss Cleo who saw this coming. But I do think a couple of developing trends will continue to change the landscape of college lacrosse.

The growth of the game was on full display in the post-season. Going beyond Baum taking the Tewaaraton, look at probably the most important matchup in the title game: Atlanta native and Loyola long-stick-extraordinaire Scott Ratliff taking on Maryland midfielder/Seattle slinger Drew Snider (it should also be noted, however, that both their fathers played ACC ball).

Obviously, the spread of lacrosse has made more quality players available for more teams. And it's not just raw athletes still trying to learn the sport. Slick-sticked offensive studs like Baum, Loyola's Mike Sawyer (Waxhaw, N.C.), Hopkins' Lee Coppersmith (Boca Raton, Fla.), Virginia's Rob Emery (San Francisco, Calif.), Cornell's Roy Lang (Mill Valley, Calif.) and North Carolina's Thomas Wood (Dallas), all made an impact this season. And coaches continued to outsource various offensive duties to Canadians with alarming regularity.

Not only is there more talent — particularly offensive talent — to go around for more programs. Offensive sets have become smarter and more efficient and not as reliant on unique kinds of players.

In the early parts of the century, scoring goals in the post-season meant having premier athletes who could always run by their guy. Because those types of players are rare and generally easily identifiable in high school, they usually end up playing for a couple programs with history, or warm weather, or both. That's why the Tewaaraton winner was almost always an offensive stud who just led his team to the championship. Ned Crotty, Mike Leveille, Kyle Harrison, Mike Powell and Matt Ward all fit the mold.

But this post-Stanwick/Canadian box inspired two-man era, teams just don't necessarily need a premier Rabil-like midfielder, or a Powell-like attackman to draw slides and generate offense. Now, it's all picking, re-picking, screening and big-little games from behind.

So a team like Denver can put the rest of the country on notice with a heavy dose of box influenced pick-and-rolls. Or Maryland — which relied on those grinding two-man games that could make paint dry — reached the final despite not having much of a bonafide offensive star. Loyola won the title when its two best offensive players, Eric Lusby and Sawyer, were of the planted-feet, catch-and-shoot variety.

The media-friendly "parity" meme has been hashed and re-hashed. Usually there hasn't been much to pin it on other than some early-season upsets or a rogue school with a dominant faceoff man or a bevy of Canucks making some playoff noise. Whether Loyola's win was just a right mix of lock-down defensive midfielders, veteran leadership, and some slingers on offense, or the ushering in of a new era remains to be seen.

But as the nation's talent base grows and early recruiting makes it even harder to identify who the best kids are; and as offenses continue to find ways to score settled goals without "Rabil-esque" midfielders, winning will likely be even harder to contain to the upstate New York, ACC or Homewood sightlines.

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