April 29, 2013

Washburn: Three Days in the Lehigh Valley

by Evan Washburn | LaxMagazine.com

Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese and the Mountain Hawks celebrated another Patriot League title on Sunday and has what it takes to make a deep NCAA tournament run, writes Evan Washburn.
© Kevin P. Tucker

This past weekend I was on the call for the Patriot League men's tournament, which each year is hosted by the team that finishes first in the conference regular season. The semifinals are played on Friday and the championship on Sunday. In 2013, the honor of hosting the tournament went to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, who went a perfect 6-0 through the regular season.

So that meant it was time to spend three days in Bethlehem, Pa., an old steel town in the Lehigh Valley.

This year's Patriot League tournament was thought to have a lot of intrigue. In the past few seasons the conference has transformed into one of the best and deepest in the nation. There was a feeling going into the semifinal Friday that any one of the four teams — Lehigh, Bucknell, Army and Colgate — could win. Would Peter Baum repeat a dominant performance in the two-game tournament? Would Army continue its hot play and be the surprise winner? If nothing else there was a feeling that this championship was going to come down to a few goals.

Well, that did not happen.

Lehigh was dominant and walked away champions for the second season in a row, beating Colgate 15-7 Friday night and Bucknell 11-5 in the championship game on Sunday. The Bison looked like they would be a much tougher opponent after they dismantled Army 12-9 Friday.

The Mountain Hawks punching a ticket to the dance was the obvious headline of the weekend, but there were three other important storylines to come out of three days in the Valley.

Lehigh has the formula for a deep run

Over the course of two games it became clear to me that not only was Lehigh head and shoulders better than the rest of the Patriot League, but it has the necessary components for a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

1) A dynamic offensive player

Senior attackman, David DiMaria, was dominant all weekend with 10 points over the course of two games, taking home the tournament MVP. He has the ability to dodge to score and feed, but most importantly can put the team on his back when necessary.

2) A hot goalie

Sophomore Matt Poillon is playing at an All-American level in net, directing a physically imposing defense while making game-changing saves. Poillon's performance in a 5-0 first quarter of Sunday's championship against Bucknell was the difference in the game.

3) Lehigh has been here before

The majority of this Mountain Hawks team were key contributors in the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament in 2012. Lehigh hosted Maryland in the first round, and had the Terps on the ropes with an 8-6 lead going into the fourth quarter. The Terps then outscored the Mountain Hawks 4-1 in the fourth and went on to a championship game appearance.

Seniors David DiMaria, Dante Fantoni, Brian Hess and Mike Noone are playing their best lacrosse going into May, making this team very dangerous. Throw in key underclassmen like Poillon, Dan Taylor, Patrick Corbett, Dylan O'Shaughnessy, Trip Telesco and others, and you have a nice balance. If this team can tap into the experience of 2012 and play with a calmness and confidence, they can do something special.

Is the Patriot League a two-bid conference?

Lehigh took care of its business Sunday afternoon, beating Bucknell and grabbing the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. That leaves the Bison wondering if they are worthy of one of the eight at large invitations.

Bucknell has a nice resume with quality wins over Cornell, Albany and Drexel, and a decent RPI.

But the Bison's regular season is over, so they are now in the uncomfortable position of wait and see. In my opinion they are a team with a tournament-worthy resume that's not playing tournament-worthy lacrosse. They ran into a red-hot team in Lehigh, but the lasting image of their season for the selection committee, is an ugly loss to a lesser ranked opponent.

Bucknell's fate is most likely in the hands of top teams competing in their respective conference tournaments this weekend. Frank Fedorjaka and company want all the teams that should win their tournament's automatic qualifiers to do just that. The last thing they need are teams like Denver, Penn State, Cornell or Notre Dame losing and swallowing up at-large bids.

Peter Baum's historic Patriot League career ends in frustration

Peter Baum will go down as the best player to ever play in the Patriot League.

In 2012, he had 18 points over the course of two games in the league's tournament. Colgate lost to Lehigh in the championship game, but his performance over the course of the weekend may have won him the Tewaaraton Award.

2013 has seen Baum face suffocating attention both on and off the field.

In his last two games against Patriot League opponents Baum was held to three assists, in two disappointing losses.

Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese, a three-time All-American midfielder at Duke, said this week, "I feel for Peter. I know what it is like to have a huge year as a junior and then get all the attention from defenses as a senior. I still think he is playing at a player of the year level."

Baum will have a chance to end his college career on a high note this Saturday against Maryland, and then it is on to Major League Lacrosse with the Ohio Machine. If the No. 1 overall pick in January's draft chooses to play, he will flourish and continue an already growing legacy.

Evan Washburn, the former Delaware defenseman and current CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network lacrosse commentator, provides a column each Monday during the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse season. Follow Evan on Twitter @EvanWashburn.

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