April 25, 2014

NCAA Notes: Golden Eagles Soaring in Year Two

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

With a 4-1 record in the Big East including last week's win over Georgetown, Marquette is a win over Denver away from a conference title in its second year. (Marquette Athletics)

Marquette head coach Joe Amplo didn't attempt to hide his surprise at the way the Golden Eagles have grown during their second season as a Division I program.

A year after Marquette launched by finishing 5-8, with its best victory coming in Colorado Springs against Air Force, the unranked Golden Eagles are 6-8, have clinched a spot in the Big East tournament and count a stunning, 11-9 victory at Hofstra (10-3) on February 15 as their signature moment.

Even two months ago, after beating the Pride – now ranked no. 10, the top seed in the upcoming CAA tournament and 10-1 in its last 11 games – Amplo never saw the stakes being so high this week for his young squad.

With a 4-1 record against the Big East, including an improbable, 11-10 overtime win Saturday against Georgetown that marked their fourth, one-goal victory in league play, the Golden Eagles are playing at third-ranked Denver (11-2, 5-0) on Saturday. The winner will earn the no. 1 seed in next week's Big East tournament at Villanova.

"I came into this season thinking we had a chance to compete in our league," Amplo said. "It's been amazing to have won all four of those conference games by one goal. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd be playing this weekend for the regular-season title."

No one is mistaking Marquette for a juggernaut. The Golden Eagles are not ranked among the top 25 in Division I in any offensive or defensive category. They give up an average of nearly two goals per game than they score, are routinely out-shot and have trouble winning half of their faceoff attempts.

But Marquette has steadily improved and has found different ways to win. That was never more evident than on Saturday, when the Golden Eagles went on a game-ending, 8-1 tear to shock the Hoyas.

The rally started when Amplo took assistant coach's John Orsen's suggestion and inserted LSM Tyler Gilligan in place off struggling faceoff man Cullen Cassidy in the middle of the third quarter, with Marquette trailing, 9-3. Gilligan, who had not taken a single draw this year, won four of 10 attempts against Tyler Knarr, including the only faceoff in overtime, a possession that ended with freshman Ryan McNamara's game winner 54 seconds into OT.

"Each week, there's a different story," Amplo said. "We had a defensive grind-out against Providence [a 7-6 victory]. Some days our goalie [freshman Jimmy Danaher] has bailed us out. We've had to find ways to score goals quickly, like we did against Georgetown. We're figuring it out."

With a roster that features 35 players ranging from true freshmen to redshirt sophomores – and eight Canadian players – the Golden Eagles have experienced their share of twists and turns. They've been good enough to stun Hofstra, sloppy enough to get run off the field by Marist, overmatched enough to lose to no. 2 Duke by 11 goals.

The bottom line is Marquette, which is led in scoring by Canadians Tyler Melnyk (36 goals, 14 assists) and Kyle Whitlow (19, 10), has won four of its last six after starting 2-6. That includes a double-overtime, 11-10 thriller at St. John's on April 6. The bottom line is Marquette will make the Big East tournament as no worse than a no. 3 seed.

Not bad for an operation in Year Two.

Another Early Startup Success

Drexel head coach Brian Voelker, whose Dragons (9-4) are gunning for a CAA title that would put them in the school's first-ever NCAA tournament as an automatic qualifier, will confront another up-and-coming newbie in Division I on Saturday at High Point.

Coached by Jon Torpey, the Panthers (8-5) are tied with Mercer atop the Atlantic Sun standings at 4-1 and are locked into the no. 2 seed in next week's league tournament. High Point, which went 3-12 in its inaugural season in 2013, is fresh off of a 12-8 loss at no. 5 North Carolina. The Tar Heels held just one-goal lead early in the fourth quarter.

"If there were any start-up teams back when I played in the prehistoric days, they wouldn't win any games for a long time," Voelker said, following Saturday night's 13-7 victory at Towson, Drexel's fifth straight.

"There are a lot of good lacrosse players from a lot of different areas now. You look at a lot of teams, and you see good pieces. High Point is one of those teams. We're not good enough to say, hey, we're Drexel, we're going to beat those guys. If we don't work hard and play well, we're not going to win the game. That's the way the lacrosse world works right now."

Retriever's Special Special-Teamer

UMBC senior faceoff specialist Phil Poe has never appeared in an NCAA tournament game. But one of the best special teamers in school history showed in Saturday's 18-14 loss to visiting, no. 20 Albany why the Retrievers (6-6) could be dangerous as a no. 3 seed in next week's America East tournament.

Poe was magnificent. He won 23 of 35 faceoffs, including 16 of the game's first 20 draws. But UMBC's sloppy ball handling and impatient shot selection wasted too many possessions and allowed the best transition offense in the land to catch fire too often.

With a young and talented offense emerging around playmakers such as Pat Young and Max Maxwell, UMBC might be heard from for the next few years. Poe gives UMBC a shot in his last go-round to go through Binghamton and Albany successfully next week, after the Retrievers lost to both opponents during the regular season.

"It saddens me to know this is my last year with these guys," said Poe, who owns school records for face-off wins in a game (23, twice), a season (218 in 2013) and career (604). A first-team faceoff man in the America East in 2012 and 2013, Poe has picked up more ground balls (303) than any UMBC player in its 34-year, Division I history.

"We're counting down the days. We seniors know what's left in our sand clock," added Poe, who longs for the chance to play in the NCAAs. "That stings. We were really close last year. We are so close [this year]. I'd be lying if I said I haven't dreamt about it a few times."

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