March 12, 2012

Making Sense: Division II's Big Game Dilemma

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Corey Lunney (above) and No. 6 Merrimack traveled to Baltimore to face No. 3 Limestone on Saturday, and the game was a classic, with the Warriors scoring with 12.8 seconds left for the 12-11 win. These high-end non-conference games are a rarity in Division II due to the structure of the tournament selection.
© Merrimack Athletics

Limestone head coach J.B. Clarke doesn't just want games against the top teams from the Central and North region. He needs them. Playing in the South, which features plenty of teams but none up to the bar set by the Saints over the last decade, Limestone has to find teams that can provide a benchmark during the regular season.

That forced Clarke to scramble this offseason.

"When Le Moyne and Mercyhurst dropped us last year, I had to get on the phone and get as good a team as we could," said Clarke during his nine-hour bus ride from Baltimore to Gaffney after Saturday's game. "Merrimack didn't hesitate and Dowling didn't hesitate."

The fact that Limestone was able to get No. 6 Merrimack on the schedule this past weekend – a game won by the Warriors, 12-11 on a goal with 12 seconds left – is a stroke of luck. The fact that the third-ranked Saints were also able to add No. 5 Dowling in late April is a minor miracle.

In Division II, big non-conference games just don't happen very often.

While the early-season schedules in both Division I and Division III are stocked with marquee interleague contests that raises interest and creates fan excitement, D-II is lucky to have a two or three for the entire season. The fact that games like Mercyhurst-Le Moyne, Merrimack-Dowling and, most obviously, Adelphi-C.W. Post don't happen is a shame.

It's unfortunate, but understandable.

The three-region format in which Division II currently operates mandates that teams be extra cautious in choosing their non-conference opposition. A tournament-worthy team can post a strong season against its league opponents, but if it lost a February game to a non-conference foe, it could very realistically be the difference between playing for the NCAA championship or not. With no automatic qualifers and only one at-large (it's called the Wild Card), D-II teams don't have the same luxury as their counterparts in the other two divisions to make up for an early season setback.

While it wasn't among the primary criteria for tournament selection, Le Moyne's loss to Limestone last year in early March might have been a factor in the committee choosing Adelphi in the end. This year, No. 9 NYIT scheduled an unranked St. Anselm team early in the season, losing 6-5 at home. As cruel as it is to write on March 12, the Bears season may already be over.

And that's why you don't see the big-time games among the top programs in the North and Central.

As such, when Clarke goes looking for a game, it's important to find a swashbuckler like Merrimack coach Mike Morgan, who has the swagger and confidence in his team to put a lot on the line so early in the season.

"Since I've been here, we haven't hid from anybody," said Morgan, who is in his fifth season with the Warriors. "We try to put out those feelers every year to play good competition. J.B. and I had a nice conversation: 'Some of the other teams don't want to come down here and play us, what do you think?' I know it stung Le Moyne a little bit last year when they lost and may have kept them out of the final four.

"But we looked at it from a different angle. We looked at it as, 'Hey, we're as good as anybody, so let's go down there and beat them, get a better ranking and put us in the driver's seat.' We didn't want to play it cautious. They're a good team and so are we. So I'd rather have a big risk-reward than not take that game. It's good for lacrosse."

As cavalier as Morgan may sound, he understands how the system works. While confident when putting together his schedule, he's not reckless. And as much as he'd like to see Division II produce those exciting early-season games, they just won't happen.

"Division II being what it is with the selection and everything else, it takes away those high level great games because teams are picking their schedule based on the rationale that if I play this game it could hurt me," Morgan said. "It's kind of bad for lacrosse. In Division I and III, so many teams make the tournament, that if they win, it's great, but if they lose they got a great experience and are more battle-tested. In D-II, we say if we lose a game, our season might be over."

It is hoped that in addition to more teams being eligible for the tournament, next year's restructuring of the regional system in Division II will open the door for more big-time games that will allow the spotlight to be shined on the division. With the Northeast-10 and the ECC being thrown into the same region, the RPI will take on much more significance, and with four bids to be shared, an early-season loss to a good opponent shouldn't be as debilitating.

NCAA Division II has the teams and the talent to draw the attention of even the most casual lacrosse fan, but the programs involved can't realistically provide that right now. Even though there are just 46 teams in the division, the best teams aren't playing each other right now like they should.

Hopefully this will be the last year that D-II has to shy away from their share of the limelight.

Game Balls

Carson Barton, Soph., Attack – Grand Canyon
The tenth-ranked 'Lopes traveled to No. 7 Concordia, and thanks to five goals from the Edmonton native, Grand Canyon registered the upset, 11-8.

Ryan Dougherty, Sr., Goalie – Dowling
With the Lions clinging to a late lead over NYIT, Dougherty came up big. He finished with 13 saves in the key, 10-8 victory, with seven of the stops coming in the second half.

Rob Moccia, Sr., Goalie – Conn. College
We don't give out a whole lot of game balls to players on losing teams, but Moccia's 27-save performance against Bowdoin in a 7-5 loss warrants recognition.

Mike Perlow, Jr., Attack – Skidmore
Perlow is getting to be a bit of habit. This time he scored six goals against No. 16 Trinity, including the game-tying goal with 1:10 left to send the game into OT, where the Horses won it.

Keith Rodriguez, Sr., Midfield – C.W. Post
In a tough game against a Bentley team looking to make a mark, Rodridguez scored four goals and set up a fifth to lead the Pioneers to a comfortable, 13-9 victory.

Rob Santangelo, Soph., Attack – Union
Santangelo factored in on four of the Dutchmen's six goals with a goal and three assists, including the set-up of the game-winner with 11 ticks left in Union's 6-5 victory over Babson.

Sean Smith, Soph., Attack – Colorado State
Smith didn't score one goal in the Rams' 9-6 victory over No. 9 Arizona State, but he did set the table for two-thirds of CSU's markers. He now has two goals and 13 assists on the year.

Mat Thompson, Sr., Attack – Florida Southern
Florida Southern took down No. 10 Catawba and inched closer to the .500 mark thanks to Thompson, who scored a game-high five goals in the Mocs, 13-8 conference triumph.

Power Fives

NCAA Division II
1. Mercyhurst (3-0) – The win over Mercy may not look like much, but any time you pick up a road win against a goalie like T.J. DiCarlo, that's a quality victory.
2. Adelphi (3-0) – The Midwest suits the Panthers well. Adelphi looked like we thought they would in a couple of weekend wins. Panthers play Lindenwood today.
3. Dowling (3-0) – Having a faceoff guy like Louis Riley (47-for-69; 68 percent) can make the difference in the ECC meatgrinder. He was 19-for-22 against NYIT.
4. Merrimack (2-0) – The Warriors supplant the Saints in the third slot thanks to the 12-11 victory in Baltimore. They should be 5-0 heading into the Adelphi game.
5. Le Moyne (4-0) – You can bet an Irishman like Dan Sheehan would like nothing more than a victory over Adelphi to celebrate St. Patrick's day.

NCAA Division III
1. Salisbury (7-0) – Here's hoping for a speedy recovery for Jim Berkman, who had to make an unexpected hospital visit.
2. Tufts (1-0) – We'll assume that the second half performance against Hamilton is what we'll get this spring from the Jumbos, not the first half.
3. Cortland (3-0) – The Red Dragons defense will get the attention, but the offense scored 11 goals against Gettysburg. That's the same amount as Salisbury.
4. RIT (3-0) – Wins over Brockport and Keuka don't impress The Fives, but the Tigers are currently in the lull of a pretty stiff schedule. We'll cut them some slack.
5. Stevens (5-0) – The Ducks made the Endicott game more interesting than it probably should have been, but we'll see what this team is about when Tufts.

MCLA Division I
1. Colorado State (5-0) – It was a tidy little trip to the desert for the Rams. Nothing to worry about until Cal Poly makes its trip to Fort Collins in two weeks.
2. UC Santa Barbara (7-0) – The Gauchos had their game against UCLA delayed six hours because of a "Quidditch" tournament. That's been the biggest obstacle for UCSB so far.
3. Cal Poly (6-1) – The score looked kind of close (9-6), but the Mustangs were never threatened by Duluth. Poly can take a nice two week break before CSU.
4. Brigham Young (6-1) – The trip to Minnesota this weekend will be more of a vacation than a business trip. Two of the three games should be comfy.
5. Chapman (7-2) – The Panthers have played back-to-back games twice this season. The Panthers are 0-2 in the second game of those twinbills. Coincidence?

MCLA Division II
1. Davenport (3-1) – The Panthers have outscored their Division II opponents, 50-8, so far this season. I don't think St. Thomas is going to give up 25 on Friday.
2. Dayton (5-0) – The Flyers have to be bored. I actually wonder if Charlie Mark scouted Saturday's Briarcliffe game just to keep himself busy. He is an L.I. guy.
3. St. Thomas (2-0) – I zinged Davenport for its weak schedule heading into Friday's showdown, but the Tommies' might be even worse.
4. Westminster (6-0) – It's kind of weird: there's no question that the Griffins are good, but their schedule hasn't illuminated just how good they are yet.
5. Grand Valley State (4-0) – Dating back to 2006, the Lakers were winless in the last five games where both teams finished in single digits until Wednesday's 9-6 win against St. John's.

Monday Notebooks

NCAA Division II: Both the Merrimack and Limestone coaches agreed that Saturday's game was worthy of the rankings.
NCAA Division III: Franklin & Marshall is using its loss to Lynchburg as a springboard leading into conference play.
MCLA Division I: Dallas Hartley gives Chapman a B or B- midseason grade, but he still likes where his team is at.
MCLA Division II: With the competition level, St. Louis is going to look a lot like Greenville this coming weekend.

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