September 13, 2013

Men's Division II Fulfills Its Manifest Destiny

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Le Moyne won the national championship for the fourth time, but even with the redundancy, this season and postseason was the best in the history of Division II. They might just be getting started.
© Greg Wall

When the first-ever Division II quarterfinal games were winding down on May 11, the last question I had about the viability of the second division's expansion to eight teams was being answered.

I was always for the expansion. That's not exactly an edgy position – I don't think I've met anyone who isn't in favor of expanding NCAA lacrosse brackets, regardless of the division. Perhaps a better way to phrase it is I always felt D-II had earned expansion. While the number of sponsored programs didn't necessarily mandate a larger draw by the NCAA's math, lacrosse's middle child deserved to have more than 10 percent of its members represented in a grand total of three postseason games.

My one concern was whether the eight teams would be on roughly the same level or would there be this clear and present gap between both the top and lower seeds. And would the talent divide between traditional powers and emerging programs remain uneven.

Fortunately, the postmortem of the first round showed my fears were unfounded. Two of the games were decided by three goals and two others – including No. 1 south seed Mercyhurst against No. 4 Lake Erie – needed overtime to be settled. Not only did these results, along with the fantastic semifinals and finals that were cumulatively decided by a total of five goals, confirm D-II's ability to sustain a larger tourney, but even raised the specter of the "P" word.

"What you saw in Division II this year is what you kind of what you see in other divisions as far as the parity," said Le Moyne head coach Dan Sheehan, who won his fourth crown in '13. "We were three goals away from going undefeated and probably one goal away from missing the tournament. That shows you that it's not only at the Division I level that the parity is happening."

"There was not a team that I thought, 'Oh, my God, this team is going to be great,'" said LIU Post head man John Jez. "There were some of those old Le Moyne teams that we thought were pretty much untouchable, but everyone played very good lacrosse this year and I don't think anyone stood out above and beyond everyone one else. Mercyhurst had a great year, but they had something like six or seven one goal games. No one pulled away or separated themselves from the pack this year."

I'm typically wary of embracing the concept of parity, especially in a division that has boasted all of seven different programs competing in the national championship game since 1996, but there are certainly more teams with realistic dreams of playing on Memorial Day weekend these days.

Tim Boyle, the architect of the Dowling's 2012 national championship and member of last year's selection committee, had a feeling early on that D-II was going to answer the bell with the expanded tourney.

"After the brackets were chosen and we looked back at them after the call, we thought it was pretty exciting because, based on what happened this year, any one of the teams could win it," Boyle said. "The games really proved that, too. It seemed like we had good games in every bracket. I think we're all pleased on how things worked out."

The expansion of the D-II tournament was obviously a success, but why? At its core, the growth of the game at the youth and prep levels has sent a higher amount of quality student-athletes to more and more schools, and the second division has certainly reaped the benefits of it. That's looking at it more from a macro level, however.

Specifically, the NCAA's decision to gerrymander the regions was critical. At the time, the decision to move the ECAC into the South region appeared forced, to say the least. Erie, Pa., and Painesville, Ohio, to name two, don't make most people start whistling Dixie, and it certainly puts a strain on the already hand-to-mouth budgets in Division II. As it turned out, it was also a stroke of genius.

It not only allowed D-II to send its best teams to the tournament in the first year of expansion, but still kept the door wide open for callow programs in the traditional south to progress toward the ultimate goal. When we look back in a decade about the impact of last year's expansion, it might be less about the fantastic games themselves and more about what it did for the division as a whole.

"It provides access to the tournament," said Brian Novotny, Seton Hill head coach. "When you are in the division and trying to catch up with the teams that are in front of you, you are looking for any opening or crack to jump into that group. It's something to motivate you over the summer and there's the recruiting side of it, too, when you have a legitimate shot at the tournament. And then it comes down to administrators who are seeing programs popping up across the country. Why wouldn't you add lacrosse? If you fund it well and take care of it and give it some support, you might legitimately have a shot."

Added Sheehan: "The growth of the game comes with when you have college president sitting around and thinking we have an opportunity to get 45 more males on campus without the expense of a football program and the wear-and-tear on facilities and resources. That's probably the first part. Then you have a team on campus, and you look at a team like Lake Erie, you put some resources into it at a modest level and you can compete for an NCAA spot."

Alas, the expansion of the tournament hasn't been everything that coaches had hoped for. With the widened tournament field, it was easy math to assume the race for the postseason would be mildly easier. That hasn't been the case. Not only was the tournament the best one Division II has ever rolled out, there were several teams just off the grid that could have stepped in with very little dropoff in competition level. As such, it was business as usual for D-II coaches living on the razor's edge.

"I knew it would change it a little bit, but I knew there would be the issue of losing the wrong game and it costing you because that's just the way it's going to be even if you bump it up to 12 teams," said Boyle. "It's what you see in Division I and in Division III. There is more of an opportunity, but I knew it would be just as competitive and play out where it would go down to the final week."

"As Division II coaches, we've been conditioned over the past few years that any slip up will cost you the opportunity," Novotny said. "I felt like that way all throughout the season. We lost to New York Tech and I was thinking, man, that's an in-region game and loss. That was the second game of the year in February and I was thinking, I hope this doesn't come back to haunt us down the line."

"We played Mars Hill, Pfeiffer and Wheeling, so I felt pretty good," continued Novotny. "But there was still some nervousness when we lost to Lake Erie in the conference semis because I was wondering will they take three teams out of our conference? If they decide to only take two, will they take Mercyhurst and Lake Erie? What's the regional committee looking at? There were a lot of anxious moments throughout the season, but again, I think that is conditioning. There is a really good group of teams and not all of them got into the tournament, but all of them could have."

"Parity has got to be the word," added Jez. "You've got Lake Erie and Seton Hill who have been coming on for the last couple of years, and then you have teams like Tampa, Pfeiffer and Merrimack that barely missed getting in, and [Merrimack was] a team in the preseason I thought was going to be in the finals. I think everyone is getting better and catching up with teams traditionally considered to be very good."

The teams in Division II answered the bell in 2013 and perfectly fulfilled its manifest destiny. However, while questions about D-II's viability have been answered, this coming season will bring more questions. Alas, they are the good kind of questions: who is going to make the tournament and what team will win it all?

The inability to answer those questions with any kind of certainty, helped by expansion, has allowed Division II to take its rightful seat at the table of compelling college lacrosse.

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