March 31, 2014

MD2 Notebook: Tampa, Mercyhurst Set the Stage

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Freshman Conor Whipple is leading Tampa in both assists and points, making his head coach -- and father -- pleased. "I'm real happy with his performance," said Rory Whipple. (Tampa Athletics)

On the cusp of April, examining preseason expectations is about as pertinent as analyzing New Year's resolutions. Tampa head coach Rory Whipple doesn't know exactly what he thought during the ramp up to the '14 season, but he does know that a 10-1 record and a strong case for one of the four bids in the South was probably pretty close.

"Looking at the schedule in the preseason, you never know," Whipple said on Sunday. "I'm real happy with where we're at because I wasn't sure where we'd be. For right now, I'm happy and I'm looking forward to this week and getting healthy."

Regardless of where Tampa stood, this was going to be a big week for Whipple and the Spartans. UT is traveling north to play Roberts Wesleyan on Thursday and then Mercyhurst on Saturday. With 23 New Yorkers on the roster, playing in Rochester is a chance for a lot of his kids to get a taste of home.

"There will be a lot of energy with a lot of family and friends there," Whipple said. "It will be a good time. I'm from Rochester, so I'm looking forward to getting back up there, too."

The game against Mercyhurst is another chance for Tampa to solidify its postseason credentials. With wins against Lake Erie, Florida Southern and Saint Leo in the bag already, the Spartans are in good shape, but a win would almost certainly mean Whipple's troops would be hosting the first-ever NCAA lacrosse tournament game in the state of Florida.

It might have guaranteed the No. 1 seed had UT not stumbled in their showdown with Limestone on March 22. The Spartans were in the game – they lost by the final of 8-5 – but they didn't have the finishing power to unseat the Saints.

"Against Limestone, we definitely competed at a high level," Whipple said. "One thing that hurt us was costly turnovers in the fourth quarter. Going into the fourth, we were down by one and we just didn't do a good enough job taking care of the ball. Also in that game, we didn't do a good job on extra man. We were 0-7 and those were costly mistakes."

The fact that Tampa was as close as it was in that contest without the presence of Nick Ferreiro, who has been injured, bodes well. While Trevor Calleja (65.5%) has done a good job replicating Ferreiro's prowess at the faceoff dot (70.3%), Ferreiro was also UT's top offensive middie, scoring 10 goals and 16 assists before going down in the Florida Tech contest. The team has also managed to survive in the absence of starting goalie Andrew Failla, who was dinged up in the Colorado Mesa contest.

"If we could get them back this week it would be great," Whipple said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

The one constant that Whipple has been able to count on this spring is his son, Conor. The rookie is leading the team in assists (24) and points (56) and is averaging just over five points per game.

"He has having a really good year," the coach said. "He is a freshman and I knew he was a real good player. He has been pretty consistent. He has been drawing the top defenseman and he's still been pretty good throughout. I'm real happy with his performance."

This week's games are not make-or-break for UT. The Spartans will be in good shape no matter what happens, particularly the Mercyhurst contest, which will count on the in-region record. The biggest challenge may be how they handle cold temperatures expected in the area.

"I've been praying that maybe it will go to 50," Whipple said, chuckling. "I just checked it this morning and it's something like 43 on Thursday and 41 on Saturday. I said 'You're killing me.' But it will make the kids run fast to stay warm."

Mercyhurst Gets the Thumbs Up

"There are finger people and there are thumb people. Finger people blame others and thumb people are accountable."

Merychurst head coach Chris Ryan put the Queens loss on his shoulders. "I tell the kids all the time: as much as I hold them accountable, I have to be accountable, too," he said. His team responded by rallying to defeat Dowling on Saturday. (Lee Weissman)

That's one of Chris Ryan's maxims, and in the wake of Mercyhurst's two-game skid early this season in which they lost to ECAC rival Seton Hill and then Queens, the Lakers head coach felt he needed to be a thumb guy.

"We didn't do a good job and that is on my shoulders," Ryan said. "We didn't do a good job digesting the Seton Hill situation and then we went down south. You have to get ready to play the next game and I don't think I did a good job with that one with the kids. I tell the kids all the time: as much as I hold them accountable, I have to be accountable, too."

As Ryan and his staff were trying to buck the team back up for Saturday's huge game against Dowling – one that counted as an in-region tilt – he had to convince them that the root of the two-game skid had nothing to do with their ability to play the game.

"In one of the heart to heart talks we had with the kids in the locker room one day, I said, 'You still wear blue and green. That hasn't changed," Ryan said. "'You still play the game of lacrosse. That hasn't changed. We still have practice every day and you still have to go to class. That hasn't changed. So what's changed? The only thing changed was between your ears and your perception of yourselves and the program.'"

It was with this speech ringing in their ears that the Lakers entered the Dowling game.

Fifteen minutes later, Mercyhurst was down, 5-1.

"As a coach and watching that game unfolding, I thought, 'God, I hope something happens good for this team,'" Ryan said. "We just need something to click here because the kids did put a lot of work in during the course of this week."

The break came in the form of a pair of penalties assessed to Dowling at the start of the second quarter, both of which were converted for scores to cut the lead to 5-3. By the halftime break, the deficit was still only two, 6-4.

"To not only get those penalties but also capitalize on them, you could feel us getting back into it," Ryan said. "At that point, you are taking such a shellacking in the first quarter, as a coach you're thinking if we can get to halftime within a couple, maybe some good things will happen, and that's sort of what happened today."

The Lakers opened the third with five consecutive markers for a 9-6 lead that would hold up the rest of the way for the 10-8 victory. There was nothing magical Ryan said at halftime. It was just a visceral reaction by the kids with the season on the line.

"At halftime, it was fight or flight," Ryan said. "The season, to a certain extent, was hanging in the balance. The kids said, 'If we're not going to get our noses dirty and get out there and play, we're going to be in for a long season. This is it.'"

Now it's Ryan's chance to be a finger guy.

"It was the kids. They responded."

Lacrosse Magazine's Player of the Week

Brady Heseltine, Sr., A - Mercyhurst
The Lakers made the long trip to Long Island to face one of the hotter teams in the country, but thanks to Heseltine, Mercyhurst rallied to beat No. 4 Dowling, 10-8. Heseltine scored five goals and set up two others, keeping the Lakers in the hunt for an NCAA berth out of the South region. Two of the goals were on breakaways and another was on the man-up. "He got them in all sorts of ways," Mercyhurst head coach Chris Ryan said. "He was just the right man in the right spot today."

Honor Roll
Michael Beimford (Colorado Mesa), Anthony Berardis (LIU Post), John Bretton (Coker), Matt Brigham (Bentley), Dom Cianfarano (Roberts Wesleyan), Andrew Chadderdon (Le Moyne), Garrett Chan (Queens), Dylan Ciolino (Walsh), Evan Farkas (Queens), Elliot Gilbert (Pfeiffer), Reagan Harding (Lake Erie), Dan Krispinsky (Florida Southern), Michael Melnychenko (Chestnut Hill), Luke Miller (NYIT), Seth Miller (Roberts Wesleyan), Marc Piche (Seton Hill), Matthew Quinones (Dominican-NY), Kyle Rhatigan (Limestone), Dane Sorensen (Florida Southern), Garrett Smith (Assumption), Bryce Sneed (Wingate), Sal Tuttle (Adelphi), Nick Watson (Adelphi).

Bracket Watch

While the top three seeds in each region appear to be set at this point (it will almost certainly change by the end of the season, but right now it looks solid), but the fourth seed is wide open. That's a good thing, as every game keeps its importance.

In the North, LIU Post moves into the last slot, replacing Merrimack, but we'll find out on Tuesday who is the rightful owner of that spot when the two meet in North Andover. In the South, Seton Hill hangs on to the fourth slot thanks to its head-to head win over Mercyhurst, but the Lakers are right there after beating Dowling.

LIU Post (5-2) at Le Moyne (9-0)
Dowling (5-2) at Adelphi (8-0)

Seton Hill (5-2) at Limestone (9-1)
Pfeiffer (8-1) at Tampa (10-1)

Slides & Rides

- What should we take from Colorado Mesa's four-game Florida run last week? The final count was a 2-2 mark, but there was only one truly disappointing performance. The wins over Rollins and Lynn to bookend the trip were expected, and the Mavericks ability to go to the wire with No. 5 Tampa in a 10-9 loss speaks to the fact that A.J. Stevens group isn't too far off the pace when it wants to be. Mesa will undoubtedly be frustrated about coughing up a 7-2 second half lead to the Spartans, but again, it's confirmation about how close the program is.

The only clunker was the 15-6 setback to Florida Southern when the Mavs took five second quarter penalities, helping the Mocs build an 8-2 lead. The performance can likely be chalked up to a hangover effect after the Tampa game, which was the marquee contest of the trip. Mesa's – and the WILA's – postseason chances are extinct now, so the focus turns to winning the conference championship and setting the schedule for next year in hopes of getting that shot at the NCAAs.

- There's still a hefty portion of the seasons left, but the race for the four spots in the ECC tournament is going to be fascinating. It's probably going to boil down to five teams – NYIT, LIU Post, Dowling, Molloy and Chestnut Hill – competing in this postseason version of musical chairs. The possibility it will come down to a league-sanctioned tie-breaker is very real, especially after LIU Post beat Chestnut Hill on Saturday, creating a three-way scramble that also includes Molloy (Molloy beat Post and Chestnut Hill beat Molloy). The other two could get into that same mix, with only one thing being certain: a very good team isn't going to make the field.

- Adelphi's Nick Watson posted a nifty, 10-point game against Southern N.H...Lake Erie has won four straight since the 0-3 start. The Storm can get back in the discussion if they beat Seton Hill on Sunday...Pfeiffer narrowly avoided a potentially devastating loss by edging Catawba in overtime, 10-9. The Falcons are in good shape, but they are a long way from being a lock...both Dominican (Calif.) and Dominican (N.Y.) lost to Division III schools this weekend...Adams State lost to a D3 squad, as well...Dowling got through their grueling fortnight at 2-2, which is pretty darn good...all eyes on No. 2 Adelphi at No. 1 Le Moyne on Saturday.

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