May 6, 2014

MD2 Notebook: Whipple's Premier Performance

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Tampa head coach Rory Whipple (above) has built programs at Bryant and Florida Southern, but his work with the Spartans exceeds them all. "Yes, this is certainly the best job I've done," he said. (Tampa Athletics)

Days before the beginning of a program's first NCAA tourney game seems like an odd time to wax historic about its coach, but it's difficult to appreciate what Tampa has accomplished without recognizing the man who built it.

Tampa is the third start-up program that Rory Whipple has brought to life. He brought Bryant – then Division II, now Division I – online in 2000, and then commenced the Florida Southern program in 2009. He has extensive coaching experience at Clarkson (seven years) and Hartwick (12), but starting teams from scratch has become his expertise.

Heading into this spring, only one of his previous 33 seasons resulted in a bid to the NCAA tournament (Hartwick '95). Now that the Spartans have been named one of the four teams in the South region – and just one of eight in the entirety of Division II – in just its third season, it's not terribly surprising that Whipple pinpoints his time at Tampa as his premier performance.

"From all my years of experience, I was confident when I came here that this could really be a good program," Whipple said. 'We're very fortunate: we won 11 games in our first year. In our second year, we kept on progressing to get better. But, yes, this is certainly the best job I've done."

Whipple and his staff have built the Spartans program using a blend of four-year players, JuCos and transfers. There have been key contributions this season from all three of those sub-sets, but one player has stood out from the others.

Even though his father counseled against it – at least for a year – Conor Whipple, the coach's son, has been a difference-maker.

"All these kids going through high school, their dream is to go to the best university they can and play Division I lacrosse," Whipple the Elder said. "Certainly, [Conor] had a great opportunity. I persuaded him to give it a shot. He went to Georgetown and I thought he probably should have stayed the whole year, but he made the decision over Christmas to come back and play for me. It's sort of surreal that he has done that and done so well, and we're having the success we're having this year. He's been a big part of it."

The Whipple scion has 46 goals and 40 assists this spring – good for fourth in the country in points per game (5.06) – while earning Sunshine State Conference player of the year honors. He has four game-winning goals, and combined with fellow D-I transfers Dan Rooney (60g, 8a) and Mike Morris (23g, 10a), Whipple has given Tampa a powerful frontline.

"I'm really happy for him that he made the decision to come here and really happy for him about the success he has had this year," Whipple said of Conor's arrival. "He was the player of the year in the conference, and one of the leading scorers in the NCAA and I really didn't expect that from him. I thought he'd do a good job, but I thought he overachieved for us this year."

As the Whipples and the rest of the Spartans found out as they gathered after practice on Sunday for the NCAA selection show, they not only made the tournament, but they will host the first-ever NCAA lacrosse tournament game in the state of Florida. Tampa earned the second seed, meaning they will be hosting third-seeded Mercyhurst on Saturday.

It will be the second meeting between the two programs this season. The Spartans traveled to Eria, Pa., on April 5 – a location and time of year that isn't conducive to players who have been bathed in sun all winter – and the results weren't pretty.

The Lakers rolled Tampa, 14-7.

"We never got off the bus," Whipple said. "We show up and it's 36 degrees and the wind was 45 miles per hour. We struggled to win faceoffs and we just never got going. That was a big game for Mercyhurst and you could tell they've been around. They came out and played with a lot of confidence and they certainly took it to us. Looking ahead, I'd be excited about getting another shot at them. Hopefully it won't be as cold, we'll get a different warm-up and it'll be a different game."

It could be a different game. Or it could be another Mercyhurst win. In the macro view of Tampa, however, this Saturday's result won't impact the skyrocketing trajectory that the Spartans have set after just three years.

"I really didn't put a time frame on it once I got this job," Whipple said. "I just worked as hard as I could to be the best we could be. I think making the NCAAs in three years is definitely a great accomplishment for this program."

Adelphi Staff Teams Up to Down Merrimack

"I've got this."

That's what Adelphi assistant coach Joe Catalanotti said into Gordon Purdie's ear after Purdie called a timeout in overtime on Sunday's Northeast-10 champion game against Merrimack.

The Panthers head coach didn't protest.

"Coach Cat ran a play that allowed Sal Tuttle to drive high and get a hands free shot off a question mark dodge," Purdie said. "Credit goes to Sal, but also to Coach Cat, who put that play together. We were going to call a timeout if we got the ball and Aiden [Bennardo] came up with a big save. I think there is a reason why a guy is voted the unanimous player of the year and to see him go score the winning the goal to put the stamp on us being championships makes it well deserved."

The players make it happen on the field, but Purdie knows he's blessed by peers he has surrounded himself – and the Panthers – with.

"Coach Cat made that happened," Purdie said of the winning play. "I'm thrilled to have the coaching staff I do. I've got some of the best offensive coaches in the game today."

Now they'll try to prove it on the big stage, and hopefully get the 13-year national championship monkey off their collective backs.

Lacrosse Magazine's Player of the Week

Sal Tuttle, Soph., A – Adelphi
He was the focus of the Merrimack defense, and Tuttle still couldn't be stopped in the NE-10 title tilt. He finished with five goals, including the championship winning goal in overtime that kept the Panthers on top of the North bracket heap when the selections came out.

Slides & Rides

- This winter took its toll on every team, but if I had to choose one team that it impacted the most, it would probably be Lake Erie. Despite starting its season weeks after most of their peers, the Storm opted to open up in Florida and North Carolina against three teams – Tampa, Florida Southern and Pfeiffer – who were all staples in the regional rankings. Once the Storm got their legs underneath them, however, they rattled off 10 wins in the last 11 games, including the ECAC-II tournament championship. A win in just one of those opening three – or if LEC got a chance at Mercyhurst in the conference title game instead of Seton Hill – we might be talking about the Storm's chances in the postseason. As one coach told me over the weekend, Lake Erie is one team no one would want to see right now.

- Here's my "Bracket Breakdown" for NCAA Division II, touching on various topics about the tournament participants....Reagan Harding was a monster in the ECAC tournament. The Lake Erie midfielder accounted for a third of the team's 18 goals while also dishing out a pair of assists. You can probably pencil him onto the short list of preseason player of the year candidates for '15...Mercyhurst probably isn't happy about traveling, but there are a lot worse places to go than Tampa...Limestone head coach J.B. Clarke actually flew up to scout out the Mercyhurst-Seton Hill game on Friday, but his flight back got canceled, so he had to rent a car and drive the 12 hours to Gaffney to be back in time for the Saints game against Catawba on Saturday night. I probably would have just paid the $9 for the live stream...Tampa also sent one of its assistants to scout out the 'Hurst-Hill game in person. "We've got it covered," Whipple said.

- Just in case you've been hiding under a rock for the past 24 hours, here are the brackets:

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