February 9, 2012

Depth Makes Liberty League More Competitive

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

RIT brings a new swagger to the Liberty League with sharpshooters like senior midfielder Jordan Collins-Hartwig.
© Rich Barnes

On a road trip to Clarkson last March, Rochester Institute of Technology men’s lacrosse coach Jake Coon watched the unranked Golden Knights race out to a 5-1 lead after the first quarter and still hold a three-goal advantage over his then No. 8-ranked Tigers late in the third quarter. RIT rallied for a 12-10 victory, but it was a harbinger of the challenges the Tigers will face this year when they join Clarkson in the revamped Liberty League.

“They were stomping us,” Coon said. “We couldn’t do anything right, and they were just pouring it on. We ended up coming back to win, but it was not an easy contest.”

The fact that Clarkson was the fourth-best team in the Liberty League a year ago gave Coon a good indication of what to expect in 2012. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Liberty League runner-up, also took the Tigers to overtime two weeks before the Clarkson game.

Not that RIT isn’t used to the heavy workload. Its former conference, the Empire 8, has traditionally been one of the deepest in Division III, and the league sent two other teams to NCAA tournament last year along with RIT, which finished the regular season ranked No. 2 nationally and was the top seed in the North Region.

However, this Liberty League looks much different than the one in 2009 when the realignment was announced. At that point, St. Lawrence was the dominant program, having never lost a conference game while gobbling up all of the automatic qualifiers since the conference’s inception. But St. Lawrence went winless against Liberty League competition last year, even losing to Vassar, the usualconference caboose. Five teams, including RIT, have legitimate aspirations to win the league crown in 2012.

While the heightened difficulty of the conference schedule with the addition of RIT will likely give other Liberty League coaches some sleepless nights, it could help the conference get a second team into the NCAA tournament for the first time in its history.

“It definitely will help us getting two bids to the NCAAs,” said Union head coach Paul Wehrum, who guided the Dutchmen to the conference title in 2011. “It’s adding a quality team to an already great conference. Every team wants to make the playoffs, so this will only help our chances, not hurt them. I couldn’t be happier.”

Skidmore head coach Jack Sandler, who played college lacrosse at Bates, dismissed the contrary notion that adding a strong team might hurt the Liberty League’s chances of getting a second bid, likening it to the conference in which he played.

“I look at the NESCAC, and that’s a league that chews each other up all year, and they get two or three teams in the tournament,” Sandler said. “Playing that competitive schedule and non-league schedule will make a big difference. I haven’t seen everyone else’s 2012 schedules, but our schedule is way ramped up from where it has been the past.”

Sandler said RIT not only brings a good team to the Liberty League, but also a strong non-conference schedule that includes Nazareth, Cortland, Endicott and Ithaca — a bonus considering the NCAA tournament selection committee’s emphasis on ratings percentage indexes.

“The key to the whole thing is it’s just not your opponents, but it’s how good of a schedule they are playing, also,” Sandler said. “RIT playing a very strong out-of-league schedule is a great thing for the league, and Skidmore specifically.”

RIT is the presumptive Liberty League favorite for 2012, but Coon doesn’t buy that.

“We have a huge mountain to climb,” he said.

Still, he recognized that the Tigers’ move to their new lair has the potential to remake the Liberty League into one of the best conferences in the nation.

“I personally don’t think the Liberty League gets enough respect. I’m hoping that with this move and the success that we’ve had, we might solidify that respect,” Coon said. “I think [the respect] should have been there. It just hasn’t been. You look at Union that came up and played Nazareth and took it to them pretty good. I think both leagues are great, and I think the Liberty League is a league to be reckoned with.”

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM.

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