April 12, 2012

Coyne's Midseason Rewind: NCAA Division III

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

Washington College is back in the polls for the first time since 2009, helped by the play of a strong senior class led by goalie Peter Stewart.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Two games into the season and two losses for Washington College. Even in the previous three seasons when the Shoremen went a combined 18-26, they never started a season with a pair of losses. Second-year head coach Jeff Shirk could tell that some people were uneasy.

"The questions were, 'Oh, man, what's going on?' Everyone was asking, 'Are you OK?' There were concerns because coming into the season we knew we had a good group, but the reality was we didn't play poorly in the first two games," Shirk said. "It was there, it just hadn't all come together yet. Looking back from this point in the season, I can say that I wasn't worried, but during it I was a little bit. But I also knew it was a matter of time before it clicked."

The click occurred after the loss to Washington & Lee in the second contest.

"We sat down and watched that film," Shirk said. "W&L is a very good team, but we absolutely beat ourselves. As soon as the guys sat back and said, 'OK, this is what the coaches mean by we're beating ourselves,' it just sort of clicked. It was that week of practice after the W&L game when the light bulb went off and we started to turn things around."

The Shoremen beat Elizabethtown three days after the W&L setback, sparking an eight-game tear that not only has Washington College atop the Centennial Conference heading into this weekend's game with Gettysburg, but also earning a national ranking for the first time since 2009.

How will Shirk handle the fact that WAC is considered among the finest 20 programs in the country by his peers?

"I don't know because this is the first time we've been ranked," said Shirk, with a chuckle. "Not getting any votes a couple of weeks ago really upset the kids and motivated them. Last week, getting some votes but not quite being in the Top 20, really motivated them, so we'll see how they respond. I want to pat the guys on the back for being ranked. It's a neat thing. I know people are excited and the alumni are excited, but during meetings we talk about how rankings aren't going to win you games and you have to prepare the same way."

Whether it's motivation or maturity, Shirk has been impressed with how his team has handled the pressure-packed situations. With under 30 seconds left against Dickinson – a win that would propel the Shoremen into the polls – WAC was hit with a slashing penalty. The Red Devils called a timeout to set up a final play.

Shirk's players ran over to the sidelines.

"They came into the huddle and I really think being man-down helped us focus even more," Shirk said. "Guys weren't panicked. They weren't complaining about the call or freaking out by any means. Guys started talking about it and got focused, and it was interesting because we stopped them on man-down and into the overtime and then we stopped them on defense, failed on a clear, stopped them on defense again, until we finally got the ball on the offensive end over three minutes into overtime. And there wasn't one time where I felt like our guys were tightening up or were worried. It's not surprising, but just the dynamic of the group and how they handle the pressure, it's hard to put in words."

Pressure will only continue to mount on the Shoremen as they try to earn their first bid to the NCAA tournament since 2008. While they are in good shape now, there is still plenty of brutal games ahead.

"As soon as the guys start saying we're pretty good, that's when you get beat," Shirk said. "One of the things we've tried to stress with them is at the end of the season you can sit back and kind of reflect on what you did well, but don't do it right now. We have really pushed them to enjoy the big wins at the tailgate and after the game and for a day, but as soon as we get back in on Monday, we have to start focusing on the next opponent. They've been really good at doing that."

Most Illuminating Contest

Tufts vs. Stevenson: Last year, we witnessed the best game of the year as two of the three most high-powered offenses danced among the raindrops. This spring? We watched as a pair of teams tried to reinvent themselves in different ways. Stevenson continued its quest to completely flip the script from 2011 and become a team that wins through its defense. Tufts tried to keep its wide-open style while plugging brand new pieces into some of the most important roles.

By shutting out the Jumbos for nearly the final 24 minutes of the 9-5 victory, the Mustangs showed a defense that could serve them well in the postseason. The Jumbos still displayed a propensity for creating opportunities against the most stubborn of backlines. While there isn't quite the same buzz around these two programs as there was last year, if they can get healthy by the time the tournament rolls around, they are both going to be a handful again.

Surprising Teams

Albright: The hot start was fun, but now the Lions are knocking off perennial NCAA qualifiers (Widener). No one saw this coming.
Amherst: If you're not mentally ready, expectations kill. That, and an inability to handle a zone defense. The Jeffs are still alive in both the Pool A and C hunts, but it won't be as pretty as some may have thought.
Cabrini: The Cavaliers are two goals away from a perfect season, notched the first win over Gettysburg and are up to No. 6.
Goucher: After watching Scranton take control of the Landmark last spring, the Gophers are back.
Middlebury: There's no sugarcoating it: Midd has underwhelmed. Alas, it's easy to write obituaries, but do so at your own peril with the Panthers.
St. Lawrence: The Saints got chewed up last year both out of conference and – more surprisingly – in conference. Now they again have legitimate Liberty title aspirations.
Washington College: New faces are always invigorating, but it's also nice to see an old lion roar. The Shoremen are relevant again and it's fun to see.

Player of the Year Candidates

Sean Aaron, Union: The lynchpin of the Dutchmen's success (6.74 GAA, 63.8 save percentage), Aaron gives Union a chance to win every game it plays.
Sam Bradman, Salisbury: If I need to explain, you need to leave.
Greg Wright, Cortland: The senior is deadly whether he's shooting (19g) or passing (20a) and makes the Red Dragon offense operate efficiently.

Coach of the Year Candidates

Steve Beville, Cortland: We knew Cortland would be good, but navigating that schedule with zero losses is an achievement worthy of accolades.
Paul Cantabene, Stevenson: After graduating one of the most prolific offensive classes in the division's history, Cantabene reshaped the Mustangs into a defensive juggernaut with similar results.
Kyle Hannan, Goucher: The Gophers are 12-1, including a road win over Washington College, and are looking like a rough draw in someone's bracket.
Mike Mahoney, St. Lawrence: Winless in the conference last year, the Saints are a one-goal loss to No. 5 Union away from being 10-0 this spring.
Jeff Shirk, Washington College: As noted above, the second-year coach shook off a rough start and brought the Shoremen to the top of the Centennial.

NCAA Tourney: Who's In, Out and On the Bubble?

Because of the breadth of the tournament (28-team bracket this year) and the various avenues for gaining access (the three pools), I could burn 1,500 words trying to break down this segment. For brevity's sake, I'll just take a look at those conferences that have the potential for multiple bids.

Capital: It's a lead-pipe lock that Stevenson and Salisbury will be in the tourney.
Centennial: Nothing is etched in stone quite yet, but this conference is looking good for at least a pair. Dickinson and WAC are leading the pack right now.
Liberty: All sorts of possibilities, with Union, RPI, RIT and maybe even St. Lawrence in the discussion.
NESCAC: The conference is looking good for three bids again, but who will get them? Tufts, Amherst, Bowdoin, Wesleyan and Trinity all have a shot.
NCAC: Denison and Ohio Wesleyan will be heading from the Pool B ranks. It's hard to find a third team this spring, however.
ODAC: Lynchburg is in by either Pool A (AQ) or Pool C (AL). Roanoke's on the bubble, but could punch its ticket via a victory over the Hornets in the ODAC tourney.

What to Watch Down the Stretch

The NESCAC tournament. When Middlebury could be the No. 8 seed, you know it's going to be epic.
Western New England vs. Endicott. These teams will meet on April 19 and then again the CCC title game. One very good team will be staying home.
NCAC vs. Whittier. The race for the last Pool B slot could come down to some narrow numbers.
RIT. Only four teams make the Liberty conference championship game and the Tigers are currently sitting at No. 4 with games against Union, St. Lawrence and a desperate Skidmore team remaining.
Empire 8. Not only is this looking like a one-bid league, but Stevens is no longer the favorite.

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