April 13, 2012

Coyne v. Censer: The Death of a Rivalry?

by Jac Coyne and Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Every shot has seemed like a life-and-death struggle between Stevenson and Salisbury over the past half-decade. Will everything change once Stevenson moves to a new conference or will this contest remain a marquee date on the Division III calendar?
© John Strohsacker

Next spring, when Stevenson is snuggled into its new home in the Middle Atlantic Conference and Salisbury is still toying with the Capital, the two teams will play. The date is already set: Thursday, April 3, at 4 p.m.

Mark your calendars.

It will rekindle a rivalry that has been one of the finest that Division III has offered for the past four years. Since 2009, when Villa Julie changed its name to Stevenson, the Mustangs hold a 4-3 advantage over the Sea Gulls – the only team that can boast a .500-plus record against the Eastern Shore factory – and the teams have traded off wins and losses for the most part (Stevenson won two straight in '09).

When the two meet on Saturday for their final regular season conference clash (they could easily see each other two more times this spring), the contest will not disappoint.

But will it be this way next year? Will it mean as much? Will it possess the same cachet that it has right now?

I'm not so sure, and mostly because there is inherently more gravitas with a conference game as opposed to a non-league contest. That's not to say there can't be great interconference match-ups. Years back, the Gettysburg-Middlebury game was a date everyone looked forward to (my, how times have changed). Heck, last season, the Stevenson-Tufts clash was Lacrosse Magazine's Game of the Year, and this year's edition didn't lack in the hype department.

But those contests are also inter-regional games, and with Division III's current set-up (and lack of prominent travel budgets), that makes them more enticing.

In-region, non-conference games very rarely move the needle. For as competitive as the games have been, the Western New England-Tufts tilt will never hold the same weight as the Tufts-Middlebury game (even this year). For as important as it was, the Lynchburg-Salisbury game can't hold a candle to Lynchburg-Roanoke. The examples are endless.

Perhaps the one in-region, non-conference game that could, at one time, make the claim of riveting the division was the Salisbury-WAC "War on the Shore" of the late '90s when the stakes were at their highest. Now any excitement about that game is more for a bygone era than for the contest itself. Even with a resurgent Shoremen this spring, this match-up will bring only a niche audience. With both Salisbury and Washington College striving for their conference's automatic qualifier, there just isn't that much at stake per annum.

I can see the Stevenson-Salisbury rivalry going the same route. With the game falling in early April, the Sea Gulls will have their eyes on the CAC prize while the Mustangs will just be getting into their MAC slate. Sure, there will likely be some potential NCAA seeding and Pool C repercussions on a year-to-year basis. And the two programs will continue to grapple over choice recruits and transfers, which can only keep the game interesting. But couldn't you say the same thing about the Gettysburg-Cabrini contest? Or maybe Springfield-Endicott?

Joel, I think we'll both have an eye on this game whenever it rolls around on the calendar just because they are premier teams, but I don't think it will ever hold that same edge we've come to expect without both of the teams striving for all of the same trophies. What say you?

CENSER: Jac's extensive historical narrative missed something.

Talent drives rivalries.

I remember in 2005 when I found out Gettysburg had throttled Middlebury 18-6. Reading over the box score (and watching the subsequent E-Lacrosse clips), I felt like my older brother had just beaten up the playground bully (a finely coiffed, North Face-styled bully at that) and sent him up North to boarding school.

We "Southern" folk finally found out what would happen when the NESCAC superpower left its New England confines. Yes, we knew Middlebury started practice later, and would probably peak in May (which they did). But we were proud of Chase Stewart, Chris Renzi, Brian Pryor and the rest of the Bullets for grinding the Panthers up like they were some kind of Centennial bottom-feeder.

Yeah, teams in the same conference probably burn the rivalry fires brighter. A historic match-up like Ohio Wesleyan and Denison isn't just about a war for Columbus-area real estate, but NCAC supremacy (and there will be even more at stake when they are actually fighting for real NCAA bids).

But teams in the same conference or those within close (or far) geographic proximity from one another aren't the only things that create contempt.

The Stevenson and Salisbury matchup doesn't have buzz because people have an emotional investment in the CAC. Instead, it's because the match-up has the storylines and the talent to back it up. Upstart team takes on traditional power. Division I transplant squares off against maybe the greatest Division III coach ever. Eastern Shore against Baltimore. Up-tempo, transition-friendly team meets up-tempo transition-friendly team. Throw in guys like Mike Simon, Sam Bradman, Jimmy Dailey, Ray Finch, Ray Witte, Tony Mendes, Steve Kazimer, etc., and you know there's going to be fireworks.

If Paul Cantabene can keep the transfer pipeline open and if Jim Berkman keeps doing the same things he's been doing the last 24 years, then the blood spat will continue. Because rivalries don't follow state lines or conference alignments; they follow the talent.

To the games (last week was a push, so it's Jac at 33-12 and Joel posting a 29-16 mark)...

No. 13 Amherst (8-3) at No. 7 Tufts (9-2) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: This was the game where the NESCAC torch was to be passed from Tufts to Amherst, much as Middlebury handed it to the Jumbos a couple of years ago. There's certainly a chance that Amherst wins this game, but it won't be a seminal moment for the program. It has become clear over the past four games – three of which were losses – that the Lord Jeffs aren't quite ready to be the flag-bearer of the nation's strongest conference.

Meanwhile, Tufts is on a four-game streak after losing in overtime to Trinity on March 31. As expected, the Jumbos' defense has been the anchor, with just one team (Stevens) cracking double-digits, but the callow offense is slowly catching up. Even Sean Kirwan returned for Tuesday game against Endicott, scoring a goal.

There's too much talent on Amherst for the pendulum not to swing back in favor of the Jeffs at some point, but it won't be this weekend. Pachyderms, 10-9.

CENSER: Fortunately for the Lord Jeffs, if we've learned anything about the NESCAC over the past few years, it's that if a squad gets a bid to the conference tournament, they're fair game to make the NCAAs.

So Amherst hasn't played their way out of playoffs just yet. But they are learning very quickly that front-running is no easy task.

Still, Jac's right. Tufts – beyond the Kevin McCormick shooting gallery – is playing stingy defense. I can't see this Amherst squad (in a prolonged shooting slump) cracking double digits against Patton Watkins, Sam Gardner and the rest of the boys from Medfahd. Tufts, 12-7.

No. 1 Salisbury (14-0) at No. 4 Stevenson (12-2) – Saturday, 7 p.m.

COYNE: While I was flipping through NCAA stats this week, I was marveling about the numbers put up by Salisbury's faceoff man, Tyler Granelli. The junior is currently running at a 69.2 percent (128-of-185) clip. More startling was Granelli's back-up, sophomore Chris Biank, has won 70.5 percent (103-for-146) of his draws. This is a paralyzing advantage for a team with as many offensive weapons as the Sea Gulls.

Stevenson will keep this tighter than it might otherwise be with the Mustangs' solid defense and careful offense. However, unless they find some eligibility for Ray Witte, Stevenson won't be able to stop the one or two big Salisbury runs that will prove to be the difference. Gulls, 12-8.

CENSER: Stevenson has surprised me this season. Replacing Dailey, Witte, Kyle Mendenez, Evan Douglass, Richie Ford and Neal Barthelme (among others) is no easy task and the Mustangs have bounced back nicely. Although I don't know if the 10-6 mid-week win over Marymount was more Stevenson struggling on offense or looking towards the weekend.

Still, it's worth mentioning that the favorite often doesn't win this game. And something tells me that the coronation of Salisbury, like in 2006, is a bit premature.

So can Stevenson win enough face-offs (don't underestimate Cantabene's expertise here) and keep up with Sam Bradman, Tony Mendes (who seems healthy), Matt Cannone, Erik Krum and the rest of high-octane Sea Gull offense for 60 minutes? It could happen, but I'm not ready to commit to this young 'Stang squad yet. 14-9, Salz.

No. 20 RPI (9-2) at No. 5 Union (7-2) – Saturday, 7 p.m.

COYNE: I'd be curious to know the last time a team was ranked in the Top 5 in Division III with a cumulative faceoff percentage of 41.9 percent (65-for-155). That's what the Dutchmen have put together this spring, and it's somewhat amazing they have the record they do. Fortunately, that disadvantage is canceled out by having Sean Aaron between the pipes and a stingy defense in front of him.

But that stat will catch up to them at some point, and I think it will be this week. It's not like the Engineers are loaded with FOGO technicians. RPI has a modest 51.4 percentage rate at the dot and got housed by RIT (16-for-21) during Saturday's victory. Still, Brian Larkin (69-for-114; 60.5%) will get the Engineers enough possessions for them to sneak just enough past Aaron. Rensselaer with the upset, 8-7 in overtime.

CENSER: Well, we found out on Wednesday that Union's face-off problems would catch up with them. Williams, 1-4 in the NESCAC, took the Dutchmen down by dominating the face-off square (13-for-18).

If the Engineers can break double digits, they'll win. But I'm not sold that RPI can solve the Union defense and the Sean Aaron equation just yet. 7-6, Union.

Jac's Pick

No. 18 Bowdoin (8-3) at Wesleyan (8-2) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: John Raba told me a couple of weeks ago that he wants nothing to do with the weekly polls because he feels like his players are more focused without the distractions. The guy obviously knows his team, as each time the Cardinals have cracked the polls, they've lost to an unranked team. It's either the polls, or an inherent issue with Maine teams. Both losses this season have come against Pine Tree Staters Bates and Colby. Up next? Bowdoin.

Historically, this game has been played on the first weekend of the season, but the addition of Hamilton has shaken up the calendar. Now the game will be played in better weather and a lot more will be on the line. Whichever team picks up this victory will have to feel very good about its NCAA chances while the loser will be a little uneasy.

I'll take the Cardinals and the under. Wes Tech, 5-4.

CENSER: Trinity provided a nice blueprint to the rest of the NESCAC on how to take down the Polar Bears: win faceoffs, get a big performance from your goalkeeper, and grind it out on offense.

Wesleyan, with Grant Covington in net (who, save for the Colby loss, has been a stud) seems primed for the upset. But I think Bowdoin has enough firepower and offensive leadership to figure out the zone here. Bowdoin, 11-6.

Joel's Pick

No. 17 Gettysburg (8-3) at No. 15 Washington College (8-2) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

CENSER: This game hasn't had relevance since Chris Read and Andrew McGann were battling it out in 2008.

Lost in the weekday victory lap by the Washington College faithful is that Gettysburg never went anywhere. The Bullets are going to play good defense, they're going to win faceoffs, and they're going to make WAC earn everything. Not to mention the emergence of UMass transfer Ryan Fumai at the midfield has given the Bullets some more scoring punch.

I'm happy for the Shoremen's resurgence. But Gettysburg always starts slow and then strings together a bunch of midseason wins. Well, I've seen this story before. 'Burg, 9-7.

COYNE: I've been burned on countless occasions doubting the Bullets, but sometimes you've got to ride the wave. WAC obviously isn't the flavor of the month - the Shoremen have been around the block a time or two - but they are the fresh pick at this point.

It ain't easy being Geesey. WAC, 12-7.

Coyne v. Censer Archive

Week Eight: Defining "Institutional Advantage"
Week Seven: Making a Case for the NCAC
Week Six: Whittier Still California Dreaming
Week Five: Finding the ODAC's Blueprint
Week Four: NESCAC's Degree of Difficulty
Week Three: Using Scheduling to Recruit
Week Two: The State of the Shoremen
Week One: Starting with a Must-Win Game

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