June 5, 2012

Wrap: Thoughts from Memorial Day Weekend

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

One of the highlights of the weekend for Jac Coyne was watching the heartfelt emotion from the Dowling players after the Golden Lions won their first-ever NCAA Division II national championship.
© Kevin P. Tucker

As I exited the bowels of Gillette Stadium on Memorial Day Monday for the final time, I gave my man, Joel Censer, a handshake and walked to the edge of Patriot Place to await my ride. The whole thing had an odd lilt to it, kind of like college graduation day when everyone is walking around in a semi-daze thinking to themselves, "What now?"

That's kind of the feeling at the end of the lacrosse season. It is such an intensive five months that when it finally comes to a close on Memorial Day, one is left with a sort of rudderless sensation that is hard to describe. It's not necessarily a bad thing, as I was able to combo my trip back East with four days of fishing in Central Maine. But with the amount of time invested in small school lacrosse, my hiatus naturally allowed for retrospection.

Here are some thoughts from Foxboro (the way it should be spelled):

The Brotherhood

Eliciting opinions from small college coaches about their colleagues through the course of the spring would best be described as a mutual admiration society. Rare is the day when a coach criticizes one of his brethren. In fact, coaches usually go out of their way to praise their counterparts, even if the facts at hand belie the kudos. As a third party in the whole thing, I just assumed that this was part of an unwritten rule.

I was speaking with Salisbury's Jim Berkman outside of the Sea Gulls' locker room after the win over Cortland for a magazine story I was writing, and suddenly a figure loomed off to the right. It was probably 45 minutes after the game was over and the corridor was nearly empty. Most of the Cortland guys had departed for their bus and the Salisbury players were celebrating in the locker room.

In mid-conversation with me, Berkman paused and turned to Steve Beville, the coach of the vanquished Cortland squad, and accepted the proffered handshake. The two embraced each other. "Congrats, buddy," said Beville. "Thanks," said Berkman, calling Beville by his nickname.

I turned off my recorder and stepped back, allowing the two to briefly converse. Despite talking with them on countless occasions, I felt like an interloper. Even though the two were just minutes beyond their ultimate objective, the coaches were unbelievably gracious with each other, the respect oozing from the conversation.

A couple of hours before, I was about to speak with Dowling's Tim Boyle after the Golden Lions' upset of Limestone in the NCAA Division II championship game. Slipping in between the reporters lined up to speak with Boyle was Mike Cerino, the Limestone athletic director and head coach of the MLL's Charlotte Hounds.

"Great job, coach," said Cerino.

Like many of his players, Boyle was coherent, but in a sort of daze after reaching a goal that was nearly derailed in the last day of the season by the same Limestone team that had just been defeated. He gave a smile and a heartfelt thanks to Cerino, who quickly ambled down the hall. Saints' coach J.B. Clarke undoubtedly gave the same sentiments even though I was not there to witness it.

Are these interactions limited to the small college teams? Of course not. After the Division I semifinal, Duke coach John Danowski, who could only be described as heartbroken, made it a point to praise at every turn the Maryland team that had just downed his Blue Devils. After the finals loss to Loyola, Maryland's John Tillman gave one of the most gracious postgame press conferences I've witnessed.

This whole thing might not seem like a big deal, but there are only a couple of jobs where you have to face a semi-informed media in the minutes following a professional failure. How would you fare if a sale, project or paper you were working on didn't live up to expectations and you had deal with a horde of critics questioning every decision? Would you have a smile on your face? Would you congratulate another person who did it better?

I'm not asking anyone to build a statue for lacrosse coaches; they signed up for this gig and they get paid – sometimes handsomely – for it. But, personally, I'm heartened by the respect that they show for each other in an immensely competitive industry. The fact that they can salute their peers in the lowest moments says a lot for this group of guys.

The Attendance Quandary

As my colleague, Corey McLaughlin, pointed out, the low attendance numbers at the championship weekend is cause for concern. The piece looked at the situation more from a Division I perspective (which will always be the big driver of attendance), but what should we take from the small division standpoint?

Well, just like the Division I version, the paid attendance of 17,005 for Sunday when the Division II and Division III championship was held was the lowest since 2003. Back in '03, 15,417 fans watched Salisbury beat Middlebury (in OT) and NYIT beat Limestone in the first year the NCAA went to the big stadiums. The high water mark for both divisions (and just like D-I) was back in 2007 when 46,237 crammed into M&T Bank Stadium, and there has been a steady decline since.

The way the finals are set up, D-II and D-III will always be dependent on D-I providing compelling, and perhaps more importantly, localized match-ups. While those teams undoubtedly earned their way to the semifinals, there probably couldn't have been a worse quartet playing in the D-I semis in Southeastern Massachusetts from an attendance standpoint than the four that were there.

Taking into account that the D-II and D-III championships aren't televised and don't appear to be anytime soon, should the small divisions think about severing their ties to the D-I semis and finals and going to campus sites or another neutral location?

Absolutely not.

The opportunity to play on the same stage as the big boys, even if it's a sideshow, is a huge payoff for the guys toiling away in the bushes all year, and should be embraced. They'll never be the driver of attendance figures, but that's really not why players choose D-II/III.

At a fundamental level, we look at attendance figures as kind of an affirmation of the direction our sport is going, and seeing them decline over the past five years naturally causes some hand-wringing. There are a lot of issues at play, however, so it's best to resist the temptation to change what is happening. At this point, anyway.

Other Notes

- I happened to be in the tunnel at Gillette when the Salisbury and Cortland teams exited their locker rooms to head out to the field. The Salisbury players were whooping it up, with chants and loud proclamations broken up by an occasional bird call that I assume was meant to be a Sea Gull (it sounded more like a crow). Meanwhile, the Cortland players were completely silent as they strode out of their locker room – eyes forward and no chatter. It's not really indicative of anything, but I found it interesting how two championship-caliber teams approach their business.

- There is always a level of joy when a championship team makes its way to the locker rooms after the game. Still, there was something different about the Dowling team as they soaked up their 11-10 win over Limestone. Whereas there was a sense of relief on the faces of the Loyola players who finished their title run grind and a somewhat perfunctory, "been there, done that" celebratory finish for Salisbury, the Dowling players were downright giddy. As LaxMagazine.com's Matt Forman brilliantly showed in his game story from the D-II title game, the Golden Lions really didn't know how to behave. They just went with it, and it could do nothing but bring a smile to your face.

- When I spoke with Cortland coach Steve Beville after the game, we started talking about how the game, won by Salisbury, 14-10, played out. The conversation turned toward how the Sea Gulls managed to grab the victory. "The biggest difference was Sam Bradman," Beville said. "Sam Bradman. Can I just say two words?" Bradman became the first player to win Most Outstanding Player honors in two consecutive D-III championship games after following up his seven-goal, one-assist performance last year against Tufts with a six-goal, one-dime outing versus the Red Dragons.

- One of the weirdest juxtapositions of the weekend was talking with Limestone's J.B. Clarke – the former head coach at Washington College – while Salisbury's Jim Berkman was stanind about 15 feet away. The two are in different divisions now, but went head-to-head for numerous Wars on the Shore...it will be interesting to see what the Sea Gull starting lineup looks like next year. There is going to be a huge attrition rate...same with Limestone...Dowling and Cortland will be in better shape when 2013 rolls around...with Cortland wearing white for the championship game, it's evident that the committee felt they were the overall No. 1 seed...it was nice to speak with some of the guys from Inside Lacrosse and other publications during my time in Foxboro. Located in the Upper Midwest, I don't brush up against many people from the lacrosse media, and it's interesting to touch base. I suppose there's a de facto competition between publications and websites covering the sport, but I enjoyed speaking with many of them and watching them put in plenty of hours in the press box.

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