November 14, 2011

Fall Ball Brief

Skidmore Slowly Nears Promised Land

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

The Thoroughbreds have a relatively experienced team heading into the 2012 season, but it might be the play of faceoff middie Ryan Paradis that pushes Skidmore to its second NCAA tourney berth. 
© Skidmore Athletics

Every season is full of results that feel like they come out of nowhere. The 9-7 win for a then-unranked Skidmore team over No. 6 Dickinson in a neutral-site game in Orlando on March 16, definitely fit that bill. It wasn't that big a deal for the Red Devils, who eventually went on to win the Centennial championship and advance to the NCAA quarterfinals. For the Thoroughbreds, however, it finally provided tangible proof that this was not a team to be trifled with.

Skidmore had participated in the four-team Liberty League tournament the previous two seasons, so it was no slouch. However, it was still searching for a signature win to affirm it was headed in the right direction. The Dickinson win provided that.

Not that the Thoroughbreds thought the result was in doubt.

"What was crazy about it was our guys expected to win the game," said Skidmore head coach Jack Sandler, who is entering his seventh season in Saratoga Springs. "We felt it was a winnable game, and it didn't matter who we were playing that day. The players were really excited about showing everybody what we were made of."

The Dickinson win was the showcase game for Skidmore, but the learning moments came later in the season when the Thoroughbreds lost a pair of double-overtime games. The first extra-time setback was against Middlebury, 11-10, and the second came against RPI, 14-13, in the Liberty semifinals. A win in both of those contests and Skidmore likely would have participated in the NCAA tournament for the second time in program history.

"You'd think that game [against Dickinson] was the one we'd talk about, but honestly, we talk more about the two double-overtime losses and what we need to do to win those," said Sandler. "I think the expectations will come that we should win those games. That's where the focus is: repeating that performance against Dickinson, but still coming out on top in overtime games. What do we need to do to grind those out and come out on top?"

- Fall Ball Priority: "For us, it was about keeping the status quo in terms of how we want to play, which is up-tempo and fast," said Sandler. The Thoroughbreds graduate a class of 11 seniors, which is typically a hindrance to a program's continuity, but the returning group, along with the infusion of a 14-player rookie class has Sandler optimistic that there will be very little regression.

"We returned a pretty good core, which is kind of weird when you graduate 11 seniors," Sandler said. "Usually we're scrambling a little bit. But we've got our starting goalie back, a starting defensemen, a good face-off guy and guys on attack. We've got a good group back and the freshmen group is solid, so should be able to keep up the style of play."

- Know this Name: Brian Connolly. This spot is usually reserved for guys who have flown under the radar, not a team's second leading scorer, but Sandler feels his junior quarterback may have been overlooked last year and doesn't want it to happen again.

"He sounds like a guy you should know about, but he got overlooked for all-league and wasn't somebody who got a whole lot of recognition," Sandler said. "He's a real catalyst for what we're creating on offense. He is a sparkplug for us, and he recognizes how to create goals. Those kind of guys mean a lot of in this day and age. He's a guy who grinds it out, and he doesn't get the recognition."

Connolly scored 14 goals last year and dished out a team-high 25 assists for the Thoroughbreds.

- Horsepower: If Skidmore had defeated Middlebury or RPI last year, they would have been closer to an NCAA berth, but Sandler attempted to make sure that if the Thoroughbreds were left out of the tournament again, it wouldn't be because of their schedule. He was helped in that quest with the addition of RIT – the top team in the North last spring – to the Liberty League.

"It's certainly fun to be able to add them without having to work out the logistics," Sandler said. "That four-hour trip is not an easy one to do."

Sandler did the rest of the work, locking down four NESCAC teams – Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity and Williams – in non-conference action along with in-region tilts versus traditional heavyweights Haverford and Dickinson. Obviously, Skidmore still has to win a preponderance of those games, but as of right now, the power is definitely there.

- In Your Face: What's the most effective way for a team to flirt with the second season? A dominant draw man is a good start, and the Thoroughbreds have a stud in senior Ryan Paradis. He was ripping at a 62.3 percent clip last year and the expectation is he will match, if not exceed, that in 2012.

In addition to his dirty work at the 'X,' Paradis also notched nine points (3g, 6a) and was a ground ball hog (team-leading 107 GBs). Paradis went 13-for-19 against Dickinson, 14-for-20 versus Haverford and 12-for-20 matched up with Union – all NCAA tournament teams – and was on the plus side against Middlebury (13-for-24). Paradis was another player who Sandler thought was deserving of Liberty kudos.

- Grinding the Clutch: Of all the near misses for Skidmore, the 11-10 double-OT setback to non-conference foe Middlebury is the one Sandler presents as the most important loss.

"Middlebury is a team that historically finds a way to win because that's what they do," Sandler said. "What we're trying to build here is that expectation of winning those games and not accepting a loss. We were battling during that game, but it was kind of like, 'Are we going to do this?' Middlebury was saying 'We are going to do this.' They grinded it out.

"It's really about building that tradition. Before I got here, Skidmore had never made the playoffs two years in a row, and now we've done it three times. We're starting to sustain good-to-great seasons, as opposed to having a good year followed by a mediocre year. That upward trajectory is what we're targeting this season. We want to be not only a playoff team, but a NCAA playoff team."

- Verdict: Whether RIT was joining the Liberty or not, that conference was destined for two NCAA bids in 2012, and that became more of a reality with the expansion of the at-large pool to eight teams. Is Skidmore going to earn one of those slots? That's the question.

RIT, Union and RPI all have the postseason pedigree to lay claim to a spot, so the Thoroughbreds will realistically have to beat two of those three teams, along with a decent showing in the non-conference slate, to get the nod if they are unable to win the Liberty's AQ.

- News & Notes: The Skidmore non-conference slate will be filled out by Babson, Western Conn., and Clark...Senior Connor Dowling (7.84 GAA/59.8 sv%) gives the Thoroughbreds a big advantage in the cage...Man-down defense is a concern...Junior Mike Holden (39g, 4a ) is the top gun...Three of the four losses came by a goal, and the fourth was a 10-7 setback (Haverford)...Skidmore's only appearance in the NCAA tournament came in 2005.

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