March 29, 2013

Coyne v. Censer: How Does the Empire 8 Stack Up?

by Jac Coyne and Joel Censer | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Rob Randall has been around long enough to know that he has to stack his non-conference schedule to compensate for the teams at the back end of the Empire 8. Sometimes it has paid off, other times it hasn't. Regardless, the E8 won't take a seat at the big boys table until all of the programs show a little pop. 

Joel leads off this week...

The year was 2007 and the "What's the best conference in Division III" argument had reached a fever pitch. Sure, the NESCAC-ophiles were probably the loudest, shouting from Landcruisers, typing from yachts and even having their border collies bark. We all heard the message(boards) loud and clear: the NESCAC was composed of either heavyweights (Midd and Wesleyan at the time), upstarts (Tufts), or pesky teams who could contend on any given year.

As a Centennial man, I was, of course, partial. Part of it was I was a homer. Part of it was I had a front row seat and knew that if you had a couple missteps against any conference opponent, you'd lose. Heck, if you took a misstep on Ursinus or Muhlenberg's at-the-time rock hard Astroturf, you might end up with a snapped collarbone or a torn ACL to boot.

Yet for all cacophony around the NESCAC and my own Centennial bias, I thought it was only a matter of time before the Empire 8 would have the most convincing case as Division III's best conference.

Nazareth had won three national championships during the '90s and still had plenty of studs, including MLL talent Ryan Hotaling and Chad Amidon. Ithaca was clearly a national player, too, with longstick Brandon Rose dominating between the stripes. RIT was rock solid in a way you would expect a school full of engineers to be. After years of Skyline domination, and despite not being associated with the Empire State, Stevens was joining the next season (2008). Not to mention St. John Fisher had transformed from conference bottom feeder to program on the rise.

But the dominant Empire 8 that I had imagined — one that picked up multiple Pool C bids every year — never materialized. Sure, RIT began recruiting Canucks by the dozen and becoming a national title contender. But the Tigers bolted for the Liberty League in 2011 to take the slot vacated by Hamilton.

Nazareth put out mostly fringe top-20 teams. Ithaca, after a 2009 season that saw them go 14-2 but not make the NCAA tournament, went a combined 29-23 over the next three seasons. St. John Fisher continued its ascent but weren't going to shake things up in the postseason.

But in 2013, the Empire 8 looks reinvigorated. Stevens is the same transition monster that we've seen the past couple seasons. The Golden Flyers are young and talented, and — once they get their sea legs — could party again like its 1997. Ithaca is 5-1 and almost took down No. 1 Cortland last week. The Fisher transformation is complete.

So Jac, first things first, what happened here? Why'd the E8 lag? Does it deserve to be back in the best conference conversation? Most important, was the conference demise a NESCAC conspiracy (drawing Hamilton to the conference so the Liberty could poach RIT) to keep the E8 a couple pegs below?

COYNE: That 14-2 Ithaca team that was left out of the tournament back in 2009 revamped my view of what constitutes a power conference. Conventional wisdom says that a league should be judged on the teams at the top of the heap, but it became clear after that season — a year in which the NESCAC grabbed two at-larges, including a 13-4 Tufts team — that conferences should be evaluated via the programs at the bottom.

While there has always been an ebb and flow, for the most part, in conferences like the NESCAC and Centennial, the Empire 8 has been saddled with a back end — Alfred, Elmira, Utica, Hartwick and soon to be Houghton — that hasn't carried its share of the load in terms of competitiveness and solid scheduling.

I don't want to beat up on those teams (especially Houghton, which is just a baby) too badly because every program has its limitations in terms of resources, but when contrasted with what Stevens, Ithaca, Nazareth and St. John Fisher are doing, the disparity is stark.

When you have a bunch of teams that aren't improving, it saps the league of its strength. Just compare it to the NESCAC. The worst team in the conference was Williams last year (3-10, 1-9 in league play) and the Ephs still beat W&L and Union on the road, giving the other conference teams some value with a win. And the fact that Williams actually won the NESCAC title in '08 speaks to the depth of the league. Middlebury missing the eight-team conference tourney in '12 is another illuminating exhibit. A parallel example would be Haverford in the Centennial.

There are no similar programs in the Empire 8. As such, the top teams have to overcompensate by putting together brutal non-conference schedules. Sometimes it pays off, like it did for Nazareth in 2011 when the Flyers parlayed an 11-6 record into a tourney berth. Other times, it blows up in a team's face, as it did for Naz last year when it went 5-2 in conference, but 3-6 in non-league action, leaving the E8 a one-bid league.

The Empire 8 is not the only conference dealing with this issue. The same dilemma keeps the ODAC, Liberty and even the CAC when it boasted both Stevenson and Salisbury, from being considered power conferences. They are all good leagues, but until they find some balance, they can't be considered great ones.

Onto the games, where it's all tied up again after Censer posted a 4-1 week, 20-15.

No. 14 Cabrini (4-3) at No. 15 Ithaca (6-1) - Friday, 4 p.m.

COYNE: It's difficult to avoid the trap of comparative scores, and this game is a perfect example. Cabrini hosted Cortland on its own field and lost 10-7, while Ithaca traveled to the Red Dragons and took them to double overtime. Ithaca's the better team, right? They could prove to be, but there are some details that shouldn't be overlooked.

First, the Cavaliers were just starting the Chris Treat era in the cage. While he didn't play poorly — he made 14 stops against the Red Dragons — he's going to be a work-in-progress, as any rookie would be. After beating Union, he'll have two solid games under his belt heading into the Ithaca tilt. Second, Cabrini has played a far stiffer schedule, so big games against ranked teams ain't nothing but a thing. That poise, along with Treat's maturation, are the difference for the Cavs, 11-8.

CENSER: Give credit to Cabrini. They'll play anyone. Part of it is they know they have a CSAC bid locked up and have to prepare themselves beyond just the conference cupcakes. Still, traveling three hours upstate to play in hostile environs against a resurgent Ithaca? Not everyone's doing it.

Nevertheless, Jac mentioned the wrong freshman netminder. West Genny product and Bomber first-year Scott Sidnam has been saving shots at a 65 percent clip. Of course he's had plenty of support: longstick Jimmy Ryan and close defensemen Marc Roberts and Adam Wacenske are all rock solid. While the mid-week 6-5 overtime win over an upstart Oswego State is somewhat concerning, I think the Bombers will put the clamps on Cabrini here. Ithaca, 10-8.

No. 20 Bowdoin (4-2) at No. 11 Middlebury (6-0) - Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: After getting back into the national consciousness with 6-0 start, Middlebury will face another month with everyone is asking the question, "Are the Panthers really back?" A win over a Bowdoin team that appears to have figured something out over the past week will go a long way in cementing Midd's legitimacy.

If this game was in Brunswick, I'd be more apt to take a chance on the Polar Bears, but with Brian Foster starting to dominate on faceoffs (combined with Bowdoin's ineptness at the dot) and the continued strong play of netminder Nate Gaudio, the Panthers keep the good vibes running. For now. 8-5, Midd kids.

CENSER: Time machine game.

For me, Bowdoin is a tough matchup for the Midds. The Polar Bear offense is rounding into form and is well suited for a half-field slugfest with steady southpaw Bill Bergner and the emergence of a healthy Franklin Reis. Faceoff struggles aside, Bowdoin is also more than willing to scrap for every inch of middle-of-the field real estate. PBs, 9-7.

No. 8 Lynchburg (8-1) at No. 5 Stevenson (8-1) - Saturday, 7 p.m.

COYNE: We know both of these two are good teams, but are they top-seed-in-the-South-Region kind of good? With both Dickinson and Washington College looking a little wobbly at times (and because the Devils and Sho'men have to play each other at least once), there's a very real chance that the winner of this game could be in a good position to host all the way up until Philly.

Stevenson has responded to its lone loss of the season to Tufts with a couple of laughers over MAC competition, which could be a good or bad thing. And you know there have been a couple of players peeking ahead to the feud with Salisbury on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Bugs are coming off an improbable comeback win over No. 9 W&L and are brimming with confidence. Playing in Owings Mills is a huge advantage for Stevenson, but I like the grit I saw out of Lynchburg in Lexington. Hornets with the upset, 9-8.

CENSER: Did you hear those Stevenson chirps?

Of course you didn't. Not after Mustang coach Paul Cantabene imposed a media ban on his players after a 7-6 loss to Tufts. Cantabene did do some talking of his own though: mostly calling his offense out. Frankly, I don't blame him. Against the Jumbos, Stevenson committed a staggering 24 turnovers (many of the unforced variety) and connected on only six of 40 shots. Low angle shots and sloppy stickwork looked like the norm.

In many ways, these Lynchburg and Stevenson teams are eerily similar in that they are both built from the backline up. Although the Hornets lose some sting with Joe Lisicky rumored to be out for the year with an injury.

So the question in this game is can Stevenson muster enough goals? Mark Pannenton, Tyler Reid, Chris Dashiell and friends clean it up as the Mustangs roll, 12-9.

Coyne's Pick

No. 17 Union (4-2) at St. Lawrence (4-3) - Saturday, 12 p.m.

COYNE: With only five at-large bids this year, the Dutchmen and Saints are on the outside looking in, but with only four bids to the Liberty League tournament this is an important game as the two teams jockey for position, and try to avoid RIT in the first round. With two grind-em-up defensive teams, goals are going to be scarce.

The grueling bus ride to Canton will sap some of Union's strength, but the Dutchmen should have one more goal in them than SLU. Union, 5-4.

CENSER: Jac's right. It's going to be a race to seven goals in this "barnburner."

Union has some advantages. In a game where possessions are at a premium, the Dutchmen are a better clearing team and have some warriors at the dot. But I think St. Lawrence packs a bit more of an offensive punch. Slick-sticked Canadian freshman Jeremy Vautour and big Mac Johnson catch enough Dave Hovey spot feeds to survive the Liberty bloodbath. 7-5, Larries.

Censer's Pick

Bates (4-3) at Williams (2-3) – Saturday , 1 p.m.

CENSER: The Bobcats are a few goals away from being 7-0 and look the part of plucky conference spoiler.

In 2011 and 2012, Williams only reached double-digit goals twice, TWICE!, in what NESCAC historians are now calling "the post-David Hawley recession." Yet the purple-and-gold look a bit stronger at that end this year. Not surprisingly, they still play their usual solid brand of defense.

Still, I'm not sure the plodding Ephs can go goal-for-goal with a Bobcats team that has some starpower at the face-off and at the attack. Youngsters Jack Strain and Jack Allard throw enough rubber on cage to keep the Lasangas cooking. Bates, 11-8.

COYNE: This is an, um, how shall I put this is — interesting? — choice. Don't get me wrong, I love stockpiling NESCAC games in this space, but I was hoping for something with a little more, shall we say, gravitas. Bates is one of the more compelling teams in the conference this spring with its early season victories, and the Ephs turned some heads with the rout of Trinity, but this isn't one of those rivalries that move the needle.

It doesn't help that the past two years have shown us that this is going to be a meatgrinder of a contest. The two teams have combined for a grand total of 17 goals in their two meetings, including last year's 5-1 yawner won by the Ephs. For whatever reason, Williams has had the Bobcats number, with the last Bates victory coming in '06 — and that includes several Purple Cow teams that were less than magical. With the game being played in lower Vermont, that cinches it for me. Bills, 6-4.

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