April 12, 2013

Coyne v. Censer: Are We Close to Parity Yet?

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

One of the reasons why this Division III season seems so wide open is because the top team in the country hasn't rolled through the regular season like Salisbury, and before that,  Hobart, used to do. Mike Kaminski (above) and the Red Dragons have needed double overtime twice and OT once to maintain their perfect record. Some might believe that this is a sign of the mythical "parity" concept, but it's the furthest thing from it.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Joel leads off this week...

It's been one of the more underreported stories in all of college lacrosse. Over the last decade, the number of schools adding lacrosse in the lower ranks has continued to grow at an exponential rate. Today there are 200-plus Division III men's teams that stretch from Maine to Arkansas to Louisiana and then all the way up to Illinois and Wisconsin. For every Michigan or Furman, there are dozens of DIII schools adding stick-and-ball programs to significantly less fanfare.

Yet for however many schools are picking up lacrosse and however much the NCAA has tried to incentivize teams in geographic outposts to make the tournament via Pool B, not much has changed when it comes to what teams are hoisting hardware in May.

In many ways, single-team dominance has been the one constant since the first sanctioned tournament back in 1980. Hobart won 13 (13!!!) of the first 14 championships. Since the Statesmen bolted for D-I status, only six other teams have cut down nets. From Y2K to today: Salisbury, Middlebury and Cortland have combined for 12 of the last 13 titles.

I thought in 2010, after Tufts beat Salisbury for all the marbles, that we were seeing the beginning of the end of the St. Tropez-like Division III championship exclusivity.

Tufts wasn't some tradition rich, regional school like 'Bart, Washington College or Naz that was located a stone's throw from the best talent. And it certainly wasn't Salisbury or Cortland, schools with similar traditions that also had in-state tuition in lacrosse-fertile states. And even though Middlebury also came from the NESCAC, the Panthers relied significantly on a couple Division I caliber athletes who took the D-III route because they wanted to play multiple sports.

But Tufts recruited strictly lacrosse players from all over the Eastern seaboard to propel them to postseason glory. This was a template that almost any school that could draw from multiple regions and who had a hard-working coach could use. Sewanee. Williams. Haverford. If NYU or Pomona ever wanted to add lacrosse, they could see that they could also build a championship caliber team using this formula.

Of course, as is the case with most of my unprovable theories, Sam Bradman, Tony Mendes and the rest of the Gulls trampled all over it on their way to national titles the last two seasons. To no one's surprise, Salisbury, Tufts and Cortland were the only two teams we saw in the 2011 and 2012 championship games.

But this season, the usual suspects look particularly vulnerable while the upstarts look particularly pesky. So Jac, is parity actually arriving in the Division III ranks yet? Or is this just a more drawn out song-and-dance before the inevitable Salisbury-Tufts or Salisbury-Cortland final?

COYNE: When used in the context of Division III lacrosse, the term parity is simply code for a down year from Salisbury. The use of parity in its current form doesn't mean everyone has reached the same level, it simply denotes that the standard-bearer has slipped marginally back to the pack.

Salisbury muddies the concept of "falling back to the pack" because they have been operating on their own plane for so many years that the level the Gulls are retreating to this spring is still the upper crust of the division. It's not like they are toiling in the meaty part of the bell curve. They are still part of the D-III bourgeoisie.

This ties into why Tufts' national championship in 2010 provided a false positive for all of the Quixotic parity hopefuls. Everybody tried to cast the narrative as some sort meat-and-potatoes, blue collar outfit from Medford slaying the almighty Gulls, ushering in a new era where even middle of the pack teams can win it all. It wasn't that. Not even close.

The Jumbos had been building to that point. They had a coach who was slowly figuring out how to recruit — remember, Mike Daly had been at Tufts for a decade prior to their national title — and build a sustainable program that could consistently compete with anyone in the nation. It's a model that Erin Quinn used at Middlebury to introduce his dynasty and one that Stevenson, Stevens and Dickinson are currently utilizing. There are other programs that are early on in this same process.

In short, this is not about parity — or everyone converging on the mean — it's a handful of programs each year inching closer to the elite level. There are no shortcuts to achieving this. Coaches and players can't hang around and hope that one of these years it'll be their turn just because they post an occasional upset. There will always be Salisbury or Cortland or Tufts or, once up on a time, Hobart, to inject a dose of reality when the postseason rolls around.

In many ways, my argument is more about semantics — the definition of parity — but it's important to know that Division III is more wide open this year not because we've reached some socialistic utopia (much to Joel's chagrin) where everyone is rewarded for just showing up. This is shaping up to be the best season in the division's history because there are more programs, coaches and players who are willing to put in the work to be considered among the best.

Onto the games, where the two competitors registered 3-2 performances, leaving Censer with a narrow lead, 26-19 to 25-20.

No. 19 Wesleyan (9-2) at Bowdoin (7-3) - Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: We're into the elimination zone with these two teams. Could each make a spirited run in the conference tourney and impress the committee? Sure, but both of these squads have enough luggage where we can pretty much assign this contest to playoff status. With this tilt being played in Maine, combined with the Cardinals' history in Vacationland, Wes coach John Raba already has an involuntary left eye twitch.

Wesleyan's Mark Simmons (56.2 save percentage; 6.18 GAA) goes up against Chris Williamson (62.6%, 7.95 GAA) in a battle of two game-changing goalies, but that will probably not be the difference. It'll come down to a stud making the difference, and Bowdoin's Billy Berger (14g, 8a) will trump Remy Lieberman (16g, 5a) in that realm. Polar Bears, 12-9.

CENSER: What do these Wes kids need to prove so badly? Through nine games, Wesleyan has spent twice the amount of time in the penalty box as their opponents.

Regardless, Bowdoin is coming off two terrible losses: one to a plucky Keene team and another to a down and out Trinity squad. In those two games, the Polar Bears committed 36 turnovers and shot just 18 percent from the field.

Look I know how tough it is to play against the Polar Bears in the upper recesses. But I just can't see Bowdoin's sputtering offense generating much against the vaunted Cardinal zone. Especially when you consider that Wes looks like they are figuring out how to score in a couple different ways. PCU, 10-6.

Hampden-Sydney (9-3) at No. 16 Roanoke (10-3) - Saturday, 2 p.m.

COYNE: What a swing for the Maroons. In the course of four days, we've gone from wondering about the overall direction of the Roanoke program to Bill Pilat being on the short list for Coach of the Year. 'Noke has a seven-game winning streak and all the confidence in the world heading into their final three games.

The chance for a let-down game against a decent Hampden-Sydney team is certainly possibile, but I'm not betting against the Maroons at this point. Roanoke, 12-9.

CENSER: Tough sledding for the Tigers to travel the 100 miles west to play a red-hot Maroon outfit.

It seems like Bill Pilat's troops have carved out an identity just in time for the postseason. Charlie Pease has been a rock in cage. Spencer Parsons and Conner DuBois have been athletic off the dodge and tough between the 30s. The Maroon have been feeding Canuck Richard Lachlan until he can't shoot anymore. I don't see any reason why the Maroons don't keep it rolling against Sydney. 13-6, 'Noke.

No. 2 Dickinson (11-0) at No. 10 Washington College (10-1) - Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: These two Centennial contenders always play each other close, with three of the last four meetings being decided by just one goal, and two of them going to overtime. Two All-American-caliber goalies in Dickinson's Greg Hanley (6.97 GAA; 60.6 sv%) and WAC's Ted DiSalvo (7.37 GAA; 61.1 sv%) headline this conference championship preview.

Washington College is a formidable team at home (7-0), and the Shoremen have bounced back nicely from the F&M debacle, but I'm not sure if they are ready for the Dickinson grind. Most levels of the field are pretty even, but I like the Red Devils between the lines, led by the incomparable Brandon Palladino. DC, 9-7.

CENSER: After blowing the doors off a couple of teams early in the season, Dickinson has had to play more in the half-field. With a few injuries and several freshmen learning what it's like to play with a scouting profile, the result has been a bunch of one goal wins against teams (Widener, Colorado College, McDaniel and Haverford) that aren't as talented.

Of course, the Shoremen have some serious offensive weapons. If WAC can survive the Palladino-led buzzsaw in the middle of the field, they'll be just fine. Bennett Cord and Hunter Nowicki provide the firepower as the Shoremen grit-and-grind this one out. 10-9, Dueling Banjos.

Coyne's Pick

Whittier (5-7) at Otterbein (7-4) - Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: The Whittier elimination tour rolls on, with the Poets one win away from being ousted from the Pool B sweepstakes. At the beginning of the season, this one looked like a comfortable win for Brian Kelly's troops, but now the complexion is much different. The Cardinals have a feed-and-score combination in Mikey O'Neil (9g, 24a) and Andrew Donatelli (35g, 6a) up front and a backline boasting netminder Adam Hatchard (63.4 sv%).

The faceoff battle will be a push between Whittier's Scott Pescheret and Otterbein's Carlos Salazar, but where the Poets might be able to hurt the Cardinals is in the riding game. Otterbein is below 75 percent in the clearing game, opening up the possibility for some quick transition opportunities for a Whittier offense that has cracked double-digits just three times this season. Poets barely, 10-9.

CENSER: Two teams enter, one team leaves with the opportunity to maybe still get blown out in the playoffs. Perfect.

All else being equal, I'll take the team with the more explosive offense and hasn't traveled a couple thousand miles. Cardinals 11-9.

Censer's Pick

St. John Fisher (8-3) at No. 17 Ithaca (7-4) – Saturday, 7 p.m.

CENSER: The old E8 bloodspat, how could I resist?

Unlike the Nazareth and RIT tiffs, this game will be played at a tempo more to the Bombers' liking. If St. John Fisher's face-off savant Ryan Freije plays (he was held out last week against Stevens), I'd feel really good about the Cardinals winning in a more plodding affair.

Still, I have enough faith that Jeff Wester can score enough goals against an Ithaca defense that hasn't looked particularly stingy the last couple weeks. Fisher, 13-7.

COYNE: The Bomb squad has run into some rough sledding since they cracked the polls after the overtime loss to No. 1 Cortland. Ithaca has lost three of its next five and now faced the prospect of being the No. 4 seed in the E8 tournament with a loss to St. John Fisher (although, admittedly, there isn't really an easy route through that league tourney).

Fisher is one of those pesky teams that no one likes facing. In their last two road games, it faced No. 5 RIT and No. 7 Stevens, playing each to two goals. I don't see the Cardinals getting too worried about traveling to Ithaca for a night game. Fisher Kings, 11-9.

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