April 26, 2013

Weekender: Everything the Same, Different for Ohio Rivals

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

They are simliar in so many ways — almost photo negatives of each other — that it was only natural that Ohio Wesleyan-Denison became one of the fiercest rivalries in the country. Nothing will change in that respect when the two teams meet in the first-ever NCAC tournament championship on Saturday night, but the stakes will be considerably different than in years past.
© Jace Delgado Photography

Everything is the same, yet everything is different.

That's the reality for Denison and Ohio Wesleyan when the two Buckeye State programs meet on Saturday evening in the first-ever North Coast Athletic Conference tournament championship game.

The Big Red and Battling Bishops playing an important late-season game is nothing new, and the rivalry is still as hot-blooded as it was three decades ago when they both starting becoming staples in the NCAA tournament — a natural occurrence for two schools located less than an hour away from each other on the outskirts of Columbus.

Unlike the last decade, when NCAC schools benefitted from their independent status — the NCAA requires conferences to have seven members and, up until this year, the NCAC had six — Denison and OWU won't be able to punch their tickets to the NCAA tournament via their seasonal accomplishments, as they've done pretty much every spring since 2005.

An invite to May lacrosse now is predicated on this one, 60-minute contest on Saturday. And because of the way the tournament is selected, only one is likely to move on.

"The winner gets into the tournament, and I'm not sure if both of us have done enough to get that Pool C [at-large] bid," said Denison head coach Michael Caravana, who has guided the Big Red to 12 of the school's 20 NCAA appearances. "It is different. It's new for me, certainly."

"That's the nature of the beast," added third-year Ohio Wesleyan head coach Mike Plantholt, who led the Bishops to the NCAAs in his first two seasons. "Anytime you go to an automatic qualifier, it's got to be a different mindset. It's not necessarily just the body of work. At this point in time of the season, it's win or go home. That's a mindset that we're adopting."

The game will be a rematch of a contest held just 10 days ago, when Denison posted a road victory over Ohio Wesleyan. In that game, the Big Red utilized a dominant faceoff performance by Chip Phillips (17-of-20 draws) and a pair of man-up goals to build a 5-2 halftime lead that it would never lose, and would eventually be the margin in an 11-8 victory.

It's a recipe that Denison would like to duplicate while OWU, obviously, would like the change the script.

"They are more of an offensive team and we're more of a defensive-oriented team," Caravana said. "Our ability to control the ball on faceoffs was the big difference. Controlling the ball in the middle of the field, clearing the ball and gaining those extra possessions was also important. Hopefully we can continue to do that because they have been the keys to our success."

"We broke down the time of possession and it was at least 2-to-1 for Denison," added Plantholt. "They are a very ball-control type of team. They are very deliberate. They are not going to make too many mistakes with the ball in their stick and they are going to wait for their opportunities. They are not going to take too many chances. We thought we were going to have more success the first time facing off, but we weren't able to get anything going. That definitely has to be a focus for us this second time around; seeing if we can give our defense a break and possess the ball more offensively."

They may have contrasting styles, but the two have followed a similar path to reach the cusp of the NCAA tournament, especially in terms of grinding out wins despite major personnel adjustments throughout the season.

For Denison, it started even before the first game when they had to find a replacement for an All-American goalie who was suspended for the entire season. In stepped rookie Chris Thomas, who started the previous two seasons at Loyola Blakefield and has been credited by Caravana as being one of the most important players on the team this spring after posting a 5.42 goals against average so far.

Sophomore Nick Caravana, the coach's son who was the team's leading scorer after two games, has only played sparingly down the stretch with a tweaked knee. Senior Nick Verklin was expected to be the anchor of the first midfield, but hasn't played in the last 10 games because of torn tendons in his wrist. It has put a heavy load on key players like junior Eddie Vita (27g, 18a) and versatile junior long-stick middie Austin Campbell.

"When you take three starters out of your lineup at a Division III school, that's a lot of guys, especially for a younger team like we are," Caravana said. "It's just one of those things."

The Bishops have been doing their fair share of reshuffling, as well. Attackman Tommy Minkler, who was fourth on the team last year in points (24g, 22a) as a freshman, tore his ACL three games into this campaign. Ed Foster, another starting attackman, tore his ACL for the second time. Spencer Schnell, arguably the Bishops' best player, has been in and out of the lineup coping with a family tragedy. Even sophomore defensive-middie Kevin McCarley had to miss the NCAC semifinal game against Wittenberg because of the flu.

It has spurred guys like junior Casey Helms (32g, 16a), who missed all of the '12 season with a broken vertebrae, and sophomore John Umbach (28g, 7a) to play key roles for OWU.

"We've gone through a ton of adversity this year and I was talking about it with the team yesterday," Plantholt said. "There have been so many scenarios of people in and out of games. We've been a win-by-committee team this year. I wouldn't say we've had one key player because we've had such a rotation of guys throughout the year who have helped us. When one guy goes down, another steps up."

The trials that the teams have shared is almost fitting, just as these two teams squaring off for the first-ever NCAC tournament championship seemed predestined. Unlike years past, however, only one team can carry the banner for the conference. We'll find out who on Saturday night.

"If you look at the history of the league, the last 25 years or so, both of us has been one or two throughout that time," Caravana said. "There have been sporadic teams coming up throughout the years, but it has been the two of us. It sets the stage, so we'll see. We're talking about the NCAA opportunity, and we both want that, but let's not forget the journey that we've had."

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