December 28, 2012

Coyne's 2012 Small School Year in Review

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Some awards are more difficult to give than others, but in the small school realm, there was only one choice for Player of the Year. Sadly, the lacrosse world will probably only truly appreciate Sam Bradman's accomplishments now that he's graduated.
© John Strohsacker

As many of you know, covering the small schools — Division II, Division III and both MCLA leagues — is my thing. Yes, I know calling a beat that includes a school like Arizona State with 29,000 students "small school" is a bit of misnomer, but you know what I mean. While everyone is fawning over Division I, I'm down here in the bushes, toiling away.

I'm not complaining. There are more compelling teams, rivalries, human interest stories and subplots among the 468 programs in the small school realm than there are amidst the 63 institutions who sponsor D-I squads, regardless of the inverse proportionality of the coverage. And while most of the lacrosse world wants to throw a ticker tape parade whenever a new D-I program is added, the small schools average about one new team per week. This is where the growth of the game lies.

When doing one of these year-end reviews, it's typical for writers to crow, "This was a watershed year!" or "Twelve months unlike any other!" But in reality, this was a relatively unremarkable 366 days in the small-school realm. There were numerous suspenseful games, outstanding individual performances and even one new champion, but that's not out of the ordinary.

There are still issues to talk about, awards to be handed out and even some predictions for 2013. We'll talk about those here.

Important Talking Point I

One of the eternal quests of all divisions of every sport is to reach the subjective concept of parity. A playing field in which every team has a shot at the prize is a comforting notion for players, coaches and fans alike. In the lacrosse world, Loyola's national championship is seen by some as a harbinger of a new age of parity, at least on the Division I stage, but the rest of the lacrosse divisions belie this ideal.

In the MCLA subsets, both Colorado State (five) and St. Thomas (three) set the marks for most overall titles this spring and in Division III, Salisbury won its 10th crown in the last 19 years, inching them ever closer to Hobart's all-time mark of 13. Sure, Dowling gave us a glimmer of parity when it broke through in Division II, but the Lions are no strangers to the four-team playoff and navigated their way among three programs who all boast at least one title.

So what constitutes parity? Should we be satisfied in the small-school divisions simply if new teams are getting their chance at the tournament, or perhaps making unexpectedly deep runs? Or does parity hinge on what programs are winning it all?

Even if it's the former, the argument for parity would still be difficult. There were three teams in Division III that made the tourney for the first time in a 28-team field, and only one team was a quarterfinal first-timer (Union). In MCLA Division I, there was only one new team (Pittsburgh), although Cal Poly's march to finals gave that tourney a whiff of freshness. In MCLA Division II, there were four (St. Mary's, Grand Canyon, Washington University and Concordia), but all but one checked out in the first round. And the semifinals were a carbon copy of the 2011 version.

I hate to say that the small-school divisions are in a rut, but it's tough spinning the facts any other way. From a personal standpoint, I'd love to usher in an age of parity. There are only so many literary backrubs I can give Jim Berkman.

Cal Poly and Dowling provided a nice change of pace this spring, and Tufts back in 2010 was a welcome diversion. But these are the exceptions. If you hear talk of parity in college lacrosse, embrace that dream like you would the prospect of world peace. But just understand it's a complete myth.

Important Talking Point II

It used to be that the best programs would utilize the best coaches, best resources, best location, best lacrosse reputation and, in some cases, the best academics. We're entering an age where the successful teams from small-school divisions will be those that make themselves most attractive to transfer students.

It's a vestige from a bygone era, but I used to look at student-athletes who chose to transfer in order to play a sport -- and those schools who accepted them -- as a negative. For whatever reason, I attached a stigma to both. I'm not saying it was right; to borrow a phrase, it was what it was. In this current era, where we have barely post-pubescent kids verbally committing to schools and the cost of some educations nearing that of a comfortable, two-bedroom house, everything has changed.

This is nothing new in Division II, where an unhappy former D-I player could find a home and receive a partial scholarship to ease some of the financial pain. In recent times -- and we saw its impact in 2012 -- this concept has expanded to Division III and the MCLA, albeit for a slightly different reason. Many D-IIIs and non-varsity institutions offer cheaper tuition or an in-state reduction that acts almost like scholarship cash. If you accept the premise (as I do) that often times you are paying more for a peer group than a selective education, transferring to a fiscally friendly school with a competitive lacrosse program can help a college grad escape student loan purgatory while still enjoying all of the trappings that a high-end player could hope for.

Just as those schools that have the ability to attract international (i.e., Canadian) students are at an advantage over those that have more hurdles to overcome in attracting them, so will be the case for transfer students. One doesn't have to do a whole lot of research to see what impact transfer students can have at certain Division III and MCLA programs already. When more and more small school coaches realize what an effective tool transfers can be -- not only to fill beds, but to raise the level of competition -- poring over transfer applications will be just as important as combing the summer camp circuit.

Person of the Year

Patrick Sullivan (above) and the Colorado State defense was a big reason the Rams won their MCLA-record fifth title in 2012. It was CSU's ability to bury its old "pirate" attitude, however, that made the Rams the small school Team of the Year.
© Cecil Copeland

Tom Hayes was Lacrosse Magazine's Person of the Year, and he was a fine pick and worthy of the prestigious honor. But narrowing the scope slightly, who would fill that role from the small school realm?

My pick is Dr. Robert Dranoff, the commissioner of the East Coast Conference. Within the conference that he directed, Dranoff made the tough decision of letting associate members Mercyhurst, Lake Erie, Seton Hill and Wheeling Jesuit go, even if it meant parting ways with one national champion (Mercyhurst) along with an up-and-coming contender (Seton Hill). It wasn't a popular move at the time, especially for the associate members, but it helped spawn the fledgling ECAC conference that has enriched Division II as a whole.

Further, Dranoff was an integral part of constructing the new format for the expanded Division II tournament that will take effect this spring. Dranoff was able to find an reasonable way to transition the division from a three-region paradigm to two, while also trying to ensure there was competitive balance. Equally impressive, when confronted with concerns from the western schools about their situation, Dranoff did not dig in his heels, but rather found a way to make the new model work for everyone.

The ability to make tough decisions while incorporating flexibility to meet an organization's needs is what leadership is all about. That's why Dranoff is my pick for 2012.

Honorable Mention: Jim Berkman, (Salisbury), John Boone (official and owner of Zebrawear), Tim Boyle (Dowling), Ken Lovic (Georgia Tech and MCLA staff), Dwayne Hicks (Michigan State), Jon Hind (NCAA rules committee chair and Hamilton athletic director), Chris Larson (UMLC staff and official), Tom McCabe (Bowdoin), Pete Moosbrugger (St. Thomas), SeanMichael Pagano (Briarcliffe), Gary Podesta (MCLA staff), Manny Rapkin (Grand Canyon), Fran Shields (Connecticut College athletic director).

Breakout Player

In his first two seasons in Oakdale, Louis Riley was a solid faceoff man for Dowling. During his junior season last spring, one could argue that Riley was the reason the Golden Lions won their first-ever national championship. His season draw numbers were superb (196-for-302, 64.9 percent), but it was in the NCAA tournament where he shined.

After winning just 11 of 23 faceoffs against Limestone stud Jake Ternosky in the Saints' regular season finale rout, Riley responded in the title game, winning 14 of 25. His efforts allowed the Lions to flip an eight-goal loss into a one-goal triumph on the biggest stage. Despite significant graduation losses, Dowling is a team to contend with again in 2013 because of Riley.

Honorable Mention: Chris Buechele (Clemson), Kevin Canavan (Connecticut), Rich Dupras (Stevens), Tyler Farmer (Grand Valley State), Matt Hearn (Westminster), Will Hersman (St. Thomas), Kyle Holechek (Stevenson), Martin Manilla (Gettysburg), Greg Melaugh (Merrimack), Jack Regan (Colorado State), Kade Robinson (Colorado Mesa), Joe Slavik (Cortland), Nick Troll (Kansas), Jimmy van de Veerdonk (Oneonta), Jeff White (Le Moyne), Beau Wood (Tufts).

Breakout Team

Dowling was the only new team to win its first national title out of all four divisions, but I'm going with Birmingham-Southern. The Panthers stunned SCAC heavyweight Colorado College in the conference final, becoming the first team from the lacrosse wilderness of Alabama to qualify for the NCAA tournament in any division.

Yes, BSC lost in the first round to Stevenson, but they only gave up 13 goals -- something to keep mind, especially when you consider the Mustangs hung 13 on Gettysburg and 14 on Denison in the following rounds. Not that comparative scores mean anything, but it shows that the Panthers were competitive against the nation's best. That says a lot for a team coming out of the Yellowhammer State.

Birmingham-Southern and Andy Bonasera may not emerge as a traditional national power anytime soon, but they are emerging, and doing it in a part of the country that is no easy sell.

Honorable Mention: Adrian (NCAA-III), Albright (NCAA-III), Clemson (MCLA-I), Concordia-California (MCLA-II), Connecticut (MCLA-I), Eastern (NCAA-III), Grand Canyon (MCLA-II), Lake Erie (NCAA-II), Mars Hill (NCAA-II), Pittsburgh (MCLA-I), Saint Rose (NCAA-II), Tampa (NCAA-II), Trinity (NCAA-III), Washington (Mo.) University (MCLA-II).

Breakout Coach

One of the time-tested rules of collegiate lacrosse is that first-year programs are to be seen and very rarely heard. Albright's Jake Plunket had different ideas.

Yes, the Lions' schedule was never confused with a NESCAC slate, but the fact that Albright was 16-3 in its inaugural campaign and one bad half away from an NCAA tournament berth gives the program a little girth. A bunch of credit goes to the players, but they wouldn't have won all those games -- and certainly wouldn't have had the near-championship mindset -- without Plunket. He busted his butt to make sure that he didn't follow the same script of all the noobs who came before him.

Sophomore year can be a bear, especially when you get the pleasure of welcoming Stevenson to your conference, but Plunket is quite familiar with low expectations. And he's done a nice job of destroying them.

Honorable Mention: Scott Barnard (Hamilton), Sean Buzzard (Pittsburgh), Alex de la Pena (Iowa), Buff Grubb (Clemson), Mike Higgins (Trinity), Dave Klarmann (Mars Hill), Colin Knightly (St. Mary's [Calif.]), Donald LaSala (Adrian), Karl Lynch (Southern Methodist), Dan Nourse (California), Mike Planholt (Ohio Wesleyan), Tim Robbins (Saint Rose), Paul Scordato (Connecticut), Jeff Shirk (Washington College), A.J. Stevens (Colorado Mesa), Kevin Wallace (Eastern), Ned Webster (Dominican-Calif.), Rory Whipple (Tampa).

Rookie of the Year

This is kind of a bittersweet award since Cameron Cole is no longer with Cal State-Fullerton after his 77-goal, 44-assist campaign with the Titans. I'm not real big on projecting talent, but I feel comfortable saying that the Foothill (Calif.) product could run on at least the second midfield line in any division (including D-I). Hopefully he finds a spot for a second chance somewhere.

Honorable Mention: Cole Bailey (Tufts), Stephen Banick (Stevenson), Carson Barton (Grand Canyon), Erik Klein (Birmingham Southern), Ryan McMahon (Ohio Wesleyan), Luke Miller (NYIT), Ian O'Brien (Grand Valley State), Charlie Pontiakos (Clemson).

Player of the Year

What's a Year in Review without a couple of predictions for the future. What does Jac Coyne see in his crystal ball? For one, there will be an established coach in each small college division who will miss the tourney after struggling with the new rule changes.
© Kevin P. Tucker

During most years, determining the top player out of four divisions would be difficult, but Sam Bradman made this easy. By leading Salisbury to back-to-back championships, and once again shining on the brightest stage with six goals against Cortland, Bradman was in a class by himself in the small school ranks. And it wasn't really that close.

The only blemish on Bradman's resume was his omission from the final group of Tewaaraton Award candidates, but that hardly was his fault. He accomplished essentially everything he possibly could as a Division III player, but still couldn't crack the consciousness of the lacrosse establishment.

As is often the case, we won't be able to truly appreciate Bradman's excellence until he is no longer in the lineup. It will be several years, if ever, until the small college ranks produce a player who was as dominant as Bradman, but it sure was enjoyable watching him while he was around.

Honorable Mention: Sean Aaron (Union), Jackson Decker (Limestone), Vito DeMola (Dowling), Jack Dumsa (Grand Valley State), Ted Ferrin (BYU), Shayne Jackson (Limestone), Mike Tota (Cortland).

Team of the Year

Sometimes it's necessary to overcome serious obstacles to reach greatness. This takes different forms. There's the internal cancer, the top player who can bring the whole enterprise down. Injuries and ineligible players also can easily sink a ship.

And, sometimes, a program just has to fight off pirates.

Colorado State was able to rebrand itself this year, retiring the old swashbuckling meme that was present during the Rams' previous four national championships, and opting for a more low-key approach that fit the personality of the current players. The result was a record fifth title for CSU, which used a record-setting defense (3.75 goals per game in the tourney) to carry the load. The ability to transform its nature while still keeping its eyes on the prize makes Colorado State the most impressive outfit of 2012.

Honorable Mention: Cal Poly (MCLA-I), Cortland (NCAA-III), Dowling (NCAA-II), Goucher (NCAA-III), Grand Valley State (MCLA-II), Limestone (NCAA-II), St. Thomas (MCLA-II), Salisbury (NCAA-III).

Coach of the Year

In the small school ranks, there is only one coach who led his team to its first-ever national championship, and that was Tim Boyle at Dowling. Brian Novotny was my pick in Division II at the conclusion of the season, and I stand by that pick, but when we take everything into account, Boyle's the pick for all divisions.

Boyle proved his mettle because less than a month before they walked off the field at Gillette Stadium, the Golden Lions lay shattered in the Division II ditch. They had been humiliated on their own field by Limestone on Selection Sunday, 15-7, and were on the cusp of not even making the tourney despite an 11-2 season. They managed to sneak into the four-team field by the grace of another team's loss, but they were the longest shot in the bracket.

With Boyle doing just as much mental rehabilitation as implementing strategy, he brought his players to Mercyhurst and upended the defending champion on its own field in overtime. Then, in the championship game, the Lions looked like a different team than the one that 21 days earlier had rolled over at the feet of Saints. The Lions played a spectacular game, taking the title by a goal against the same Limestone squad.

I'll admit to typically shying away from giving coaching awards to national champions, but by any measure, Dowling should not have won the national championship. But here they stand, six months later, with the Walnut & Bronze in their possession. It would be residing in Erie or Gaffney if it were not for Boyle's May magic.

Honorable Mention: Mike Allan (UC Santa Barbara), Justin Eckenroad (Western Oregon), Mike Caravana (Denison), J.B. Clarke (Limestone), Dave Cornell (Conn. College), Kyle Hannan (Goucher), Dave Klarmann (Mars Hill), Marc Lea (Cal Poly), Mike Mahoney (St. Lawrence), Brian Novotny (Seton Hill), Manny Rapkin (Grand Canyon), Alex Smith (Colorado State), Rory Whipple (Tampa).

Best of Luck...

Steve Batchelor (Curry), Joe Cinosky (Minnesota), Frank Clark (Minnesota-Duluth), Bob Clarkson (Davenport), Chris Figueroa (Texas State), Kyle Hannan (Goucher), Dwayne Hicks (Michigan State), Craig Hochstadt (Loyola Marymount), Charlie Jackson (Chico State), Joe Kerwin (Oregon), Tom McCabe (Bowdoin), Pat McCavanagh (Boston College), Kyle Morrison (Cal State-Fullerton), Brian Myers (Texas), Roland D'Ortone (Neumann), Kevin Perkins (Utah Valley), Alex Perry (Pittsburgh), Jim Rogalski (Scranton), Christian Zwickert (Immaculata).

SID of the Year

It's pretty much impossible to cover small college lacrosse, especially in the NCAA Division II and III realms, without the help from sports information directors. Whether it's updated websites, pertinent press releases, game stories, access to student-athletes or photos, they make covering more than 250 teams feasible. There were a lot of good ones out there -- too many to name individually, really -- but Tim Brennan from Salisbury was the top dog in 2012.

The Sea Gulls website is one of the most comprehensive around and when I checked the account, Salisbury's releases were always one of the first I found on game day. In addition, if I needed art or quick access to a player, Brennan turned around my request seemingly within minutes. Sure, the fact that the Gulls were two-time defending champs and always worthy of coverage played into how much I utilized the Salisbury SID office, but I'm confident he would have been there regardless of how the year played out.

This kind of award is probably a little too "inside baseball" for casual fans, but SIDs do the grunt work that keeps the information flowing, and they are critical for me. Brennan was the best of a very good bunch.

Honorable Mention: James Caton (Bowdoin), Brad Davis (Merrimack), Fabian Fuentes (Limestone), Scott Harris (Hampden-Sydney), Craig Hicks (Denison), Steve Jaynes (RIT), Corey Jewart & Braden Snyder (Gettysburg), Bill Jones (Skidmore), Brian Laubscher (Washington & Lee), Charlie McGuire (Dickinson), Brad Nadeau (Middlebury), Dave Reed (Colorado College), Joe Seil (Nazareth), Dan Surdam (Cortland), Paul Sweeney (Tufts), Phil Ticknor (Washington College),

Fearless Predictions

Amherst will not be a No. 8 seed in the NESCAC tournament again... Furman will be playing the only lacrosse in Greenville, S.C., in 2014 after the MCLA committee makes its announcement this spring... We'll see several high-profile coaches in each division who will have trouble adapting to the new rules. For a couple of them, it will directly result in them missing the tourney.. .Salisbury will not three-peat... There will be two new MCLA coaches who struggle with talented teams... The five NCAA Division III at-large bids will go to the NESCAC (two), Centennial (two) and Liberty... There will be a team at, or one game above, .500 that qualifies from Pool B.

The only thing that will derail Colorado State's repeat is injuries on the defensive side of the ball... The winner of the April 19 contest between Tampa and Colorado Mesa will earn the fourth slot in the NCAA Division II South region... Dowling will not repeat... Indiana Tech will qualify for the MCLA tourney for the first time... No team in any collegiate division (including D-I) will finish the season undefeated... Former MCLA Division II Player of the Year Joe Costello will earn All-ECC recognition while playing for LIU-Post this spring... Despite not having an AQ, Duluth will qualify for the MCLA tourney.

The best player in NCAA Division II will be an attackman. The best player in the other three divisions will not be an attackman...the winner of the NESCAC and Centennial tournaments will both have two league losses...there will be two coaches with the surname Berkman playing in the NCAA-III tourney...the 2014 MCLA tournament will be in Las Vegas. (And if it isn't, it should be)...Colorado will win the RMLC auto-bid...two new NCAA-II schools and four NCAA-III institutions will announce plans to go varsity...Stevens associate head coach Matt Madalon will be on a Division I staff for the '14 season.

There will be a representative from all four time zones in the NCAA Division III tourney... Texas will not represent the LSA at nationals... There will be at least one player "Logging on to" during the Tufts-Stevenson game on April 19... Ted Turner will demand that the NCAA Divisions II and III national championships games are broadcast live over one of his networks, even though it might preempt a Memorial Day weekend marathon of "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"... For the first year ever, no one will ask me, "If Salisbury went Division I, how would they do?"... Cabrini will be ranked No. 1 for at least a week this spring, same for Le Moyne.

Happy New Year.

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