March 21, 2014

Weekender: The Coming Doubleheader Dilemma

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

The last time that Nazareth and Stevenson squared off, it was last spring in a normal one-game offing. On Friday, the two will meet again, but this time as part of a back-to-back weekend for both at the Mustang Classic in Owings Mills, Md. (John Strohsacker)

It could be a historic time for the NCAA Division III national tournament in 2015.

If, as expected, the tournament expands to 32 teams next spring, it will mark the first time since 2002 that there were no byes in the bracket. More importantly, considering the current rate of expansion, it will be the last season in which the tournament can be played under its current format.

As it is now configured, the Division III tournament begins play the Wednesday after selection Sunday, and then continues on a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule, at which point a pair of finalists are produced for Memorial Day weekend. Once the number of NCAA participants climbs past 32, however, that formula will have to be modified because another round of games will need to be added.

Barring the moving back of championship weekend itself, there are three likely scenarios on how this could play out.

First, the NCAA could utilize the Wednesday prior to championship weekend to play the regional finals instead of having a week lag time heading into the title game. Second, and far less likely, is Division III could adopt the model used by Division I and bring all four semifinalist to Memorial Day, playing two games in three days to determine the champ.

Or, third, the tournament can turn the first weekend into mini-regionals where eight hosts sites (ostensibly the eight top seeds) entertain three other teams for three games in two days in order to cut the field down to eight teams. It would be the same back-to-back concept – or a weekend doubleheader, as it is sometimes referred to in lacrosse parlance - currently utilized by the Division III women, although they do it not because of a numbers crunch, but due to their championship occuring a week earlier.

Would this last option really be a possibility?

"As the NCAA committee moves forward, it's going to be something they have to discuss, especially when it gets to anything more than 32 teams," said Lynchburg head coach Steve Koudelka, who was the chair of the NCAA selection committee last year. "At some point, it's going to be up for discussion. Whether it goes through or not will be interesting."

The discussion has been ongoing for some years, but a final decision isn't imminent. It would likely be for the 2016 season at the earliest.

"It's all based on the number of participants," said Nazareth head coach Rob Randall, the current chair of the selection committee, referring to the number of schools that sponsor the sport. "Right now it is not a reality, but down the road, I suppose it could be a reality. But we haven't crossed that bridge yet."

As it turns out, Koudelka and Randall, along with Cortland coach Steve Beville and Stevenson head man Paul Cantabene, are giving the doubleheader idea a dry run this weekend when the three teams travel to Stevenson for the Mustang Classic. It's a two-day event and, while there will be four predetermined match-ups as opposed to three tournament elimination games, it will provide a similar challenge for the players and coaches as a hypothetical two-day regional.

The dilemma is whether men's lacrosse should be played on back-to-back days.

There are some who believe that the sport is too physical to be played on consecutive dates. "Player safety" was the stated reason why the NESCAC moved up its schedule a week in order for every team to avoid a doubleheader weekend during the regular season. On its face, it seems like a reasonable stance, but the NESCAC's argument becomes flaccid when one finds out that the very same league holds its conference tournament semifinals and finals on the same weekend on consecutive days.

In addition, because of the nature of lacrosse at the youth, high school and club level, the student-athletes who are playing lacrosse in college have played multiple games on multiple days leading up to their matriculation.

"We're recruiting kids who are playing three straight days at one event to another event," Koudelka said. "It is the culture of our sport leading up to this level."

"We just did [back-to-back] this [past] weekend," continued Koudelka after playing Guilford on Saturday and Colorado College on Sunday. "I actually had the opportunity after our second game to ask a couple of our guys as they were leaving the locker room how they felt. They said they weren't that sore, which I thought was a good sign. I don't think we're putting ourselves in harm's way by any means."

Still, aside from Lynchburg, doubleheaders are exceedingly rare. Prior to this coming weekend, Stevenson had never played back-to-back games in the Cantabene era, which started in 2005. The last time Cortland played games on consecutive days was in 1997 at the Washington & Lee tournament. For Nazareth, it was 1998.

The paucity of back to games stems from the fact that back-to-back games in the regular season often times puts one team at a competitive disadvantage. While the NESCAC coaches will carry the water about player safety, it is more likely because one team was put at a disadvantage by playing two games in one weekend when the other two participants only played one. With the importance of league games and the narrow window for at-large consideration, that's not a small issue.

At an event like the Mustang Classic, which kicks off on Friday evening when Cortland plays Lynchburg at 5 p.m followed by Stevenson and Nazareth at 7:30 p.m., and then finishes up on Saturday with Lynchburg-Nazareth at 5 p.m. and Stevenson-Cortland at 7:30 p.m., there is no leverage for any of the competitors.

"As long as all the three teams are doing back-to-back, it's OK with me," said Cortland's Beville. "All the teams have to deal with the same things. If it was just us having to do a doubleheader in two days, we would have never agreed to do it. I'm good with it, and obviously so are the other coaches knowing that we're all in the same boat."

Could NCAA Division III adopt a tournament format that includes one weekend of back-to-back games? It will likely be among the options considered when the time comes, but Nazareth head coach Rob Randall (above), the current chair of the selection committee, is noncommittal. "Right now it is not a reality, but down the road, I suppose it could be a reality," he said. "But we haven't crossed that bridge yet." (John Strohsacker)

It was this equal standing that Cantabene had in mind when he was formulating this event before selling it to prospective coaches.

"We wanted it to be a back-to-back because we wanted it to be a showcase, but without the team cost of teams staying three days," Cantbane said. "I thought two days would be the way to go. As for reservations about playing back-to-back, we knew it would be the same for everyone. I was just trying to put together the best Division III showcase we could and the other three coaches bought into the idea. I think it's going to be a great weekend."

The stature of the Mustang Classic is not in question. Three of the teams are ranked in the Top 10 of Lacrosse Magazine's weekly rankings while Nazareth is a powerful squad despite its 2-3 start. All four have a very good shot at making the NCAA tournament, which means this is the type of competition that could be competing if the back-to-back weekend is adopted in 2016. The egalitarian nature of the setup makes it the most sensible choice for the NCAA to adopt.

That's the macro look at this weekend, but there are some subtleties that will be utilized by the coaches under this format. All of the coaches said they will likely extend their benches for this event in hopes of keeping the teams as fresh as possible, but the key undercurrent will be how the coaches prepare for a weekend like this and how it translates on the field, especially on Saturday.

Since the inception of time, coaches have hammered journalists over the head with the premise that they always take "one game at a time." The back-to-back weekend stresses that maxim to the breaking point, and forces coaching staffs to make strategic decisions.

"We've talked about this in the office," said Beville. "Ninety percent of the coaches in the world are truly just focusing on the next opponent. We are not putting together a lot of things for the following game. We're in a situation during this week where we'll have to look at both films and at both tendencies, and have a game plan for both teams. We really don't have a choice in how we prepare in that sense. You are going to have two Top 10 opponents two days in a row, so it will be a little different for us, but we're looking forward to the challenge and I'm sure the other teams are too."

"This is kind of a unique situation," added Randall. "It's not something we've done in a long time, but we have to be prepared. We are focused, first and foremost, on our first game, but we do have to be prepared for our second opponent, as well, because there is very little turnaround time. We each will have the luxury of seeing the other team play, which will help out a little bit. There will probably be a little more emphasis on the first opponent, but we have to be just as prepared for the second."

Cantabene is a doctrinaire adherent to the "one game at a time" rubric.

"We are just going to prepare for the first one and worry about the second one later," he said. "We're going to prepare for Naz. You can't worry about the second game until later."

From a functional perspective, Lynchburg gains the most from the Mustang Classic. Their league, the ODAC, is the only one of the four representated that uses a back-to-back format in its conference tournament. Koudelka admits that playing teams for a second time, as you would in a conference tourney, cuts down on the preparation time, but they'll treat this weekend with mild similarity.

"We're going to put all our eggs into the Cortland basket on Friday and then reload on Saturday against Nazareth," he said. "We will look a little bit ahead and take a peek at Nazareth so we're not completely blind on Saturday. It's interesting, but it's nice for the kids to play great teams in two separate days."

At a fundamental level, the Mustang Classic was devised as a vehicle to showcase Division III lacrosse by using its best teams. That's why anyone in the greater Baltimore area who is a fan of the sport or the division should be in Owings Mills tonight and tomorrow evening.

And If one needs extra enticement, it just might be a look at the future of the NCAA tournament.

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