March 24, 2014

MD3 Notebook: Denison's Excellent Adventure

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Senior attackman Eddie Vita (above) is one of several Denison players operating at first team All-American level, according to Big Red head coach Michael Caravana. (John Strohsacker)

Prior to Denison's February game against Washington & Lee – a contest that started a six game stretch featuring five tournament qualifiers from '13 – Big Red coach Michael Caravana said that it would only be at the end of their spring break trip to Maryland that his team could be truly evaluated.

Sitting on the bus ride back from Bethesda, Md., where Denison finished up its three-game break with a 9-6 win over Dickinson, Caravana was told his 7-0 squad looks like a Top 5 program.

"I don't know if we're that good, but I'm not sure if anybody's played a tougher schedule than we've played," he said. "All the games have been on the road or at neutral sites. If you told me we were going to be 5-0, I would have said that is great, but I'm not sure if I would have believed it at the time. We feel pretty good about who we are, but obviously we have a lot of things to improve upon."

While Caravana insists it had more to do with just getting the best games, the spring break trip and it's Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule against tournament quality teams that utilize different styles had a very May feel to it. The Big Red's ability to win under different circumstances – the 19-17 shootout win over Stevens, the 18-9 rout of St. Mary's and the 9-6 grinder against Dickinson – is a great sign for a team eyeing a deep run.

"You want a team that can win in different ways because you are going to be forced to do that," Caravana said. "You can win slow, you can win fast. That's what we really learned about ourselves over the early part of the season: we can win in a tight, low-scoring game like [Saturday] and then in a high scoring game. Our kids can adjust and play the game that they need to. Lacrosse is a game where you just need to find a way to win. Some games you are going to have score some goals and some games you're going to have to hold it. I think our ability to do that so far has given us confidence."

Denison's adaptability has been accented by its depth. Entering the season, the Big Red had senior Chip Phillips as their faceoff man, a guy with a career percentage hovering around 65 percent. When Phillips was lost for the season after suffering an injury in the Roanoke game, it appeared a one-time strength might become a weakness.

Enter sophomore Eric Baumgardner. He has stepped in and won 88-of-134 draws to this point (65.7%), and many of them have been of the clutch variety. Baumgardner won the last two against Stevens to salt that win away and then went 6-for-9 in the second half against Dickinson's Carter Moore, one of the best draw men in the country.

"He's very good," Caravana said. "We try to recruit well. We need two guys at every position and it helps us play well and practice well. We practice at a very high level and it helped us in all three tight games. We outperformed teams in the fourth quarter and I think that we practiced that way. That's a credit to the guys who don't play a lot for us."

Many of the guys who do play a lot have been doing it at an All-American level. Austin Campbell is in the discussion for best long-stick middie in the country, attackman Eddie Vita has been unstoppable at times (he scored seven against Stevens) and close defender Clint Barber held Dickinson All-American Brian Cannon to just one assist.

With their performance to date, Denison is the clear favorite to win the NCAC, but if they get tripped up in the conference tournament like last year, they should still have the resume to get an at-large bid. That may be the lasting legacy of the Big Red's spring break. And as kind as the excursion was, Caravana and his guys were ready to get back to the Buckeye state – a place they'll only leave once the rest of the regular season.

"It's a long week. It's nine days on the road. It's tough," Caravana said of spring break. "You're not in your routine. The first game it helps you because everybody is excited to get out of Dodge. It's this last weekend when you're starting to feel like, 'I'm ready to go home.' We've been in a hotel room for eight days. Next stop: the great state of Ohio."

Whittier's Successful East Coast Swing

If there's one team with little sympathy for Denison's plight, it's Whittier. California's Division III team made its annual East Coast excursion with a nine-day, four-game slate. Although the Poets split their games, it was a positive trip.

"It's tough coming all the way across country and play four games in a week, but to leave 2-2 and be as competitive as we were with Cabrini [on Saturday], I feel pretty good," said head coach Brian Kelly.

Senior captain Thomas Brook has been a rock for Whittier and was instrumental in the Poets going 2-2 on their East Coast swing. "He's a stud," said head coach Brian Kelly. "He scored two goals against Albright and held Corey Elmer to a goal and two assists and maybe four shots. (Kevin P. Tucker)

No. 3 Cabrini, which entered the game outscoring their opponents by nearly nine goals a game, found themselves locked in battle with the Poets. The score was tied at sevens with under a minute left in the third quarter. A series of bad breaks, combined with Whittier playing its fourth game of the trip and the second in as many days, allowed the Cavs to pull away for a 15-9 victory.

"After the week, and guys being really tired, the wind just went out of the sails," Kelly said. "I don't know how much we had left in the tank."

Still, running with one of the top teams in the country, along with picking up a clutch Pool B win over Eastern on Friday, gave the Poets a good vibe despite the even results.

"It was absolutely a confidence booster for us," Kelly said. "It comes down to what your mindset is. It could go either way. Your guys could be down about losing a game at the end of the trip, or they can look at it the right way and look at the big picture and what we've gone through this week. They need to understand that it's an atypical thing for a lacrosse team to play on the road in these short windows. To be able to show that you can hang with the best for a large majority of the game, I think that is an eye-opener for the guys. If we put this together and have these habits every day and come to compete every game, we have the potential to be a factor."

To remain a factor in the Pool B hunt, the Poets must continue to win games. As key as the head-to-head win over Eastern is, it's a secondary criterion for the committee. They need to be .500 or better to be eligible – something they weren't able to do last year – and they must continue to build up their strength with wins.

Whittier will host DePauw and D-II Dominican (Calif.) this week in games that won't provide them much, but a three-day, three-game (Aurora, Ill. Wesleyan, Carthage) swing to the Midwest will be monumental. And, of course, the season finale against Colorado College will be pivotal.

"I like what I'm seeing from our guys right now," Kelly said. "We've come a long way from last year. I don't think people realized how young we were in terms of the guys we had on the field. The majority was freshmen and sophomores and it was a tough year. They needed to learn how to compete and understand what it takes, and it's just not on game day. It's an everyday process."

Helping the process is a pair of players who Kelly highlights as being critical. Kelly, who was a two-time LSM All-American for the Poets, believes senior close defender Thomas Brook is of that caliber.

"He's a stud," Kelly said of Brook. "He scored two goals against Albright and held Corey Elmer to a goal and two assists [on Saturday] and maybe four shots. He's been a four-year starter and an incredible leader for our guys, and not just on game days. He's just a huge piece of the puzzle."

The other guys is faceoff man Scott Pescheret – "As he says, 'It rhymes with Chevrolet,'" laughed Kelly. He won 6-of-8 draws in the fourth quarter in the win over Eastern and was plus-16 for the four-game swing. "He's been phenomenal and he was the difference in the Eastern game," Kelly said. "That was a huge win for us and it's such an x-factor when you can get possessions, especially when it counts."

Whittier is in a great spot, but a season isn't made on spring break. Now the Poets have to finish the job.

Lacrosse Magazine's Player of the Week

Aaron Murphy, Soph., A - Lynchburg
The Hornets traveled to the Mustang Classic in hopes of picking up a key victory or two to help their postseason resume. Thanks to Murphy, they did just that. In Lynchburg's overtime win against Cortland, Murphy had three goals and a dime. He followed that up in the triumph over Nazareth with another hat trick.

Honor Roll

Ryan Amidon (Alfred State), Kyle Aquin (RIT), Rob Arnold (Lynchburg), Nick Bologno (Richard Stockton), Harrison Bramhall (Wheaton), Adam Bridges (DePauw), Greg Buck (Albertus Magnus), Brien Cullen (Immaculata), Danny Dahms (Concordia), Nate Gaudio (Middlebury), Kevin Gleason (Augustana), Greg Gonzalez (St. Vincent), Cody Greenwald (Gordon), James Gundling (Otterbein), Brady Harrison (Maine Maritime), Walter Hickey (Catholic), Jalen Jackson (Wilmington), Daniel Johnson (Becker), Patrick Johnson (Misericordia), David Lee (Williams), Cam Lewis (Washington & Lee), Brett Mangan (Montclair State), Ryan McGee (Olivet), Breanainn McNeally (RPI), Jeffrey Melnick (SUNYIT), Ian Mendoza (Norwich), Sam Morgan (Goucher), Max Obriecht (Aurora), Malik Pedroso (Lebanon Valley), Collin Peters (Mount Union), John Powers (UMass-Boston), Mike Prezioso (Wesleyan), Jared Proulx (Wentworth), Drew Prowse (Mass. Maritime), Tyler Rifice (Farmingdale), Jake Robison (Mt. St. Mary), Nicky Rodrigo (Regis), Tony Rossi (Stevenson), Chris Schoenhut (Tufts), Pat Slawta (Ithaca), Jean Thouin (La Roche), Eddie Vita (Denison), Alex Wylly (Lycoming).

Pool Duty

Pool B
1. Sewanee (5-3)
2. Whittier (2-2)
3. Eastern (5-4)
4. Colorado College (5-4)
5. Centre (3-3)

Pool C
1. Union (5-1)
2. York (7-2)
3. St. Lawrence (4-1)
4. Roanoke (6-3)
5. Amherst (6-1)

Slides & Rides

- Seven goals. That was the extent of the separation between the four teams that each played two games at the inaugural Mustang Classic at Stevenson over the weekend. With the level of competition assembled in Owings Mills, there was the hope that all of the contests would be dramatic. The fact that they did – especially in the face of playing two games in two days – made it everything that Paul Cantabene was hoping for.

"I don't know if we're that good, but I'm not sure if anybody's played a tougher schedule than we've played." - Denison head coach Michael Caravana. (John Strohsacker)

"I couldn't be happier with the event," he said. "I thought it could be a good event, but with how the games went and the importance of them, I think it was the perfect storm for us and really turned into a great event. Plus, with all the publicity and social media that was happening, I think it really helped Division III lacrosse and show what a great level of lacrosse this is."

With the event is already scheduled for next year with three of the same combatants – Nazareth will be swapped out for Dickinson in 2015 – there is now an opportunity to analyze how the event went and try to build off it.

"The crowds where very good – I think we had about 4,000 people for the weekend," Cantabene said. "I'm not sure we will change much, but we would love to get a sponsor to help the teams with some of the cost and help with the publicity a little."

What helped raise the stature of the event was the webcast offered for all four games via SMFSports. net. Play-by-play man Sid Zweigbaum did a great job in the non-Stevenson's contests and, combined with Jimmy Dailey as color man for the Mustangs games, they played it relatively straight down the middle in terms of bias. The production level is unmatched in Division III and allowed those of us who were not able to get to the event to feel a part of it.

It's rare when Division III can dominate the lacrosse landscape with an event, but the Mustang Classic certainly did that this weekend.

"Overall, it was a great event and it's good to see all of the hard work put into this event really pay off," Cantabene said.

- The subplot in the Stevenson-Nazareth game on Friday evening was the head-to-head match-up between two of the best faceoff men in the division. The Mustangs Brent Hiken is the presumed premier draw man after going 70.9 percent last year, with his credentials bolstered by his selection in the second round of the MLL collegiate draft. Simoneau, a junior, was named the Empire 8 Player of the Year as a faceoff specialist in 2013, winning 65.4 percent of his 480 total draws.

Stevenson finished the evening with a minimal, 9-for-17 advantage over Naz for faceoff supremacy and the match-up between Hiken and Simoneau was anything but telling. Simoneau took all of the Flyers' draws while Hiken (5-for-11 against Simoneau) was relieved by Justin Buonomo, who went 4-for-6. What is the final verdict? Nothing definitive, other than if Hiken sticks in the MLL, another franchise would do well to give Simoneau a shot in next year's draft.

- The RIT train keeps on rolling, this weekend featuring an 18-8 victory over Clarkson – a team that has spooked the Tigers in the past. One of the subplots of the season so far has been the evolution of junior Kyle Aquin. Last year, he was one of the deadliest finishers as his seven goals in the national champion game attests. Canadian finishers aren't a new phenomenon, and their usual lack of assists isn't surprising (Aquin only had 10 in 22 games). What is rarer is when a pure scorer expands his game and adds feeding to his repertoire.

Aquin is still scoring this year, as he is currently second on the team in goals (19), but he already has seven assists, including two three-assist games in the last two. This will just make an already dangerous RIT team even more potent, but what was the genesis of the evolution?

"I would say that both our offense and Kyle have evolved," said Tiger head coach Jake Coon. "The offense puts him in situations to assist the ball and he is very comfortable with his linemates. He has also played some attack for us, which has him in some transition situations. He is still a finisher, but we do like the assists."

- Saturday's win against St. Mary's wasn't the first win against a ranked team for Albright (they beat a rated Widener team last year), but it was another step in the maturation of the Lions program. Still just in its third varsity season, Jake Plunket's crew isn't afraid to take on the top teams – they're three losses this year are to Cortland, conference rival Stevenson and F&M. The win over the Seahawks is just further confirmation Albright is on the right path. Count Whittier coach Brian Kelly, who lost to the Lions, 11-10, last Tuesday, as a fan. "I was incredibly impressed with them," Kelly said. "They were as physically imposing of team as I've seen. They made you fight for everything."

- Salisbury's vampiric season continues. Jim Berkman's crew bites the neck of opponents and slowly sucks out the blood until there's nothing but the undead remaining, and York was the latest victim. The Gulls bit down early on the Spartans, building a 4-2 lead after the first 15 minutes and then slowly waited for York to succumb to the stifling defense in an 11-8 win. The win over the Spartans reconfirmed Salisbury's ownership of the CAC, and likely leaves only Cabrini or Stevenson with proverbial wooden stakes.

- I honestly didn't expect Cortland to finish 0-2 in the Mustang Classic, but the Red Dragons lost by a goal to a pair of Top 10 opponents while missing their best player (Tewaaraton watch list member Joe Slavik). I think they'll be OK...Stevenson at Lynchburg on Saturday is shaping up to be one of the best games of the weekend...Centre took control of second place in the SAA by beating Berry...John Carroll is now 7-1 and the April 12 game against Otterbein is looking more interesting...Bard to 4-0...after a brief interlude, Tufts is back to hanging 20-spots...could Nate Gaudio's 19-save performance in Middlebury's 10-4 win over Bowdoin alter the course of the season for the Panthers?

- Congrats to Darryl Delia and Albertus Magnus for winning the first game in program history, a 26-13 victory over Lyndon State on Thursday...York junior Tyler Hutson became the program's all-time leader in points during the 11-8 loss to Salisbury. He now has 176 points, which have come on 134 goals and 42 assists, which are also career records...Nicholas Betti became the eighth player in Maine Maritime history to eclipse 100 career points...DePauw picked up its first-ever NCAC victory with a 19-5 thrashing of Hiram...with the win over Whittier, Cabrini improved to 7-0, setting the mark for the best start in program history...Salve Regina had its undefeated run snapped, but it took 27 saves from Gordon's Cody Greenwald to do it.

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