April 17, 2014

Morning Jac: Small College Midweek Notebook

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

After relying on its offense for most of the season, RIT was forced to lean on goalie Pat Johnston (above) and its defense to tame Liberty rival Union on Wednesday. It's a good sign for the Tigers, and bad news for the rest of the division. (Greg Wall)

Shawn Wilkins stalked the RIT locker room at the conclusion of the Tigers' narrow, 8-7 victory over Liberty League rival Union. The offensive coordinator was, in his own way, letting the players know of his displeasure at their performance.

"Coach Wilkins was a bit unhappy about the offensive production, which was our lowest scoring output of the year," said RIT head man Jake Coon a couple of hours after the game. "We talked quite at length in the locker room about playing unselfishly and working on our chemistry."

The low-scoring grinder was a bit of a shock to the Tigers' system. In the previous seven games, they were averaging over 18 goals per game and none of the three previous Liberty opponents were able to finish within nine of the top-ranked team in the country.

It was unfamiliar, but not completely unexpected.

Under Paul Wehrum, the Dutchmen program has reached previously unreached heights, and most of it is predicated on fantastic goaltending and a suffocating defense. It was what the Tigers prepared for and it was what they got.

"There were no wrinkles, they just played tough," Coon said of Union. "They play good, solid positional D. They are disciplined and athletic and their goalie played very well. It was nothing out of the ordinary; just a tight, stingy defense much like [Wehrum] is known for."

As frustrating of an experience as this was for RIT, it was the most important game of the year for the Tigers. They proved to themselves – and to the rest of the country – that they could win games with their defense.

The backline has been sturdy, anchored by Pat Johnston (15 saves against Union), but it has given up its share of goals. In all of the wins against powerful teams, it has been the offense that has overwhelmed the opposition. Stevenson (14 goals), Ithaca (11), Cortland (11), Nazareth (11) and Williams (10) all broke the double-digit barrier against the Tigers. Granted a lot of that is the product of RIT's brand of up-and-down lacrosse, but with the possible exception of the 10-6 win over St. John Fisher, the defense has played a secondary role in the team's success.

It's not something that is lost on Coon.

"We were pleased that our defense stepped up and won a game for us," he said. "It's nice to see our defense come around, step up and get us through a game like this. It's a good sign for us."

It's a positive indicator because RIT is almost certainly going to play Union at least one more time in the Liberty playoffs, and possibly on a third occasion in the NCAAs. In addition, the Tigers' ability to grind it out will be important because dozens of coaches with NCAA tournament aspirations will be pouring over the Union tape in hopes of formulating a blueprint for a potential meeting with RIT.

"Even though Union has a great D, we're going to face teams with great defenses in the future," Coon said. "It's nice to see that we can step up on the defensive end, hold the fort and get us through a game. Offensively, I thought we sputtered a bit, especially early in the game. Not to taken any credit from Union, but we just weren't as sharp as we have been. We need to address that."

After the game, Wehrum viewed the result with a glass half full mentality. He told Lacrosse Magazine Online contributor Will Cleveland that the Dutchmen will be a confident bunch if they happen to renew acquaintances with RIT.

"I know we can play with them now, but more importantly, the kids know they can play with them," Wehrum said. "That's a great team. We are looking forward, because hopefully we'll have a chance to come back and see them again."

Wehrum, and the rest of Division III, should be wary of winding up in RIT's path in the future. The Tigers have now proven they can win with defense, even if they may never have to.

Amherst Picks Up Big Pioneer Valley Win

The amount of marquee non-conference games has tapered off now that we've entered league play, but No. 16 Amherst picked up an important non-con victory on Tuesday night when it went on the road and knocked off No. 14 Springfield, 13-12.

Devin Acton (above) scored a pair of goals in Amherst's 13-12 victory over No. 14 Springfield on Wednesday. The win gave Amherst Pioneer Valley bragging rights and was also the last regular season road game of the year for the Lord Jeffs. (Amherst Athletics)

The Lord Jeffs jumped on the Pride early, grabbing a 4-1 lead early in the second quarter, but Springfield slowly clawed its way back to even with just over a minute left in the half. When it appeared the game was destined to head to the break knotted up, Ryan Murphy and Matt Fleisher both struck for the Pride in the final 10 seconds to send the home team to the locker room leading, 7-5.

It might have been a crushing turn of events for a lot of programs.

"We have a pretty veteran team," countered Amherst head coach Jon Thompson. "We were disappointed in the lack of focus in the final 7.7 seconds of the first half, but give Springfield credit. They continued to play hard when we let up a little bit mentally."

The reason why Springfield was not leading by more – and the main factor in Amherst's ability to come back and win the game – was the play of senior goalie Greg Majno. He made six saves in the first quarter alone, finishing with 20 stops for the contest.

"Greg was terrific," Thompson said. "He saw a ton of shots in the first quarter, which I think helped dial him in a little bit. Some were grade-A shots, some were from fairly far out. Once he got in a rhythm, he really did make a difference."

The Springfield game was not only the last non-conference affair for the Jeffs, but it also ends a road stretch for Amherst. Combining their away games and neutral site contests in Florida for spring break, Thompson's troops have played only two of their 11 games at home to this point. The last two games of the season will be played at their recently renovated home field, starting with a night game against archrival Williams on Friday.

"There's no question: we have proven that we can win on the road this year," Thompson said. "Having a brand new facility has been wonderful. Having a brand new facility to play the first game under the lights on Pratt Field versus Williams? That is special. With every Little Three rivalry game comes a given intensity, but to play under the lights on senior night against Williams? This is going to be a special atmosphere here Friday evening."

Slides & Rides

- The first batch of regional rankings for Division II and Division III were released on Wednesday and, for the most part, things are right where we'd expect them to be. There are a couple of eyebrow-raising rankings, however, in this first edition.

Starting in Division II, despite having yet to play LIU Post or Dowling, NYIT is currently in the fourth spot in the North ahead of Merrrimack. Both teams have tough games ahead, along with a conference tournament, so this one could go down to the wire. Wins will be at a premium for both teams. In the South, the top four – Limestone, Mercyhurst, Tampa, Pfeiffer – look about right, but the fact that Dominican (Calif.) and Queens are in the five and six spots means the ECAC has been severely devalued this year.

In Division III, there a couple of rankings I might mildly quibble with, but for a first poll, it looks pretty good. If there was one surprising omission, it would be Montclair, which would appear to have a resume as strong as some of the teams included in the North. Fortunately, the Red Hawks are essentially lead-pipe locks to win the Skyline and make the tourney.

- The Southern Athletic Association tournament starts up this weekend with the quarterfinals and then concludes with the semifinals on April 26 and the finals on April 27 at the highest remaining seed. Top-seeded Sewanee will entertain Oglethorpe while Centre (Rhodes), Berry (Millsaps) and Birmingham-Southern (Hendrix) round out the top four seeds. Sewanee is the defending champion.

NCAA Division II Notes: Keep track of all the Division II conference tournaments through LMO's clearinghouse...Saint Leo knocked off Rollins to set the semifinals of the Sunshine State Conference tournament this weekend. Rollins is the No. 4 seed and heading to top-seeded Tampa while No. 3 Saint Leo travels to No. 2 Florida Southern...only 13 total games in Division II on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week...Le Moyne defeated Saint Rose to garner the Dolphins' athletic department a point in the "Upstate Challenge"...Southern New Hampshire recorded its first-ever victory over Bentley on Wednesday, taking down the Falcons, 8-7. Cameron Joyce had four points (3g, 1a) for the Penmen...Merrimack stayed on course by beating St. Anselm, and now host No. 1 Adelphi this Saturday...Franklin Pierce defeated St. Michael's, 9-8 in overtime to give the Ravens the first win over the Purple Knights since 2001...after the 20-2 loss to Belmont Abbey, Lees-McRae finished winless for a second straight year.

NCAA Division III Notes: Keep track of all the Division III conference tournaments through LMO's clearinghouse...any hopes that the Commonwealth Coast Conference tourney might hold some suspense was erased with Endicott's 20-6 mauling of Western New England on Tuesday. Colin Bannon (6g, 3a) and Harrison Cotter (7g) led the way on that beat down...RPI outscored Plattsburgh, 5-4, in the final frame, giving the Engineers a 11-10 road win over the Cardinals in a game featuring a pair of regionally ranked teams...Bates scored 14 goals against Tufts, which the Bobcats had to be happy about. Unfortunately, they gave up 22 to the Jumbos...Bates and Colby teamed up to dedicate their season finale matchup to a pair of players who passed away during their undergraduate years...it's looking like the fourth spot in the NCAC may be a three-way tie between Wittenberg, Wooster and Kenyon. Better start checking the tie-breaker protocol.

- Fourteen games into a season that held so much promise, Nazareth is now 6-8 after losing to Cortland, 12-9...Union proved that they'll make RIT work for a conference title, and Widener did the same thing in the MAC Commonwealth. The Pride gave Stevenson all it could handle on Wednesday night before succumbing, 9-7...the Mustangs may have been peeking ahead to the clash with Salisbury on Saturday that could determine who will get the top seed in the South...continuing the theme, Denison had to rally to defeat Ohio Wesleyan, 10-9, in their rivalry game to stay atop the NCAC...St. John Fisher senior Jeff Wester set the program record for assists in a game with eight dimes against Elmira on Wednesday.

- Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Goucher player Matthew Gabriel, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Monday.

NOTE: Because of the Easter holiday, there will not be any divisional notebooks this Monday. They'll return on April 28.

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