April 24, 2014

Morning Jac: Small College Midweek Notebook

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

Frostburg State Eyeing More Firsts

Zach Burkhardt (above) and Frostburg will not only have their hands full stopping Salisbury's attack on Saturday in the CAC semifinals, but clearing the ball will be a key, as well. If the Bobcats can pull off the upset, it will be one of many firsts this program has accomplished in just four years.(Frostburg State Athletics)

Since he started the program at Frostburg State four years ago, Tommy Pearce has been embracing firsts. Whether it was the first come-from-behind victory or the inaugural overtime game-winner, the Bobcats head coach has marked the occasion so his players could feel like they were building toward a larger goal.

After beating St. Mary's, the defending conference champion, for the second time in four days on Wednesday, Frostburg added a couple more notches to the list.

"We always talk about all of the firsts that we have to accomplish," Pearce said. "We have never beat St. Mary's until five days ago. We've never won a CAC first round game until yesterday. But there are other firsts to accomplish. We beat St. Mary's and won a first round conference game, but we've never beat Salisbury and we've never been to a CAC championship game. We have opportunities to achieve firsts the further we go."

The win over the Seahawks means the Bobcats have earned a date with top-seeded and second-ranked Salisbury in the semifinals. In the regular season meeting between the two programs, the Sea Gulls walked away with a 10-5 home win in which they held a 60-21 advantage in shots and held Frostburg to an egregious 12-for-25 clearing percentage. Senior goalie Tyler Haines made 22 saves to counter the Salisbury onslaught, but the Bobcats will have to be a lot cleaner on Saturday.

"It's tough to beat Salisbury when you give them extra possessions, so we want to make sure we're doing our best to keep the number of offensive possessions as equal as we can," Pearce said.

Time will tell if Frostburg has the juice to take down the conference bully, but what Pearce has accomplished to this point is nothing short of impressive. Two years ago, the Bobcats were 2-15 and losing to the likes of Hood and St. Vincent. Now, they're 13-4 with the four setbacks coming to teams with a combined record of 57-7.

That's what made last Saturday's "Senior Day" special for Pearce. It was a chance to honor 17 guys who made this weekend's game against Salisbury a possibility.

"We recruited those guys when we were a start-up program and I told them we weren't going to get a whole lot of wins early and it was going to take some time," Pearce said. "The good news was as other teams started graduating guys, we wouldn't be graduating guys for a little bit. Our guys would get a lot of game experience and play against a lot of good teams with the conference we're in. But after a couple of years, we thought we could play those guys. In our third and fourth seasons, as we became veterans, this is exactly where we wanted to be: having the ability to play with anybody."

As a way to honor the fidelity of his seniors, and to highlight yet another first, Pearce let his players savor the first-ever conference victory against St. Mary's on Wednesday, even with the grave prospect of facing Salisbury just days later.

"I did let them celebrate," admitted Pearce. "We let them enjoy it because it's hard to beat a team twice. I wanted them to enjoy it, but at the same time, we have a chance to keep achieving firsts this Saturday, which would be to win a semifinal conference game and beat Salisbury. So we're really going to hit it hard at practice and make sure that we're prepared."

Even if the next round of first-time accomplishments doesn't happen this weekend, the current direction of Frostburg State would lead most people to believe they aren't too far away.

NYIT Solves the Adelphi Conundrum

Adelphi is obviously a talented team, but the Panthers have been able to avoid two key problems on their way to an undefeated season and No. 1 ranking in the poll. The first is not falling behind the opposition for the majority of a game and the second is losing the faceoff battle. In many ways, these two issues are linked, and the Panthers have struggled in both areas at times – in the first quarter of the Le Moyne game, for instance. But it hadn't happened over the entirety of a contest.

Until Wednesday, that is.

NYIT jumped on Adelphi early, building a 4-1 lead, and won the overall faceoff battle, 10-of-19, resulting in the No. 7 Bears coasting past the top-ranked Panthers, 11-6.

"We knew we were going to have our hands full with their faceoff guy," said NYIT head coach Bill Dunn of Adelphi draw man Greg Puskuldjian. "He was running at about 72 percent on the season. Our faceoff guy, Nick Pelella, he did real well. He won the first five or six faceoffs of the game, and I knew that if we got possession with the way we've been going, we were going to score some goals. It was just getting the ball and keeping the ball out of their sticks. I think that was the major factor in the game: getting off to the fast start that we got off to."

Pelella actually won six of the first seven draws to start the game, and was aided by the play of his talented wingers. Short-stick Nick Sidaris operated on one side while long-stick middie Danny McDermott patrolled the opposite wing while Pelella jammed up Puskuldjian, keeping him from too many clean rips.

Adelphi did make a charge starting in the second quarter, but rookie netminder Alex Seltzer made 13 of his 14 saves in the last three quarters of the game to hold off the Panthers.

"He's been real steady the whole season," Dunn said of Seltzer. "It's really been an unbelievable surprise to me. Seltzer wasn't good in practice during the fall, but he got into the scrimmages and he played real well. Even during the Tampa game, he saw a lot of shots and made a number of saves. Every game he has gotten better. He is just in the zone right now. He is so comfortable, you wouldn't know he was a freshman out there. He has had a season that might even be an All-American season."

The Tampa game, which resulted in a humbling, 15-6 loss to start the season, seems like an eternity ago. Since the 1-2 start to the season, which also featured a setback to Seton Hill, the Bears have gone 10-1 to put them in great position to return to the NCAA tournament.

"We're a completely different team now, we're doing different things," Dunn said. "Our coaching staff has done a remarkable job putting the guys in the right spots to be successful."

Ranked fourth in the latest regional rankings in the North, NYIT would be in the tournament if it began today, but there is still work to be done, including the first-ever ECC tournament. It's an event that could either help or hinder the Bears. Dunn is hoping his players can keep the same mentality that has paid off during the last six weeks.

"Every North region game is as important as a conference game, and we can't slip up in any games we're playing. I've been telling this to the guys for the past month," Dunn said. "We were behind the eight ball and we've been having these play-in games every week."

They aren't safe yet, but by figuring out previously unassailable Adelphi, the Bears are a lot closer to being in than being out.

RPI Still Aiming High

The defense has been solid, led by senior captain Alex Castronovo, but rookie Breanainn McNeally (above) has made the RPI offense click. "He's been very consistent from day one," said Engineers head coach Jim Townsend. "He's probably our most consistent player and he works on his game. He is highly skilled, and he's a great kid who always has a smile on his face. He's always working hard." (Tom Killips)

Jim Townsend isn't into moral victories or participation medals. The RPI head coach expects his team to reach for the heights every day.

That's why he wasn't throwing a parade when the Engineers, who are 10-4 now after beating Bard on Wednesday, were among the 15 regional ranked teams in the North last week.

"Our goal is not so much to get into the regional rankings," he said. "Our goal here is to win a national championship."

Similarly, Rensselaer's ability to take Union, a Top 10 program, to double overtime earlier this season before losing holds little satisfaction.

"We weren't going over there to play them close. We went over there expecting to win," Townsend said. "Our kids expect to win every time they go out on the field."

Townsend does admit that the first order of business every year is making the four-team Liberty League tournament – "If you're not in the conference tournament, then there's nothing else," he said – and on the strength of an 11-10 come-from-behind victory last weekend against St. Lawrence, RPI is in. In fact, the Engineers will be the third seed in the conference tourney, and will get a rematch with Union on Friday, May 2.

"We reached that first goal [of making the Liberty tournament] and we did talk to the kids about the Pool C possibilities," Townsend said. "We let them know that both of last week's games were must-wins, and we found a way both time."

Like the St. Lawrence game, RPI had to rally from an early deficit to beat Plattsburgh – one of four consecutive regionally ranked teams the Engineers faced leading into the Bard game – which is often the case with an evolving squad.

"We are a really young team," Townsend said. "We only have five seniors, and only four dress for games. [St. Lawrence] was one of those games where we kept clawing and got back into it. We knew we were capable of scoring some goals; we just got off to a slow start. We got off to a slow start against Plattsburgh on Tuesday and we were fortunate enough to be only down 2-0 at the end of the quarter."

The most veteran unit for Rensselaer is the defense, led by senior and two-time captain Alex Castronovo, but the offense has been paced by precocious rookie Breanainn McNeally. Townsend said he thought McNeally, an Archbishop (Md.) Spaulding product, could step in right away after watching him catch a pass and bury a goal behind his back against Severn last spring, and the kid hasn't disappointed. The freshman leads the team in goals (36) and points (49).

"He's been very consistent from day one," Townsend said of McNeally. "He's probably our most consistent player and he works on his game. He is highly skilled, and he's a great kid who always has a smile on his face. He's always working hard."

RPI climbed to No. 9 in this week's regional rankings, meaning they are still very much in the Pool C hunt. But that's just a secondary option for the Engineers. Considering their coach's expectations, the focus is on a Liberty championship until further notice.

Slides & Rides

- The competition for the last spot in Division II's South region has turned into a quest for the Holy Grail, with teams seemingly following the right path until thrown off course by one event or another. The latest candidate is Pfeiffer, who has gone from a virtual lock for the last spot to serious trouble after the 10-6 loss to Mount Olive in the semifinal of the Conference Carolinas tournament. The Falcons have now lost four of their last five, and missed out on the SOS bump they'd get by playing Limestone in the CC title game. Now that boost will go to Mount Olive, which has improved to 13-2.

In all likelihood, the Trojans don't have the strength to grab the fourth spot, but their efforts have opened the door for both Florida Southern and Queens, which were ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in this week's regional rankings. If the Mocs upset Tampa in the SSC championship game, they would be in the driver's seat (as long as Seton Hill didn't win the ECAC). If Florida Southern lost to the Spartans and Mercyhurst ran the table in the ECAC tourney, it could be the Royals filling out the bracket. At this point, one thing is certain: nothing is certain.

- NCAA Division II Notes: Keep track of the conference tournaments via LMO's clearinghouse...Morgan Weireter made 20 saves, helping Southern New Hampshire post a 12-11 victory over Mercy. That should give the Penmen some confidence heading into the Northeast-10 tourney, where they will most likely be a fifth seed...Limestone rolled over Belmont Abbey, 18-4, to make the eighth straight trip to the Conference Carolina championship. The Saints also swept the CC postseason awards...NYIT's victory over No. 1 Adelphi was horrendous news for Merrimack. The Warriors will now have to at least get to the Northeast-10 title game and hope LIU Post can sink Tech in the ECC semifinals to make it close...Tampa dominated the Sunshine State Conference awards announcement.

- NCAA Division III Notes: Keep track of all the conference races and results with our clearinghouse...Widener's 8-6 win over Lebanon Valley on Tuesday wrapped up the second seed for the Pride, meaning they'll host a MAC Commonwealth semifinal contest...Keene State and Eastern Conn. wrapped up the top two seeds in the Little East, respectively, with wins on Tuesday. UMass-Dartmouth will be the third seed...Kean made a run at Montclair State for the top seed in the Skyline, but the Red Hawks downed the Cougars, 10-8...the Mary Washington-York game in the other CAC semifinal should be a classic. The first meeting went to double overtime...how about Potsdam wrapping up the No. 2 seed in the SUNYAC? I'll let you guess who got the first seed...Aurora locked down the Midwest top seed, but Concordia knocked off Carthage to grab the second chair...Ithaca gets top billing in the E8 tourney.

- Seemed appropriate that Green Mountain and Johnson State went to overtime in their game on Wednesday. Both entered the game winless, but Green Mountain took home the win, 7-6, in extra time...Arcadia coach Jim Stagnitta won his 200th collegiate game when the Knights upended King's, 8-5. Arcadia is still alive for a MAC Freedom tourney berth...shocker: Denison will host Ohio Wesleyan for the NCAC auto-bid...the top four seeds held in the GNAC quarterfinals...if Ursinus beats Muhlenberg and Dickinson loses to F&M, the Red Devils are out of the Centennial tourney (unless Gettysburg loses to McDaniel, in which case the Bullets sit out) -- [Correction: per Centennial rules, a three-way tie would leave Ursinus out of the mix. Dickinson is already in and Gettysburg is in with a win]...Springfield at Babson on Saturday for the NEWMAC top seed...by my math, if Lynchburg, Roanoke and W&L tie for the top spot in the ODAC, 'Noke will be the top seed followed by Lynchburg and W&L...Colby won the first Flahive-McDuffee Memorial Game, 12-9.

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