May 2, 2014

Weekender: Amherst-Wesleyan No Secondary Rivalry

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Devin Acton (above) scored three goals and dished out two assists in the first meeting between Amherst and Wesleyan - a game that produced just the second Lord Jeff win in the last 17 meetings between the two teams. Acton will be one of the focal points of the Cardinals defense on Saturday. (Amherst Athletics)

It's a pro forma conference call prior to every NESCAC tournament featuring a semifinals and finals, where all of the minutiae tangential to the actual games themselves is hashed out.

This is where you'll park the bus. Here is where the parents can pick up their tickets. This is when the training room will be open.

And this is where your locker room will be.

When that last tidbit was outlined by the Tufts support staff for the three other teams coming to Medford – Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams – there was a pause on the other end. When it became clear that the administrators were serious about putting Wesleyan and Amherst in adjoining locker rooms for the second semifinal on Saturday, Cardinals head coach John Raba had to speak up.

"Yeah, I'm not sure if that's going to work," Raba recalled, jokingly, using his best Bill Lumbergh voice.

It sometimes gets lost in all of the natural and competition-based rivalries that are present in the NESCAC, but Amherst and Wesleyan boast a historic grudge. The programs make up two thirds of the Little Three – an anachronistic sub-league in all sports that dates back to the 19th century – and the Cardinals are often crowded out of the discussion by the hype surrounding Amherst and the third member, Williams.

Don't let that perception fool you.

"The Little Three is important to all three teams," said Jon Thompson, Amherst's head coach. "Publicly, the Williams-Amherst rivalry is a big part of the Little Three, but for us, the Wesleyan game is just as exciting as the Williams game every year, and Wesleyan has won the Little Three a lot recently. They are without question as big a part of the Little Three conversation as Williams."

For as long as the two have been clashing, there is no question that there has recently been a renaissance in the Wesleyan-Amherst lacrosse rivalry. Since Thompson took the helm of the Lord Jeffs in 2011, the teams have split their four meetings. Prior to that, the Cardinals had won 13 straight.

As much as Raba enjoyed the salad days of chalking up Amherst as an annual win, he appreciates what the Jeffs' coach has accomplished in making it a true rivalry again.

"With Jon Thompson there, they have some energy," Raba said. "They play like Jon is – very excited and jacked up. If you've watched Jon on the sidelines, he must burn 1,500 calories with the way he moves. He's always sprinting up and down, but he has injected that into the team. They play that way. That's one of the characteristics of this Amherst team that I respect a lot. They play fast like we do, they have a lot of energy and they never quit."

Thompson knows about Wesleyan's edge in the series. His players do, too. And as you'd expect, when it comes to rivalry talk, they are focused more on the recent past.

"We think both teams are very, very good, but in terms of the history of the rivalry and Wesleyan having dominated the series, it's more about this year than about 15 years ago. We played a great, great game with them this year."

In a contest that featured multiple runs, including Amherst rallying from a 4-0 deficit to start the game, the Lord Jeffs finished with a 14-10 victory. The win boiled down to Amherst goalie Greg Majno (16 saves) outdueling the Cardinals' tandem (10 total stops).

"It was one of those games where we were controlling the tempo early and we were on them," Raba said. "They came back and made a good little run and then we came back. It was a great game until the end. I anticipate [Saturday] will be a lot like the first game. There will be some runs made and it'll be who weathers the storm and manages the shooters and takes better shots."

It is not often that Wesleyan gives up 14 goals, especially to Amherst, but that was the case in the first meeting. Elliot Albert (above) and the Cardinals backline will be tasked with stifling the Lord Jeffs attack, freeing up their own playmakers like Quentin DellaFera and Matt Prezioso to go to work. (Wesleyan Athletics)

Both coaches laud the other's offensive capabilities. Raba talks about taking pride in holding Amherst playmaker Quinn Moroney to just four points in the first meeting – "He's usually a seven or eight-point guy" – and needing to contain middie Aaron Mathias, who went for a hat trick and two assists in the first encounter. Thompson is leery of Quentin DellaFera – "He's probably the quickest attackman that we've seen all year" – and well aware of midfielder Aiden Daniell's quick trigger (team-high 118 shots).

Regardless, the outcome of Saturday's game will be all about the backline, especially keeping the opponent from going on a run.

"They probably have some things defensively that they wished they had done differently in the first game, and we surely have some things that we could have done better," Thompson said. "Both teams probably think they have improved significantly from a month ago. For us, it'll be which defense shows up and which defense plays better. We're excited about how we shoot the ball and play on offense, and they've got some horses on offense, too, so it's which defense plays better."

Raba concurs that defense is a key. It has always been for the Cardinals, who have gained great success – and notoriety - by implementing varying degrees of a zone defense. That's certainly still the case, but the Wesleyan coach readily admits that this is the most dangerous offensive team he has had in several years.

"We're usually comfortable scoring eight or nine goals and giving up 6.5 goals," Raba said. "But we have been scoring more and we feel like we have some big, strong middies who can draw some guys."

There is no question that there is mutual respect between the coaches. Whereas Raba credited Thompson for bringing life to the rivalry with his energy, the Amherst coach knows the Jeffs will always have to match Wesleyan's grit.

"I think John Raba is one of the best out there and his teams are known for their toughness," Thompson said. "In order to beat them, you have to play to their level, competitively. That's what we're focused on this week: making sure we're playing at our toughest and at our most fierce. We think we're a pretty good lacrosse team when we play at our best, too, so we've got to make sure that we put the best, toughest and fastest team on the field Saturday. I'm sure they are thinking the same thing."

The elephant in the room – and a factor that will heighten the antipathy between the two programs – is this game has huge NCAA tournament implications. While they both will be in the Pool C mix even with a loss, a win essentially cements a ticket to the dance, regardless of what happens in the championship game.

"Everyone who pays attention knows the importantance of this game," Raba said. "We challenged ourself with a good schedule and we battled with a lot of teams. We had eight wins in the conference. We feel like we did some good things and are in a better position than we were in last year, but our goal is to win the conference championship, and that starts with beating Amherst."

"I know that it is on people's minds and we'd be ignorant to just put it in a box," Thompson said. "But we don't spend a whole lot of time talking about it. For us, it's the next game, as cliché as that is, and the next one happens to be Wesleyan. It's pretty easy to just be excited about Saturday, because there is a lot to be excited about."

The respect is there, but they don't want their locker rooms to be anywhere near each other when Saturday rolls around. And they both have an overwhelming desire to use the other's carcass as a stepping stone to the NESCAC championship game and a bid to the NCAA tournament.

That's what a rivalry is all about.

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