May 18, 2014

MD3 Semifinals: Breakdown & Predictions

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

In last year's 14-5 victory for RIT, faceoff savant Tyler Brooks-Lambert (center) was dominant. He will get a stiffer challenge with the rise of Conor Helfrich and the Tufts faceoff unit. (Josh Barber)

The prize is right there, 60 minutes away.

That Sunday afternoon during Memorial Day weekend that every player in Division III dreams about in the midst of fall ball gassers, burning weight room sessions and endless drills is now just a week away. The chance to call oneself the best in the country is so tantalizingly close. The winners of this weekend's games will feel a satisfaction that will never be replaced, regardless of how the Big Game ends.

And that's also why it will be even more painful for the two teams who don't emerge victorious from Sunday's contests. Questions will linger over the summer, over class reunions, over lifetimes about what could have been done differently on this clear, that shot, every ground ball.

There are four teams within sight of the goal scrawled across the top of their preseason "to do" list. On Sunday night, there will be only two, and all that will be left is the prize.

Who will be there?

Tufts (19-2) at RIT (20-0) – Sunday, 2 p.m.

When Tufts walked off the field in Rochester last year after getting dismantled by RIT, 14-5, there was a underlying sense of finality to it. Not only was the Jumbos' season over, but the Tufts four-year epoch, which featured two national championship appearances and one title, appeared to have run its course. The NESCAC's best just wasn't good enough anymore under the reign of the new North region overlord, RIT.

The severity of the win even stunned Tigers' head coach Jake Coon.

"It was a very surprising score. I couldn't even believe it after the game myself," Coon admitted. "Our guys played determined and we had a couple of bounces go our way – we had three or four rebound goals in that game. Our defense played spectacular."

Twelve months later, RIT stands on the precipice of a repeat visit to the national championship game, and to get there they'll have get past a Tufts program that's not dead yet. Not dead, and with a very different look than last year's version that visited Roc City in the quarterfinals.

"I think we're a different team," said Tufts head coach Mike Daly. "We are competing at a much higher level this year."

The Jumbos' resurgence certainly hasn't lessened the mutual admiration society between Coon and Daly.

Dan Alles (above) and the Tufts defense is naturally under strain with the way the Jumbos attack on offense, but they'll be really tested on Sunday when they face a bottomless supply of RIT offensive weapons. (Tufts Athletics)

"They are explosive on offense – guys getting their hands free and shooting the heck out of the ball," Coon said. "They are very athletic all over the field. They have some great LSMs who are causing some problems between the lines. They've got a respectable defense, as well, and the defense is playing much better. They are a great team and I wouldn't expect anything different here during the semifinals. We're going to have to play well."

"The first thing is we love how they play the game and how they approach the game," Daly said. "Those first few years when we were able to get those wins against them, those were fun games to be in and fun to watch and it was the way we believe it should be played. That's what our kids are excited about and that's what I'm excited about."

The similar approach to the game – valuing extra possessions because of the confidence in the offense – forces each coaching staff to make a decision. Do they modify their approach in order to give themselves the best chance to win or do they just roll a ball out and see who does it better? As it turns out, that's what separates the squads in this contest.

Coon and RIT will be taking the more strategic approach.

"[Tufts] wants to make it a track meet and get up and down the field, and the most difficult part of that is we like to get up and down the field, too," Coon said. "We've got to manage that a bit and limit their runs and capitalize on our runs. It'll be one of those games when managing possessions will be key, but we still want to play how we play."

The message is much simpler from Daly: let's roll.

"For us, it's no different. We have one plan. There is no Plan B here," Daly said. "It changes some of the challenges we're going to face, but it doesn't change the plan or the preparation or our practice or really anything. That's why it is so frustrating for our parents, friends and alums to watch us at times. There is just no Plan B and we're going to prepare for us more than any other opponent."

Tufts' intractability has the potential to be a double-edged sword, although it has been mostly a well-honed one-sided blade this year. The issues arise because of the immense burden the Jumbos put on their defense. It's something Daly willingly admits.

"They just see so many more possessions than they have to," he said. "They see so many more odd-man situations than they have to. They play a four-minute set, and then we'll come down and take one shot, and they'll play another two-minute set. It puts them under a lot of strain and they never complain about it, they embrace it. Some of those games, especially the Cortland game, we were able to protect them a little more because we scored a little more and won faceoffs. Then we have the advantage that most normal teams get and are protected more regularly. It's more of a function of how we play offense that puts so much of a strain on them and it's not fair. But it's definitely what we think gives us the best chance to win."

Perhaps not to the same degree, but the same can be said of RIT. They ask a lot of their defense, and when it is on – or more specifically, when goalie Pat Johnston is on – they are very difficult to beat.

"If Pat is playing well, we're getting those extra possessions and when we get extra possessions, our offense can score," Coon said. "I wouldn't put it all on him, however. Faceoffs are huge, winning ground balls are huge and clearing is huge. There are a lot of little things, so I certainly wouldn't put it all on our goaltender. But one of the keys for us is to get to their goaltender, and they are probably saying the same about us."

It seems like, without fail, whenever you have two high-scoring offenses, the game results in low-scoring grinder dominated by goalies and ground balls. That's certainly possible here, but far less likely considering the weapons on display. To some degree, Tufts FOGO Conor Helfrich should blunt Tyler Brooks-Lambert, who dominated last year's contest at the dot and John Uppgren – he of 112 points so far this season – was just a bit player in the 2013 match-up. Likewise, the introduction of Casey Jackson and Ryan Lee into the equation is a boon for the Tigers.

I can make a lot of strong cases for both teams, but at the end of the day, 20-0 is 20-0.

RIT, 15-11.

Washington College (18-1) at Salisbury (20-1) – Sunday, 7 p.m.

Junior middie Sean Fitzgerald (above) is part of a deep midfield corps that has proved to be the difference in Salisbury's first two tournament wins. Will that trend continue against Washington College? (John Strohsacker)

It's the most important storyline of this game, but it's not really a storyline at all.

Washington College and Salisbury, the two protagonists in the annual War on the Shore rivalry game, meeting in the postseason with a shot at Memorial Day weekend is the logical topic sentence, but we're actually beyond that now. For as important as the duel is, its gravitas is based on its placement during the regular season.

A national semifinal doesn't need its own talking points. It stands on its own.

"The War on the Shore is such a traditional game in the season that it gets hyped like a conference championship game or even a national championship game where there's that much emphasis put on it. This is different," said Washington College head coach Jeff Shirk. "In the regular season, the loser doesn't go home; in this one, the loser goes home. I don't think this is 'War on the Shore II,' like a lot of people said. I think this is just going to be a heck of a semifinal matchup."

"Hey, we're in the final four and it's two schools that are located not very far apart," Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman said. "It's a long-standing tradition, played numerous times and with a lot of big games. It's public school versus private school. All that stuff comes into play, but you know what? We're trying to keep the focus and level-headedness we've had all year and that's how we will approach this game."

In the real WotS meeting, Salisbury slowly ground down Washington and took a 12-7 victory. Salisbury FOGO Chris Biank did not play in that contest, allowing the Shoremen's outstanding draw man Michael Trapp to go 17-of-23 at the dot. The Gulls, however, won the battle of goalies, as Alex Taylor turned away 15 shots on the evening while WAC's Ted DiSalvo mustered just three saves.

It's unlikely both of those stats will play out the same again.

"We had to use Preston Dabbs on faceoff and that kind of negated some of his defense, so we're a little bit different in that regard this time around," Berkman said. "We obviously don't want to give up any transition opportunities if [Trapp] is their guy and he's at full strength on Sunday, because one of his strengths is that he can get it and score."

"Every player, especially if you are a goalie and whether you are the best or not, is going to have an off day here and there, and the last time we played Salisbury, it was an off day for Teddy," Shirk said about DiSalvo. "With him being a competitor and playing how he has played down the stretch here, I know he is going to be ready. I know we're going to lean on him just like we did against Stevenson. I have all the confidence in the world in Teddy."

Assuming that those two positions will trend back to the norm, there are two key areas that will determine the game. Specifically, there are two advantages that Salisbury has held over most of its opponents this year, and how well the Shoremen negate – or at least minimize – those advantages will determine who advances out of the South region.

The first is Salisbury's depth advantage in the midfield. The Gulls have been able to use their bounty to their advantage, and this has been particularly true in the postseason when York and Denison have attempted to run one midfield line at Salisbury for the duration of the game.

"We play two midfield lines and four d-middies, so as the game goes on and they keep running those guys again and again and again, that has been a good thing for us," Berkman said. "We also have a second midfield line that is producing two and three goals a game. If you are running one midfield line the whole game, it takes its toll depending on the number of possessions you have, how much you are running up and down, how often you are caught on defense."

"With him being a competitor and playing how he has played down the stretch here, I know he is going to be ready. I know we're going to lean on him just like we did against Stevenson. I have all the confidence in the world in Teddy." - Washington College head coach Jeff Shirk on senior goalie Ted DiSalvo (above). (Kevin P. Tucker)

How will the Shoremen respond?

"The beauty of it is we're really deep at the midfield," Shirk said.

This doesn't mean that Washington College won't have to retool its approach. Shirk started the season running two full midfield lines on offense, and occasionally a third, but as the season has matriculated into crunch time and the value of every contest has multiplied, he altered his approach. For much of the conference and NCAA tournament, the staff has gone with one offensive middie line, and used the remaining five players as defensive middies, depending on who was the freshest.

It's just a matter of getting reacquainted with its multiple line concept against Salisbury that will be the challenge.

"We have the ability to run two midfield lines if we need to," Shirk said. "We have a third midfield line that we didn't run against Stevenson, but did run the game before against Lynchburg. We have the depth, it's just a matter of going out and practicing it a little bit and then getting them in the game early and not standing on the sidelines for three quarters before we need them. We definitely have the capable bodies to do that."

The second advantage for Salisbury is its ruthlessly efficient offense. Shots on goal is a key stat for a lot of programs, with the general principle being the more shots fired, the more chances of them going in. For Berkman, it boils down to a quality over quantity issue.

"We're not worried about getting 55 or 60 shots a game," he said. "We want 35 shots, and we want them to be within the frame of what we think are good shots. If we get 35 good, Salisbury University shots, I like our chances. We're not going to settle for the first shot."

This certainly isn't a ground-breaking revelation. The Gulls have 10 championships with quality shot-making as their backbone, but it's a change of pace for WAC from the Stevenson game, when the Mustangs bombarded the Shoremen with 55 shots in the quarterfinals.

"It encourages us as a coaching staff to stay on the [defensive] guys about keeping their focus and staying engaged and making sure we're following our rules and fundamentals," Shirk said. "Just watching the Denison game, they do a really good job of moving the ball around and moving off ball and choosing shots that have a pretty high percentage. It's just a matter of communicating and making sure we're flying around and playing fast. Hopefully we can get to the gloves or knock downs some passes or box out on the crease. We have to have that heightened sense of awareness."

This is not to say that the Shoremen will be doing all of the reacting on Sunday. The Shormen didn't get to 18-1 by constantly chasing the opposing team's strengths. Berkman certainly knows that.

"They have six guys who really dominate the field on offense," the Salisbury coach said. "This is no secret; just look at their stats. They have one middie [Hunter Nowicki] who does everything – leading the team in assists, which is kind of unheard of – and three or four of them shoot the ball all the time. They have three guys [Nowicki, Jim Cusick and Sid Looney] who have over 130 shots or something. We obviously know who their guys are and who's on the field all the time and we know what hands they are. We have to negate some of their strengths. There is no secret to who they are at this point. They are a very good team that had a great season. They are very good at both ends."

Salisbury is the natural pick here. They have a senior class that has been in a couple of championship games as well as losing in a final four, so, as Berkman said, "They've tasted both sides of it." They have already defeated the Shoremen once, and the Gulls are once again playing at home. They unquestionably have the best defense of any of the four teams remaining in Division III.

But there's something about this Washington College team. They have moxie, they are unflappable and they have a couple of game-changers. Normally that wouldn't be enough against a seasoned Salisbury team, but, for whatever reason, it is this year.

WAC, 12-9.

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