December 13, 2013

How It Gets Made: D-III Scheduling Examined

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

The annual match-up between Washington College and Salisbury -- also known as the War on the Shore and the Clark Cup -- has been played on the third Saturday in April for much of its existence. This year it will be played on a Tuesday night in March during Salisbury's spring break. What happened?
© Caitie Hamilton

It was the most important non-conference game on the Division III calendar for more than three decades. The two participants made a combined 22 championship game appearances in the 34-year history of the division, accounting for 11 crowns. It was a contest so big that they had to come up with two names for it.

The annual Eastern Shore of Maryland conflict between Salisbury and Washington College – known as both the Charles B. Clark Cup and the more familiar 'War on the Shore' – is on par with any collegiate rivalry in any sport in any division, and everyone knew that it would take place on the third Saturday of April every year.

"For 24 years, we've played that game on that day," said long-time Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman.

Things changed last year.

The game, which is an event for the two campuses and alumni bases, was played prior to the third Saturday in April. It was played on April 17. It was played on a Wednesday night.

A midweek War on the Shore? Why?

There's no question that the rivalry has lost a little bit of its gloss. The Division III season is now littered with marquee non-conference games that at least match the significance of the Clark Cup, albeit typically not in late April. Salisbury's 10-year winning streak entering last season, which included several routs, also put a dent in the majesty of the competition. Perhaps it was time to dial back the prominence of the contest?

That actually had nothing to do with it. The game means just as much to the teams, schools and fan bases as it did in 1981, 1991 and 2001, but there were other unseen factors at play.

"Both conferences moved their conference dates," said Washington College head coach Jeff Shirk. "We bumped ours a week later and [Salisbury's] conference bumped theirs a week earlier, so there were some major conflicts."

Instead of having April 20 – the third Saturday in the month – open for the usual match-up with the Sea Gulls last year, Washington College had a league game with Gettysburg. It ended up as an open Saturday for Salisbury. And there will be no return to normalcy this spring. Because of further entanglements, the once-heralded contest between two of the traditional Division III powers will be played on Tuesday night, March 18. It's a game that will be played at Salisbury, a campus that will be mostly empty because of spring break.

"It's frustrating when you've played a game on a certain date for a number of years and then all of a sudden that conference doesn't accommodate that team," Berkman said. "Why didn't it happen? I have absolutely no idea. Somehow, our conferences have managed to work it out for 24 years, but over the last two years, it hasn't worked. That's a big game. It's one of the best games in college lacrosse, and now we're putting it on a Tuesday night during spring break? It doesn't have the same atmosphere."

Welcome to the world of scheduling, Division III-style. It's a land of conference obligations, traditional rivalries, budgetary confines, missed class time hobgoblins, and strength of schedule ambitions. Every coach is on a quixotic quest for the perfect schedule, but every school has its special hurdles to clear en route. When the opponents are finally posted on the school's website just about this time of year, they look neat and clean. Putting a slate together is anything but.

* * *

Where should we begin when breaking down the particulars of putting together a schedule? Well, let's start with what the coaches begin with: the conference. Everything begins and ends with the league slate.

"In the old days, we used to make the whole schedule ourselves," said Roanoke head coach Bill Pilat. "There were 16 games or so and you'd make all 16. Now, schools that are in a conference are given their schedule."

The primacy of conference play is a relatively new concept, gaining momentum in the last 10 or 12 years, and it's one that was adopted in order to give an avenue for every team to gain access to the NCAA tournament, regardless of travel budgets and other resources. It is not an illogical approach, but how it's applied can sometimes pose problems to specific sports.

"The changeover from the Empire 8 to the Liberty was my biggest challenge," said RIT head coach Jake Coon (above). "We had all those other teams in and then we had to figure out who we were going to continue playing and who we weren't and try to fit those into certain slots."
© John Strohsacker

"What I think some people miss and don't understand is in Division III the presidents are not deciding things with each sport, but with all sports being equal," said Denison head coach Mike Caravana. "The way that they set it up is that our way of getting to the championship is really no different than field hockey or men's basketball. It was a cost-containment issue."

For a school like Denison, located in Ohio, scheduling quality non-conference basketball games is a lot easier than lacrosse, especially for a traditionally strong program like the Big Red. There are plenty of programs around, but in order to be considered for the tournament, quality is the name of the game. And in the quest for a strong strength of schedule, avoiding weaker teams is nearly as important as adding healthy ones.

Denison's geographic plight has been compounded by recent events. The Big Red's conference, the North Coast Athletic Conference, has operated for much of its existence with six teams – one short of the NCAA mandated limit to be an automatic qualifying conference. As such, Denison played a conference schedule and crowned a league champion, but it held no significance. The NCAC squads were judged with the other independent, or Pool B, teams and not necessarily against their league. The schedule was composed with that in mind.

Last year, NCAC schools DePauw (Ind.) and Hiram (Ohio) added lacrosse programs, pushing the league into the AQ realm (Wabash will join in 2015). Not only were Denison and Ohio Wesleyan forced to compete within an entirely different arena, they were forced to do it with significantly fewer openings.

"We've lost five dates in the last two years to play non-conference teams," Caravana said. "People aren't aware of that. There are three new teams added to our conference, which are three new dates that have to be added and we're limited by the number of dates the NCAA allows us to play. Then you add a conference tournament, which is two dates. So that's five dates and two and a half weeks of playing if you're talking Wednesday and Saturday. And we're not alone."

The NCAC is just one of many conferences that have changed their shape over the past couple of years, and with each alteration comes changes to the conference schedule.

"The changeover from the Empire 8 to the Liberty was my biggest challenge," said RIT head coach Jake Coon, who guided the Tigers move in 2012. "We had all those other teams in and then we had to figure out who we were going to continue playing and who we weren't and try to fit those into certain slots."

The Midwest Lacrosse Conference is one of the newest AQ leagues and it has grown seemingly every year. It now boasts 11 teams, which has gotten problematic for Carthage (Wis.) head coach Dave Neff. "That's our big issue now; just the size and growth of that particular conference," he said.

Having access to that many games is seen as a positive for many programs in up-and-coming areas, but for teams that want to up their stature in the division, burning 10 of the NCAA allotted 17 dates with conference games is problematic. As such, Neff isn't afraid of playing doubleheaders – a rarity in the men's game because of the physical nature of the sport. Carthage will play both Calvin and Albion on Feb. 7 and then Dubuque and Illinois Wesleyan on April 12.

"It's about getting my kids as much on the field out of conference as possible," Neff said. "These kids play five games in two or three days all summer and even in high school they have weekend tournament, so we're not really worried about it from an injury or physical standpoint. We just see a lot of value in playing as much as possible; taking advantage that day of contest that we're allowed."

Shortly after Neff spoke about the travails of a large conference, he got his wish, but one headache might be replaced by another. The College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) – Carthage's traditional league – announced that it was sponsoring lacrosse in 2015, meaning the Red Men will be out from underneath the MLC monolith. Now, however, they'll have to fill up those dates with teams willing to play them.

The NESCAC, which is one of the most established conferences in Division III, has its conference peccadilloes, as well. The addition of Hamilton threw the league schedule out of whack for the 2012 season, forcing each team to have one weekend every season when they played two games back-to-back. The conference later deemed that to be an unsafe policy, but the NESCAC's late start – teams aren't allowed to start practice until Feb. 15, a full month after what the NCAA allows – and the mandate that any conference game over a certain distance away be played on a weekend to avoid class conflicts leaves little wiggle room.

"The problem is the conference seems to lag behind in getting you stuff in advance," said Salisbury coach Jim Berkman (above). "So you're always wondering and trying to know what it is going to be, but it's not like two or three years ahead of time when you know who you're going to play."
© John Strohsacker

"When the NESCAC gives us the schedule, pretty much every Saturday from the first game of the season onward is going to be a conference game," said Connecticut College coach Dave Cornell.

The NESCAC coaches also must deal with what is a universal complaint from nearly all the coaches putting their schedules together: when they receive future dates.

"For better or for worse, the NESCAC has been fairly late in getting our conference schedule," said Amherst head coach Jon Thompson. "The NESCAC office has typically not gotten us schedules until mid-year the year before, which hamstrings us a little bit in scheduling other out of conference games."

The timing of schedule release varies from conference to conference. The Centennial does its scheduling in four year blocks, so those coaches already received 2013 through 2016 at the same time. Other leagues, including the NESCAC, CAC and those that have endured changes, hand out their dates less than a year in advance. Most of the coaches already have their 2015 league slates, but almost all of them would love to have it even earlier.

"We're sometimes handicapped by when the conference gets us the schedule out to us and how many years out," said Stevenson head coach Paul Cantabene. "At Stevenson, we like to have our schedule done at least two years in advance so we don't have to worry about anything, but sometimes we're dependent on the conference."

"The problem is the conference seems to lag behind in getting you stuff in advance," added Berkman. "So you're always wondering and trying to know what it is going to be, but it's not like two or three years ahead of time when you know who you're going to play. That throws a little bit of a wrinkle into it because if you're trying to get a good out of conference schedule, the further in advance the conference would be able to get it to you, the easier it would be to do that stuff."

Fortunately, in most conferences coaches can guesstimate roughly when their conference schedule will begin, allowing them to comfortably create non-conference match-ups early in the season.

"We've had little or no change in the number of teams in our conference for quite a few years, so it might be a little bit easier for us to schedule ahead of time," said Cortland head coach Steve Beville, whose team plays in the SUNYAC. "Some of the other conferences have seen significant changes and that makes it a little more difficult with the conference schedule. They have a wait and see thing from year to year with who's in and who's out. We haven't had that. From March 31 through April 31, we know we have our league schedule."

Back-ending the conference schedule was a way to not only allow for easier future scheduling, but it was also another function of individual leagues' prominence amid the landscape of Division III and its NCAA tourney.

"When I first came into this league, I remember W&L playing a Guilford around the last weekend in February," said Lynchburg head coach Steve Koudelka, who first helmed the Hornets in 1997. "'Why is that happening?' We all sat down as coaches and agreed – especially with the AQ becoming more prevalent – hey, let's not be doing those games in February when our teams aren't at full strength. Let's move this schedule back and also not jam it into the month of April, but try to spread it out from the middle of the March to the middle of April and then we'll have the conference tournament."

Nearly all of the conferences have this mini-luxury of knowing approximately when their conference schedule starts. The glaring exception is the NESCAC. Because of its late start (although the NESCAC will have its first game a week earlier this year on March 1) and academic stipulations, the first game is always against another league foe. Since the NESCAC league slate encompasses the entirety of the year, guessing at potential open dates is a dangerous endeavor.

"I feel very uncomfortable projecting the NESCAC schedule," admitted Thompson. "It's only been five years, but it has felt like [the schedule] has changed every two. And it's the smallest of changes, like who is hosting the game. We played at Tufts for two years in a row, so you would have thought my second year we'd be at home if I projected out. But actually, no, we went back to Tufts. I'm uncomfortable saying this is what I think is going to happen, so let's pencil something in, and end up putting an out-of-league coach in a bind because what I thought was a home game against a school is now a road game and I can't back out of that one. Maybe some of the coaches who have been in the league longer have a better idea of how it changes, but I'm not confident in our schedule one year from now and two years from now."

There is also a gap between the ability to move conference games around. For some it's relatively easy, and it others it takes an act of congress. In the Centennial, there is an ability to move a game, but the schedule must remain in the order that it was given. For instance, Shirk said that because of a campus function, their league game against Muhlenberg was bumped up from Saturday to a Friday night. Other conferences allow for a little more leeway in finagling conference tilts. In the past, the Colonial States Athletic Conference has determined that Rosemont and Cabrini play on a Saturday.

"Literally, we could walk to Rosemont if we had to, so to use a Saturday, if we're in conference, I'd rather go to Centenary that is two and a half hours so the kids aren't missing class," said Cabrini head coach Steve Colfer. "So we'll flip the Rosemont game to a Wednesday at 6 p.m., where it's a mile down the road instead of going to Centenary on a Wednesday when we have to get on a bus at 11 a.m. I know our commissioner and assistant commissioner try to account for that, but sometimes there are little nuances we try to avoid."

"When I first came into this league, I remember W&L playing a Guilford around the last weekend in February," said Lynchburg head coach Steve Koudelka (above). "'Why is that happening?' We all sat down as coaches and agreed – especially with the AQ becoming more prevalent – hey, let's not be doing those games in February when our teams aren't at full strength."
© John Strohsacker

Some conferences even allow for non-conference action to trump league schedules, assuming that all parties involved are willing, although those leagues are certainly in the minority.

"We moved a game last year against Messiah so we could play Gettysburg," said Widener head coach Brendan Dawson. "The Messiah coach was really understanding. I think he understood that it wasn't just good for us, but would help the conference. We need to play teams like that to remain competitive and build up the image of the MAC."

With the understanding that the conferences, in their many forms and with their various rules, take precedent for the most part, what is the next step for a coach putting together a schedule?

* * *

Cortland will play 10 non-conference games in 2014, and the Red Dragons will play one of the stiffest schedules in the country. This is not surprising considering the stature of the program. More surprising is the fact that only four of those games will be played at Cortland's home venue.

Balancing home and away is a priority for some programs – Washington College's Shirk lists it as his top goal in scheduling – and there are other issues like travel time, budgetary constraints and other obstacles. For nearly all of the coaches, regardless of their ultimate aspirations, one priority trumps all. And it's the reason that Cortland is on the road so much this spring.

"You've got to find a way to play as many tough opponents as you can," Beville said. "That's always No. 1. You get those games, period. There have been times when we've had to be on the road quite a bit, but the overriding factor is at the end of the year when that committee sits down and does all their math and looks at their figures and indexes, the No. 1 factor is going to be the strength of your opponents. In my opinion, you just have to find a way. If it's budgetary, you have to fundraise a little bit more. If it's a travel thing, you have to realize that's going to be a part of it if you can't get the home games."

"Quality of opponents is the most important at this point," said RIT's Coon. "We need to make sure that we're beefing up our schedule so that when it comes down to tournament time and in case you don't win your league, you still have a strong strength of schedule to get that at-large bid. We're always trying to beef it up. In 2015, we've added Middlebury. We're always trying to get the best games possible while also keeping that other stuff in mind, like home and away, travel costs and so on."

The relative paucity of at-large bids – there are only five again this year for well over a hundred teams that don't win their conference tournament – means that there is an ever-increasing arms race to stack schedules with the best teams possible. There are drawbacks to this, but the necessity is pretty clear.

"The prime example is you look at Wesleyan last year," said Connecticut College's Cornell. "They were a very good team with a very good record and they went to the NESCAC championship game and they didn't even get regionally ranked. They weren't in the Top 15 in the north! If that doesn't say you need to get some regionally ranked teams on your schedule..."

There are a couple of teams that have the wherewithal to get the best games no matter the circumstances. Cortland and Stevenson are two teams that have shown an ability to buck many of the travel and budgetary harnesses that hold back other programs. The Red Dragons are making a non-spring break trek to Baltimore to play a pair of games in a weekend while the Mustangs are traveling up to Syracuse to play RIT in the Carrier Dome to open the season.

Most programs are searching for the best teams, but within certain boundaries.

"Every program is a little bit different," said Cabrini's Colfer. "Some schools whose conference may be more competitive top to bottom, they have to look at their non-conference differently. For a conference that is still developing and may not have the quality all the way through, the non-conference is looked at in a very different light. For us, we look at trying to build as many Top 20 schools into our schedule as possible. Competitive scheduling top to bottom is a priority."

"I think quality is No. 1, and it has to be quality within a certain travel distance," said Dickinson head coach Dave Webster. "And when I say quality, it's important to Dickinson and the [school's] overall mission that we try to play quality schools that are regionally based but are also of similar academic credentials. You want to play your peers and like institutions, as well."

Because of the geographical density of eastern Pennsylvania, and other areas on the East Coast, those schools are operating under a completely different set of parameters than schools farther to the west.

"For Dickinson to get the money when they really don't have to come out here to Ohio and spend an overnight, it makes it difficult for us," said Denison's Caravana. "You have to anticipate that someone's cost to come out to Ohio and going back there. Say it's in excess of four hours. That might warrant an overnight. Then you're looking at $4,000 cost just to take your team there. That's not a small amount of money when you look across all your athletic programs. If we have a school of 23 teams, and you add it up, it becomes expensive. We look for home and away. We look at the quality of opponent. And then figure out budgetarily if we can swing that. Can we find a neutral site where both teams can travel to?"

Denison's plight is really an issue of relativity. Caravana talks about how four hour trips necessitate an overnight, while Berkman and Pilat say five hours pretty much triggers a hotel stay. The staff and players at Carthage, located just south of Milwaukee, can't help but chuckle.

"We'll leave on a Friday afternoon and get back late on Sunday after a 10 or 12 hour bus ride," said Neff. "A couple of times we've driven 10 hours, gotten off the bus and played a game."

"I think quality is No. 1, and it has to be quality within in a certain travel distance," said Dickinson head coach Dave Webster (above). "And when I say quality, it's important to Dickinson and the overall mission that we try to play quality schools that are regionally based but are also of similar academic credentials. You want to play your peers and like institutions, as well."
© John Strohsacker

Neff's challenge at Carthage is two-fold. The Red Men, like many teams trying to break into the next level, don't have the strength that the top teams crave nor a favorable location.

"We've stepped up and said we are willing to play anybody who will give us the opportunity," Neff said. "Wooster and Wittenberg were both on the schedule before [last] season started and then were canceled because they had budget issues. It's not as easy as saying, 'Hey, we want to play these teams.' We have the worst of both situations because we can't encourage people to come and play us because we don't have great weather and we don't have the reputation of a Denison. It's harder to find those quality games that you are really looking for out of conference."

With the advent of the CCIW, Carthage will be moving into the Pool B (independent) realm next year, one that Colorado College has spent most of its existence. As the only Division III school in its entire time zone, the Tigers' scheduling issues are obvious, but there is a science to it.

"We try to get quality teams so we can hopefully have a good showing against them so the committee sees that Colorado College may be 10-5 or whatever, but our losses are against Lynchburg or Roanoke or other solid teams," said Colorado College head coach Sean Woods. "Also, since we're Pool B, we try to match up with some of the Pool B threats so we can have some head-to-heads throughout the season. We're playing Otterbein and Sewanee while Whittier and Eastern are also threats. And then you have to make sure to have teams that will challenge you toward the end of the season so you can be ready for playoff ball."

Woods said that Colorado College likely has the biggest budget in the division, which includes the ability to give assistance – known as "guarantee money" – to opponents making the trip to Colorado Springs. Because of their "block system" academic calendar, the Tigers also have a four-day weekend at the end of each month helping to mitigate the missed class time obstacle. Still, there aren't many coaches who would like to have Colorado College's problems, with the possible exception of Whittier – the only D-III school in the Pacific time zone.

* * *

Perhaps the biggest opportunity – and wild card – for Division III coaches as they put together their non-conference schedules is spring break. For some institutions, the break is useless. At Bates, a member of the NESCAC, it occurs during the first week of practice in February. At Salisbury, conference obligations have neutered the Gulls' break, although it did provide a home for the War on the Shore.

"We used to have a really nice spring break," Berkman said. "There were years when we went to Florida and we played some good games down there. We played Nazareth one year, St. Lawrence another, along with a couple of clashes with Bowdoin. But now because of the way they back-loaded conference schedules – and you basically can't even change games in our conference – we've got Frostburg on one end and York on the other. And this year with the screw up of Washington not getting the date from their conference when we were supposed to play, we're playing them on spring break."

Connecticut College has a two-week spring break, but the length of any trip – if there is one at all – is pretty much a crapshoot. The Camels have four conference games scheduled during their hiatus, which hems them in. However, if there is another league team with a spring break that overlaps, then the possibility for travel is there. In years past, Conn. College and Williams shared a spring break, so they played in Florida, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. "That gave us the ability to play another team while we're down there, and they are sometimes North region teams that happened to be down there," said Cornell.

They've played Union in the past along with last year's clash with Plattsburgh. The Camels and Cardinals will renew acquaintances again this spring, but it will be a truncated trip.

"This year, we're not playing any NESCACs at a neutral site because our spring breaks didn't overlap with the schedule," Cornell said. "Our spring break is two weeks long, but we'll only be away from campus for three days. We're going down to Annapolis for three days, but if it overlapped, we could go for a week. That's a pain in the neck."

It's not just a NESCAC thing.

"We weren't able to travel much because we're playing Stevens down on the [Long Island] at the start of the break and RIT in the Carrier Dome in the middle," said Cortland's Beville. "The importance of those two games overrode our desire to travel. Break or no break, we're just finding the best opponents. You have to weigh all the factors and reward the kids by getting them south when you can, but this particular year [spring break] didn't happen."

And sometimes spring break involves sacrificing a little bit of rest for scheduling strength.

"Schools on the outlying areas like us that play with a lot of the top teams, we end up playing a spring break trip where we're playing three very good teams because we're already there and there is already a cost involved," said Caravana. "You want to play the games so you have three tough games in seven days. We're playing Stevens on Saturday, St. Mary's on Wednesday and Dickinson on Saturday. That's a tough week. But that's part of what you have to do to play a more national schedule. You have to be fiscally prudent, responsible and give the kids the opportunity to play that schedule."

* * *

"What I think some people miss and don't understand is in Division III the presidents are not deciding things with each sport, but with all sports being equal," said Denison head coach Mike Caravana (above). "The way that they set it up is that our way of getting to the championship is really no different than field hockey or men's basketball. It was a cost-containment issue."
© John Strohsacker

Creating a schedule is obviously multifactorial, but at its core – at least at the Division III level where the coaches don't have the luxury of pawning off important details to support staff – it will always involve the human element. Budgets, travel and strength of schedule are always in play, but without a productive rapport between coaches and a worthwhile time for all involved, non-conference games won't happen. This is true regardless of whether they make sense or a fan base wants them.

"Hopefully you have a really competitive experience," Berkman said. "If it's a good environment and everybody is positive on both sides, win or lose, you want to continue that relationship and you want to keep playing that opponent."

"I want to coach against well-coached teams," Thompson said. "I'm sure there are a zillion well-coached teams out there, but I know every single year that Sean Quirk at Endicott is going to be very good and every single year Keith Bugbee at Springfield is going to be very good. Not only do I reach out to coaches of well-coached teams, but those coaches become friends. I hope to always play Endicott, Western New England and Springfield. That's another piece of the equation."

Since a lot of schedules can't be set up years in advance due to conference hang-ups, relationships are often times as good as contracts.

"You just become friendly with guys in the business," Colfer said. "You have a quality experience when visiting their campus, they have a quality venue, there is a good hotel in town and a nice little restaurant that takes teams. We're creatures of habit and if we establish a relationship with a good program and it's a good experience for our student-athletes then we try to go back to the well. We'll play [Gettysburg's] Hank Janczyk and before the game I'll say, 'Hi, Coach, how are you doing? Good, Steve, how are you? Good. Are we doing this next year? Yeah, yeah, we're good.'"

"It depends on the coach," added Cantabene. "Some coaches you have a two-year agreement and other coaches you don't have a contract, you just know you want to play every year. Me and [Lynchburg's] Coach Koudelka, we don't have a two- or four-year contract, we just like playing each other every year so we flip-flop the sites and that's a great game for both teams to play. There are some gentlemen's agreements and there are also some contracts that you have to sign to nail things down."

"It's funny, when I first got the job here, Coach Berkman called me and said, 'Hey, you owe us a game," said Widener's Dawson, who played for Berkman at Salisbury. "I said, 'OK, coach.' It was like I was playing for him again! We scheduled a game with them and we'll keep that game as long as we can. That, and having Dickinson on the schedule. I used to coach with Dave [Webster] and was an assistant there in '08 and '09."

Creating relationships within the coaching committee doesn't always lead to a game, but keeping the door open for that rare opportunity to fill the gap is important.

"Sometimes it doesn't work out," Beville said. "We'd love to play Salisbury every year but me and Jimmy just can't find a date to play. That gets frustrating sometimes; not being able to work out dates from a travel perspective. All you can do is try and keeping communications open."

"Jon Thompson is one of my good buddies and we talk about getting an Amherst-Washington College game going; getting the whole NESCAC-Centennial thing on the schedule," Shirk said.

* * *

As with any interaction, coaching relationships aren't always warm and fuzzy. This is especially true when a coach receives the 11th hour notification that a contest they assumed was a done deal isn't.

"That's the worst," said Webster.

"We've had to deal with that the last couple of years," Cantabene said. "That's really tough because when you get later and later, it's tougher and tougher to move things around."

The reasons for late cancellations, which can happen all the way up through November for the upcoming seasons, vary. There are the aforementioned conference changes that can gum up previous non-conference rivalries, and last minute budget issues can sink agreements. Many times, a new coach will come on board and deem that they no longer want certain games on the docket, and pull the plug late in the process. Regardless of the reasons, it can quickly change the dynamic of a relationship, although not necessarily for good.

"This is everybody's profession and their livelihood. It's not like we're a bunch of gym teachers here," Thompson said. "I get it. Everybody has to do what is best for their own program. If that means keeping a commitment, I hope that happens more often than not. I don't look at as anything personal; this guy just had to do what's best for his program. Is it annoying? Absolutely. But it all washes itself out in the end."

"We're all gentlemen about this, but if someone dropped us right now, that would be a tough thing to handle," Koudelka said.

There is someone who helps mitigate late cancellations, and he's the most important man in lacrosse scheduling, regardless of division. John Spring is the executive director of the USILA, and with that title comes many hats. One of his key roles is as a matchmaker for teams who found out that their schedule is not what it seemed. He'll receive a notification that a team is looking for a game, and then email that opening to every other coach in the division.

"You always see those emails from John pop up: 'Due to a last minute cancellation...,' said Colorado College's Woods.

"Jon Thompson is one of my good buddies and we talk about getting an Amherst-Washington College game going; getting the whole NESCAC-Centennial thing on the schedule," said Washington College head coach Jeff Shirk.
© John Strohsacker

"It's upsetting," said Spring, a former coach. "I've gone through that myself back in my old days and you think you've got your schedule all set and you're ready to roll and then, all of a sudden... Particularly if it's an early season game. It's pretty embarrassing from your standpoint to call somebody up and say, 'I've got to pull out of this game.' It hurts on both ends. I don't think guys like to do it and they don't like to hear it, either."

Spring also is a conduit for the coaches early on in the scheduling process. His busiest time of year is during the season when he estimates that he receives four or five scheduling emails a day.

"We use [Spring] all the time," Shirk said. "You call one or two guys who you were trying to get games with, but if that doesn't' work out, contact John and he gets it out and that's when you start getting emails. 'We have an open date, can we work it out?'"

"I usually don't need to do it because we have so many schools nearby, but this year, I actually did," said RIT's Coon. "We weren't sure what we were going to do on break and we were looking for a Wednesday game. I had a couple of colleges contact me. I have a good relationship with [Colby coach Jack] Sandler, so when he called me, I said, 'This is going to work out good.'"

"Some of the guys will say they are going on a spring break trip and we're going to be going through Baltimore on February such and such," Spring said. "Is anybody available? Oh, and we've got these open dates, too. When you see that all of these holes are filled and everything worked, it's kind of gratifying to know that they survived another year and got the same number of games in that they wanted."

* * *

The iconic nature of the War on the Shore is due in part to tradition and setting the schedule to the same day every year was part of that. Changing it irks Berkman because of his respect for the history of the sport. It's one of the reasons why the Sea Gulls aren't jumping at the opportunity to add teams that may help them more on Selection Sunday, but lack traditional gravitas.

"Ohio Wesleyan and Salisbury have been playing since 1989, so I'm not going to throw out that game just so I can go play Tufts," Berkman said. "That doesn't makes any sense to me because I believe in history and I believe in tradition and we've had some battles over the years. I don't want to just go play the top three teams in the north now because if I do that I'll have to throw away games against Roanoke or Lynchburg. You've got to give up something that is pretty good, and I'm not going to do that because I don't think that's right."

It's a noble stance, but the absolutism of right and wrong in regards to scheduling will be difficult to maintain as conferences improve and multiply, and the quest for at-large bids further intensifies. At some point, Division III lacrosse will expand to the point where the current regional approach will be revisited and revised, forcing coaches into more difficult scheduling choices.

As for the immediate future of the Clark Cup, the Centennial presidents are scheduled to vote soon on Washington College's request to alter the schedule and allow the Shoremen and Gulls to return to their usual spot on the third Saturday in April for 2015. It's anything but a rubber stamp. Because it involves moving bye weeks for several different conference teams for a schedule that has already been approved through 2016, it's not a simple fix. And if it's not approved, the War on the Shore will remain as a midweek midseason game until the '17 campaign.

That's not what either coach or team wants, but scheduling doesn't happen in a vacuum. Emotional bonds to decades-long rivalries take a back seat to conference ties, strength of schedule and other variables. Whereas in years past when the D-III world stopped to see who won the War on the Shore, that non-conference game now simply provides numerical data on the spreadsheets sitting in front of the selection committee.

Not one coach in Division III has ever put together his perfect schedule. There is always one opponent he'd love to get on the list and one SOS-killing conference foe that he could do without. So the eternal struggle will continue in hopes of getting as close as possible.

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