April 11, 2011

Making Sense: Michigan State, Cal Poly Want to Test Their MCLA Mettle

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

Thanks to the play of sophomore middie Josh Nemes (above), Michigan State is 8-3 and ranked No. 6 in the country. Playing arguably the toughest schedule in the MCLA, the Spartans are hoping to be mentally prepared for the national tournament this year.

© Cecil Copeland

They are two very different teams, in very different parts of the country, with contrasting styles and philosophies. Yet they have one common goal.

Michigan State and Cal Poly both figure to participate in the MCLA national tournament in Denver in May -- State via an at-large bid and Poly through the WCLL automatic qualifier -- and their shared goal is to eclipse their results from last year.

Both teams were "away" seeds at the 2010 tournament. After winning the conference AQ last year, Poly earned a No. 14 seed in the 16-team field, and the Mustangs were dispatched by eventual national runner-up Arizona State. As the second-place team in the CCLA behind Michigan, the Spartans were awarded the No. 9 slot, and were promptly dismissed by Brigham Young.

Avoiding the same fate is priority number one, and both are attempting to use the same avenue to get there.

One of the tools that coaches have to aid the players in their quest for deep advancement in the playoffs is the schedule. The list of games for contenders like Michigan State and Cal Poly is both a means to an end -- the most heavily weighed criterion in front of the MCLA selection committee is strength of schedule -- as well as a way to shape the mentality of the players in preparation for the crucible of four games in five days at a mile high.

Michigan State head coach Dwayne Hicks admitted that his team had the "just happy to be here" mindset when the Spartans made their first-ever appearance at nationals. Hicks loaded up his schedule this year with 12 ranked teams, including five in the top 10, to harden his team's mentality.

"We wanted to go out and be competitive, but there was that caveat that it's just good that we're here," Hicks said about last year's Denver visit. "This year, we've changed our schedule so we can say we've played against the best, we've beaten the best, so now we're going out there so that we can win it all. It is a little more serious."

"You want to earn your way to nationals from the first game and never look back," added Hicks, whose No. 6 Spartans swept a weekend series with No. 14 Duluth and No. 17 Illinois. "We've been in the top 10, we've dropped out, and we came back. We were going to continuously play good teams instead of trying to play good teams over spring break, and then ride out the rest of the conference. This year we were going to play good teams throughout the year and get used to the speed and get used to playing back-to-back games."

The approach is slightly different for Cal Poly. The novelty of participating at the nationals has long since worn off -- "We are so tired of 'just being there,'" said Mustangs head coach Marc Lea. Poly has qualified for nationals the past two seasons, and six times in the last 10 years, but has advanced past the first round just once (2006).

Lea has constructed his schedule not so much to change a mentality, as Michigan State has, but rather as a lesson plan. The Poly coach has made the bold admission that if the Mustangs don't win the automatic qualifier from the depleted WCLL, they probably don't deserve to go to the nationals.

"I don't give a s—t about the at-large," Lea said outside a rest stop in Yreka, Calif., on Cal Poly's 11-hour bus trip from Oregon. "We want to go to Denver and make it to the finals. We don't want to go there and bow out in the first round. It's getting old. I don't need to be in Denver that bad."

As such, the losses by the seventh-ranked Mustangs to both Oregon and Simon Fraser -- as well as earlier setbacks to No. 5 Chapman and No. 2 Colorado State -- were disappointing, yet still useful.

"Losing is never fun, but sometimes it can be instructive," Lea said. "Hopefully we can learn a lesson this time because we haven't learned it in the past. We have to learn that we can blow out certain teams or beat certain teams handily by taking poor percentage shots, but it's going to come back to bite us when we see better teams and get to nationals. Hopefully we'll get back to work and finally figure it out."

Both Michigan State and Cal Poly have opportunities remaining to obtain their long term objectives. The Mustangs have three more regular season games against middling conference competition and two games in the WCLL tournament to correct their errors before putting it all on the line in Denver. The Spartans have at least one, and probably two, more games against archrival Michigan, which will provide them with all of the experience they'll need to be mentally ready for the start of the postseason.

The bad news is there can be only one champion, and the odds say it won't be Cal Poly or Michigan State. The good news is they'll both get another chance to figure it out in seven months. 

Game Balls

Alec Bialosky – LSM, Tufts
Some teams forget that the senior is a converted high school attackman. Trinity evidently did, as Biolosky struck for four goals in the Jumbos' 18-10 romp.

David Burke - Attack, St. Thomas
The two-time defending champs swept a three-day, three-game series against ranked opponents this past weekend thanks to the sophomore. He amassed five goals and dished out seven assists during the stretch.

David Hild – Attack, Middlebury
Needing to rebound from the mid-week loss to Amherst, Middlebury faced a tough road test in Bowdoin. The senior scored five goals and set up three others to give the Panthers the win.

Sam Jakimo – Goalie, Amherst
Amherst played blood-rival Williams on the road and the Ephs were up for a fight. The junior's 20 saves made sure it didn't happen in an 11-8 win for the Jeffs.

Jimmy Johnston – Midfield, C.W. Post
Two goals doesn't usual earn a game ball, but when you're team wins a critical, 4-3 contest and you had half the markers, you'll show up here.

Nick Johnston - Goalie, Oregon
The senior turned away 27 shots in two games, helping the Ducks sweep a weekend series against No. 16 Simon Fraser and No. 7 Cal Poly.

Chris Laurita – Midfield, Stevens
The Ducks entertained No. 16 St. John Fisher, and Laurita made sure it was a rude welcome with three goals and six assists for a nine-point afternoon.

Johnny Nitti – Defense, Mesa State
The Maverick defense put in a strong performance in Mesa State's 6-2 victory over Grand Canyon, and the rookie was a big part of it with five caused turnovers and four ground balls.

Tommy Susko – Midfield, Adelphi
The Panthers faced their toughest conference test to date against Merrimack, and the grad student made sure they passed it with five goals.

Power Fives

NCAA Division II
1. Limestone (12-0) – The Saints looked human in the 9-4 win over Pfeiffer, but locked up the top seed in the conference tourney regardless.
2. Le Moyne (8-1) – The two games -- Merrimack and Adelphi -- are the only challenges left, and they're both on the road.
3. C.W. Post (11-1) – The defense has been a constant all year for the Pioneers, and that unit came up aces against Mercyhurst.
4. Adelphi (8-1) – The Panthers crack The Fives after a solid win over Merrimack. Next stop: Le Moyne on April 20.
5. Mercy (8-1) – The Mavericks take the weekend off and get leapfrogged by Adelphi. Still rarified air for the second-year program.

NCAA Division III
1. Tufts (10-0) – Jumbos are hitting their stride, but they face a stiff test on the road at Endicott on Tuesday.
2. Salisbury (13-0) – Did you know that the Sea Gulls' opponents have a combined record of 94-94? Tufts' is 86-54. If you're wondering.
3. Stevens (12-0) – Before the Ducks hung 18 on them Saturday, St. John Fisher's highest goals allowed mark was 11.
4. RIT (9-0) – Gene Peluso leaving RIT and joining Stevens would have to be classified as a "win-win" situation at this point.
5. Stevenson (13-1) – The Mustangs' exciting non-conference schedule makes it tough to ignore how weak the CAC is.

MCLA Division I
1. Michigan (12-0) – The Wolverines credited their "poised man-up unit" for the 26-9 win over Missouri. Yeah, it was EMO that won that nailbiter.
2. Colorado State (8-1) – Monday's game against Chapman will have a very semifinal feel to it. Great test for both of these tourney-bound programs.
3. Michigan State (8-3) – Sparty keeps climbing thanks to Cal Poly's stumble. Battle for the Great Lakes State looms on Saturday.
5. Arizona State (8-3) – Sun Devils get back on the winning side of the ledger by beating San Diego, but host a frisky Fraser team Friday.
4. BYU (13-2) – I feel dirty for rewarding the Cougars for beating Wyoming and New Mexico by a combined 56-2, but they're league games.

MCLA Division II
1. Grand Valley State (10-0) – I'm not convinced that Lakers are a lock to win the whole thing, but they bring a little sanity to a crazy division.
2. St. Thomas (11-1) – Do the Tommies like toying with Davenport, or does it always take a quarter for them to warm up against the Panthers?
3. Western Oregon (10-1) – Evidently, the Wolves must produce in the tournament to get any respect from the pollsters. Regardless, this is a good team.
4. Briarcliffe (5-0) – The Grove City win is worthless now and it's tough to know what Davenport team the Bulldogs played. They could drop soon.
5. St. John's (11-1) – The Johnnies played four ranked teams in three days and went 3-1. They drop, but still stick at the bottom of the Fives.

Monday Notebooks

NCAA Division II: Did Pfeiffer expose a weakness in No. 1 Limestone?
NCAA Division III: The perfect record is gone, but the ride's not over for Trinity.
MCLA Division I: The association needs to address the cancellation issue this summer.
MCLA Division II: Congratulations to North Dakota State for punching its ticket.

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