February 6, 2013

Schooling Schooler: Can Teams Survive 'The Move'?

by Jac Coyne and Nick Schooler | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Carson Barton (above) and Grand Canyon are ready to embark on their MCLA Division I journey in 2013 after moving up from Division II. Will they find success on the senior circuit, or will the 'Lopes follow the path of their predecessors?
© Cecil Copeland/Athletic Image

Is it going to be different this time? Will Grand Canyon and Davenport — a pair of teams transitioning from MCLA Division II to Division I this spring — avoid the fate of teams that have made the same move before them and essentially fallen off a cliff of obscurity?

A part of me is optimistic about these two programs.

Both schools are serious about their lacrosse teams and provide a lot of resources despite playing in a non-varsity league. Both have dedicated coaches — Manny Rapkin at GCU and Chris Gervat at DU — who are being compensated reasonably and appear to be in for the long haul (which is certainly a relative term in the MCLA). And each school has the ability to attract (and perhaps more importantly, admit) a wide range of students-athletes, including our friends North of the Border. All of these are ingredients are consistent with many of the other top programs at the MCLA Division I level.

Further, both programs are not just dipping a toe in Division I during their inaugural campaigns. They're jumping in with both feet. GCU is ensconced in the SLC — one of the premier leagues in the country — and has non-conference tilts with No. 5 Cal Poly and No. 3 BYU along with non-divisional SLC contests with No. 4 Chapman and No. 11 UC Santa Barbara. Davenport has non-league games with No. 2 Arizona State, No. 12 Buffalo, No. 21 Simon Fraser and No. 10 Virginia Tech, along with CCLA foes No. 6 Michigan State and No. 9 Pittsburgh.

There's also no getting past last year's results. Davenport took Michigan State — a team that came within a whisper of knocking off Cal Poly in the quarterfinals — to double overtime during the regular season while the 'Lopes went 3-0 against D-I competition, including a 10-8 triumph over Northeastern, which was the first team out of the tourney last spring.

Still, there's a part of me that can't shake the historical aspect.

I wasn't covering the league at the time, but I wonder if there wasn't the same type of optimism for San Diego, fresh off back-to-back D-II championships, or Montana, which won it in '07, when they made the leap. Since those salad days, however, those two programs haven't sniffed a Division I tournament bid. Combined, the Toreros and Grizzlies have one winning record out of 11 seasons (Montana in '08) and a cumulative mark of 55-105. And things don't appear to be changing anytime soon: USD (3-11) and Montana (2-12) combined for just five wins in '12.

One could argue that those two teams would be better off back in Division II, where they are still eligible for the championship (although in San Diego's defense, they did start out this season with a mildly impressive win over Loyola Marymount).

So is this the fate that will ultimately befall Grand Canyon and Davenport in the next half-decade?

As we know, there could be divisional restructuring (along with the addition of another level) in the next couple of years that could change the whole dynamic for not only Grand Canyon and Davenport, but other current D-II heavyweights like St. Thomas and Grand Valley State. But until that happens, a lot of programs in the junior circuit will keep a close eye on the 'Lopes and Panthers to see just how competitive they can be.

Nick, you were on the scene during the emergence of Division II in '05. Can Grand Canyon and Davenport rewrite MCLA history, or are they doomed to repeat it?

SCHOOLER: I would love to see these two teams experience the same kind of success they have had over the years in Division II. They have done everything they can possibly do to prepare themselves for the shift. As you alluded to, both teams have scheduled games against Division I teams in the past.

These are not just wins or competitive games over mid- or lower-tier Division I teams, but rather great games against tournament-bound teams. However, the outcome of these games can be quite misleading, similar to how a scrimmage or fall ball result can be misleading. Interdivisional games have no significance for the team in the higher division. While they look like good games on paper, they have to be taken with a grain of salt. It may appear like both teams are giving it their all, but if one team knows it won't count and the other team wants to prove they belong, crazy things can happen.

The University of San Diego is a perfect example of this. They had tons of success at the Division II level, and people expected big things out of the Toreros. Overall, the shift has been a disappointment, but it has not been as bad as you make it seem. They have showed some signs of success. I would put USD as a mid-tier Division I team along with the likes of LMU, SDSU, Arizona, and UNLV (I am focusing on the SLC because of my familiarity with the conference).

Mid-tier teams put themselves in a position to steal a championship bid every season and I think that has to be the aim for any team making the transition to Division I. The top 10 teams have been playing the hardest schedules in the league for 10-plus seasons now. The same should be expected of any team wanting to make a national impact.

I do not see Davenport or Grand Canyon being a favorite to make the tournament any time soon. That does not mean they won't make it, but I highly doubt it will happen. Based on their schedule this season, however, they could be putting themselves in a position for some success down the line.

To the games...

No. 11 UC Santa Barbara (0-1) at No. 5 Cal Poly (0-0) – Saturday, 1 p.m. PT

COYNE: This game has certainly become even more interesting after the Gauchos' opener. Prior to the start of the season, it appeared that Cal Poly had graduated way too many high-end players to hang with an ascendant UCSB program marked by Mike Allan's return. But after the postponement of the USC game and the overtime loss to Stanford, the Gauchos look more vulnerable. It may be a short-term issue for UCSB, but it has certainly ratcheted up the importance of this contest.

I've got an inkling this one will boil down to goalie play. Both Conrad Carlson (60.5 save percentage last year for the Gauchos) and Nick Czapla (59.4% for the Mustangs) were part of a platoon situation, but this year they each will be the top dog in net. Both are excellent, but I'll lean to Czapla's championship game cred (six saves in the first half against CSU) plus, perhaps, a little SLO home-field advantage. 'Stangs flip last year's script, 8-7 in overtime.

SCHOOLER: This is not the same Mustangs team we saw last season. Lots of talent is gone, but the same can be said for the Gauchos. Both are young teams and will see improvement as the season progresses.

Stanford was a wakeup call for UCSB. The Gauchos have the firepower despite all of the talent lost to graduation. They just need to figure out how to sustain their initial push and play a complete game. That game would have been a blowout had the Stanford goalie, Josh Giglio (18 saves), not played out of his mind. The shots were there and they need to fall in this next game. Can they get the ball past Czapla? I think so.

The hunger after a tough loss to the Cardinal on the road and the fact that Cal Poly has yet to play a game makes me inclined to pick the Gauchos (along with the fact that I have never picked against them). I have UCSB winning, 12-9.

Grand Canyon (0-0) at San Diego State (1-0) – Saturday, 2 p.m. PT

COYNE: This is a reasonable game for Grand Canyon to commence its Division I excursion. Even more so when you consider there aren't a whole lot of games left on the schedule in which the 'Lopes will be favorites. San Diego State was 5-9 last season, with two of the wins coming over D-II teams, and the Aztecs are now breaking in a new coaching staff. Again, this seems like a good place for GCU to start.

With Carson Barton (55g, 25a) and Matt Mountain (22g, 15a), the 'Lopes will get their goals, but their challenge will be to stop them from going in on the other end. Andrew Hunter is no longer around, along with his brother, pole Richard Hunter. In addition, GCU no longer has Fred Whistle's faceoff dominance to give Manny Rapkin's troops an advantage at the dot. And if there's one thing that SDSU is used to, it's the Division I grind, as they have been doing it for a while. It'll be closer than what the Grand Canyon-ites think, but the 'Lopes will notch its inaugural D-I victory, 12-10.

SCHOOLER: This is the game. Is Grand Canyon going to be able to compete at the Division I level? I can safely assume that the 'Lopes will not win the SLC, but placing themselves in front of the mid-tier teams early would be a great statement.

The season is young, but I think the coaching change will work wonders for the Aztecs. They have so much potential at that school and always seemed on the verge of a breakout season. They also have a lot of young talent on the team with at least a season under their belts. It is unclear how either team has done with recruiting, but if I had to bet, I would go with SDSU and its ability to draw from the plethora of talented local high schools.

The Aztecs will welcome the Lopes to their first real Division I game with a loss. SDSU, 14-10.

Texas State (2-0) at Texas A&M (0-2) – Saturday, 7 p.m. CT

COYNE: Did you know that Texas A&M has more MCLA tournament berths than Arizona State, Boston College or Florida State, and just one fewer than Oregon or Cal Poly? If you're new to the association, probably not, because since its last tourney bid in '08, the Aggies are a combined 33-37, including last year's 5-12 mark. As its schedule is currently configured, A&M isn't even eligible for an at-large bid to nationals this spring. Times have changed.

On the flip side, Texas State is starting the Mike Brand era with an ambitious (by LSA standards) slate featuring ranked foes Boston College, Connecticut and Northeastern. As competitive as the Bobcats hope to be in '13, they are still in Texas' rearview mirror within the conference and several recruiting classes behind the top guns in the MCLA. So will this be a competitive game? Normally I'd think so, but Texas State smashed the Aggies, 15-3, last spring, and I'm not sure that much has changed to flip the result. B-cats, 12-7.

SCHOOLER: There is nothing tougher than picking the outcome of a game between two teams from the LSA at the beginning of the season. It is usually a toss-up. Jac has probably chatted with the coaches and studied their rosters closely, but as a fan, I do not have the resources (or time) to do that.

As a general rule, I root against any Texas team, but in this instance I don't have that luxury. So it looks like Texas A&M has been off to a rough start and we know that Texas State has experienced some success in the past. For that reason, I am going with the Bobcats, 16-8.

Schooler's Pick

No. 13 California (0-0) at No. 11 UC Santa Barbara (0-1) – Sunday, 1 p.m. PT

SCHOOLER: I didn't want to pick two UCSB games, but the Gauchos have a great back-to-back weekend, including this home opener against the Bears on Sunday. How did I get suckered into a weekend of skiing when I could be enjoying it by the ocean for the first game to ever be played at the....the...well, we will have to come up with a name for the new field?

This game has me a bit worried. Both teams have lost a lot of talent. While I am not familiar with the Bears' rookies, I know that UCSB has a talented group of freshmen from all over the country. Several of these rookies are starting and will only get more comfortable with the more games they play. The-difference maker will be Conrad Carlson in goal for the Gauchos. He once split time with Andrew Noto, but with his departure, it opens up a whole new door and I expect Carlson to shine.

This will be an excruciating game to follow for me on Twitter during a long car ride back from Mammoth Mountain in the Sierras, but it will be well worth it when the Gauchos come out on top, 13-12.

COYNE: You know it must be one helluva ski trip if our boy Nick is going to miss this contest, or perhaps he's just boycotting the team now that "The Pit" has been retired. Either way, he's missing out on a gem of an early season game. If the two teams were playing under similar conditions, I'd just punch in the Gauchos at home and move on. However, UCSB will be coming off a huge road rivalry game the day before against Cal Poly while the Bears will have chipped off the rust with a 'friendly' against Division II Pepperdine.

Cal would probably benefit from a UCSB win against Poly as the Bears would have the whole "let-down" thing going for them, but either way, the they have a very good shot to pull this out. Cal lost some key ingredients from last year like John Hofinga (35g, 5a) and goalie Casey Keenan (59.4 sv%), but head coach Dan Nourse had a sanguine outlook for his team when I spoke to him in the offseason. This one will be a grinder, but in the end, the Gauchos will lean on their defense to save the day. UCSB, 6-4.

Coyne's Pick

Boise State (0-0) at Utah (0-0) – Sunday, 2 p.m. MT

COYNE: This is an important season for both the Broncos and the Utes. Boise State is a program trying to break into the next level of the MCLA, and showed a flash of brilliance last year with the upset victory over Simon Fraser. Utah is desperately trying to hold onto its upper-tier status within the RMLC after posting a 6-8 mark in '12 where the six wins came against teams with a combined 22-48 record.

Last year, the Utes raced out to a big first half lead and coasted home against the Broncos for a 12-8 win. I'd be more willing to go out on a limb on this contest if not for the fact that Boise State will be playing Brigham Young on Friday night. While the weekend excursion to the Beehive State will be beneficial for the Broncos, Sunday's contest against a fresh Utah squad will be a bit too much for this young team. Utes, 13-10.

On a brief aside, if you haven't seen this video about what Boise State did for a local family, take a peek. You'll become an instant BSU fan.

SCHOOLER: Give me a break. There is no question here. Utah is like the NBA's former best sixth-man, James Harden. If you put the Utes in a different conference, they would make the tournament every year. The same cannot be said about Boise State.

I see this as a light appetizer for Utah as they head into a more challenging conference schedule. Utah wins, 15-7.

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