March 6, 2013

Schooling Schooler: Is Duluth Already in Trouble?

by Jac Coyne & Nick Schooler | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Minnesota-Duluth is walking a razor's edge even if we don't assume that the WCLL is going to get a third team like California (above) this spring. There's still a lot of lacrosse to go, but the Bears could be one of many thorns in the paws of the Dawgs.
© Cecil Copeland

When I heard the word this past offseason that the Upper Midwest Lacrosse Conference (UMLC) would be operating without an automatic qualifier, I had two immediate reactions.

The first was a twinge of sadness. It was just three years ago that the UMLC was a healthy league with eight schools. Sure, Duluth was significantly better than the rest of the teams in the league and gobbled up all the AQ berths (with the exception of '05), but the league appeared to have staying power. But then UW-Stevens Point and UW-Milwaukee closed up shop after the 2010 campaign, leaving the UMLC on the precipice until this year, when Marquette would obviously have to leave.

The fact that another program didn't come online during that time and the league didn't think strategically enough to have someone ready to switch conferences in '13 both helped produce the melancholy. It really shouldn't have happened.

And don't blame one of the successful Division II programs for not leaping up just to save the AQ for the big boys. Duluth is technically a D-II school playing up by current MCLA standards, so if they want the AQ that badly, they can bump down to the junior circuit and try to take it (and good luck with that).

My second reaction? Duluth is trouble.

The Bulldogs always play a strong enough non-conference schedule to keep themselves in the discussion, but they don't get the residual jolt from their league like others do. Minnesota and Mankato are improving and traveling out of the region, but they haven't caught the committee's eye quite yet. This means Duluth will have to catch not one, but a couple of breaks if it wants to go to the tournament for the eighth straight season.

Let's quickly do the math.

UMD is vying for one of seven at-large bids this season. Four of them are essentially spoken for at this point — two from the RMLC and two from the SLC. If things break right for a couple of teams, the WCLL could get two at-large bids, but we can pencil in at least one pretty comfortably. If we assume, for now, that only one extra team is rewarded in the WCLL, that leaves two berths for the six other leagues and the Dawgs to divvy up.

We can get rid of the LSA and GRLC. Whichever team wins those conferences will go to the tourney; everyone else will stay home. Duluth will need two other leagues — the PNCLL and the SELC — to break perfectly. The Dawgs will be rooting for Oregon and Virginia Tech to win their respective leagues because if they don't, each will get an at-large over UMD. Game over. But let's say that plays out as planned and we're left with two at-large berths to be shared between the CCLA, the PCLL and Duluth.

At this point, that boils down to Pitt, Michigan State and Davenport in the CCLA and Boston College, Connecticut, Buffalo and Northeastern in the PCLL (although, admittedly, another team could pop up between now and the end of the season). If you skim off the top two teams in the rankings right now — Michigan State and BC, and plug them into the AQ at this point — that is still going to leave healthy competition for Duluth.

Obviously, the Bulldogs can help their own cause with a win over No. 9 Michigan State and/or No. 1 Colorado State next weekend. A win over the former gives them a leg up on the entire CCLA and a win over the latter should trigger the 'Colorado Rule' — so named after the Buffs finished the 2010 regular season at 6-7 but managed to upset No. 1 Michigan, which ended up being the basis for Colorado's admission to nationals.

It will be one of the most interesting subplots of the second half of the season, and likely the cause of many sleepless nights on the banks of Lake Superior. If there's one thing going for Duluth, it's that I would guess they would get the benefit of the doubt from the committee should it be a dead heat for a final spot. 

Nick, you've gone through the at-large grind before and also watched the new committee at work. What makes you like Duluth in the at-large role and what has you worried?

SCHOOLER: It's unfortunate, but I see very little chance of Duluth making the tournament as an at-large team. I don't think they would have made it as an at-large the majority of the times they have made the tournament in the past.

As you mentioned, Duluth needs to beat Colorado State to ensure a spot at nationals. Winning every game with a close loss to CSU could also give UMD a chance. Their only quality win so far is against Cal Poly, but it's clear that Cal Poly is not the same team as last season. They also play unproven Michigan State. So without a win against the Rams, the Bulldogs are missing that signature win that at-large teams must possess.

If I was the putting together a schedule knowing that my conference does not have an AQ, I would try to schedule games against every perennial top ten team. Duluth may have done this, but it is tough to travel that much and even tougher to get a team to travel to Minnesota. Given the 'Colorado Rule' (I love that new term), scheduling this way would give them multiple chances to get signature wins or a lot of close losses to tournament-worthy teams.

The loss of an AQ doesn't only hurt Duluth because I don't think they are a shoe-in to win the UMLC. I feel bad for the team looking to knock off the Bulldogs this season. The Gophers have been clawing at the 'Dogs heels for the past few seasons and have a chance at knocking them off this year.

Of all the possible scenarios, that would be the most tragic. Duluth has owned the UMLC for 10-plus seasons, except for 2005 when Minnesota knocked them off to take the AQ and make a short-lived appearance at nationals.

So this is not a issue of whether or not I am worried about a single team in the UMLC. I am more worried for the teams that have tried to knock off Duluth every season. And if that happens this year, they will not be properly rewarded.

On to the games, where Schooler is hoping to recover after tanking last week in the speed round. It's Coyne with a comfortable lead, 17-8 to 12-13.

No. 10 Virginia Tech (4-0) at No. 4 Colorado (4-0) - Saturday, 1 p.m. MT

COYNE: Virginia Tech is a good team, and is the odds-on favorite to win the SELC title, but they are going against two hurdles this weekend. The first is the altitude. I know a lot of people pooh-pooh the concept, but Michigan went out to Denver three days early each time they went to Denver. That kind of tells me there's something to it, even if it's just psychological. The Hokies will be getting off their plane on Friday night and playing their opening game in Boulder less than 24 hours later. Not good.

Second, Tech will have to deal with Brad Macnee, Colorado's netminder and the best keeper in the country. Last year, I wouldn't be quite as concerned because the Hokies were scoring goals. They are struggling so far this season to produce on the offensive end, and that's trouble against Macnee, who is probably going to rob you of at least four markers. Virginia Tech will be in this game because they are good team, but they can't fight these obstacles. Buffs, 10-6.

SCHOOLER: Props to the Hokies for finally making a trip out West. The RMLC has the best teams in the league and hopefully they can steal a win in the Rockies, but I don't see that happening.

You never know what you are going to get with the Buffs early in the season, but they pulled out an impressive win against the Ducks last week. Even with the return of Matt Giannelli for his final season, coach Galvin and his defense will be able to shut down the one dimensional Hokies. CU wins, 12-9.

No. 11 Sonoma State (2-0) at No. 8 Oregon (5-2) - Saturday, 1 p.m. PT

COYNE: It wasn't much of a trip, but the road win for 'Noma against California was a big deal. It showed that the Seawolves could match some of the preseason hype that was surrounding them. I'm sure it also gave them a good confidence boost, along with a pivotal WCLL win. However, now Sonoma is on the brink of the Top 10 and is heading to play No. 8 Oregon on the road. I'm afraid it'll have to prove itself again.

Trey Norris (70-for-114 on faceoffs) has been a weapon all season for the Ducks, and he should dominate once again versus the Seawolves. And while Cal's Dan Cohen and Sean Hayden are a dynamic one-two punch on attack, Oregon's Matt Johnson (16g, 15a) and Benton Souers (17g, 6a) have proven it against some of the top teams in the country. Sonoma won't get embarrassed, but they'll struggle to keep up with the Ducks for four quarters. UO, 10-7.

SCHOOLER: This will likely be the best game the weekend has to offer. I think these are evenly matched teams. I have heard a lot of good things about Sonoma throughout the offseason. Until they took down Cal, that's all it

The Ducks have a strong attack while Sonoma has a strong defense. So get ready for a battle. I see another overtime game with the Seawolves coming out on top. 10-9.

No. 16 Buffalo (0-0) at No. 22 Georgia Tech (7-2) - Sunday, 2 p.m.

COYNE: Over the past two seasons, Buffalo has done a pretty nice job of playing its first game a month after everyone else while remaining competitive. Last year, the Bulls opened with Clemson — a team that had played nine games already and won eight of them — and still managed to post a 9-8 triumph. So opening with a 7-2 Georgia Tech team this Sunday isn't that daunting.

More concerning is the fact that the Bulls are seeking replacements for the departed Kurt Stavdal (35g, 2a) and Alex Hultgren (25g, 17a) while doing it against a Georgia Tech team that has already ground down more experienced offensive squads. This game will be close, because that's what Buffalo and Georgia Tech do, but the Jackets will prove a shade better. Wreck, 6-4.

SCHOOLER: This will be the first game for the Bulls while the Jackets will be 10 games deep into their season. That is a major disadvantage for a team, especially for a team that graduated so many seniors from the previous season. We do not know what to expect from Bulls. Who will take over as leaders for the team?

The Jackets knocked off Pitt and Clemson last weekend to show the country that they can compete. Georgia Tech takes the win, 9-5, like a days work.

Schooler's Pick

No. 12 Texas (6-1) at No. 6 UCSB (4-2) - Sunday, 1 p.m. PT

SCHOOLER: Texas came through Santa Barbara in 2010, but was too scared to play the Gauchos. They plays FSU instead, taking the W and setting the tone for their whole season. All kidding aside, I really wish I could have seen the 'Horns take on the Gauchos. Three years later, I'll have my chance.

I dog on Texas and the LSA a lot, but I actually have a lot of respect for the Longhorns. They have stepped up their game over the last few seasons and elevated themselves above everyone in the conference. The Gauchos have no trouble coming out hot against teams. Their issue is sustaining that fire for all four quarters. I can see UCSB going up early and Texas clawing back. But I have the Gauchos holding on for the 10-8 win.

COYNE: If Texas had pulled out the win over Boston College on Monday night, I would have been more inclined to take a flyer on them in this game, but it should still be competitive regardless. I won't build up the suspense — UCSB will win — but this game, along with Tuesday's matchup with Sonoma State, are important for the development of the UT program under new head coach Andy Garrigan. Not only does it put the program on a different plane in terms of respectability, but just making this West Coast swing will be good for a seed or two at nationals, regardless of the outcomes.

Nick has it spot on with the flow of this game. The Gauchos will jump the 'Horns early, and then coast home for the win. UCSB, 11-8.

Coyne's Pick

No. 18 Cal Poly (2-3) at No. 7 Chapman (4-2) - Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: Is there really a chance that this Cal Poly team can go down to Chapman and knock off the Panthers? Absolutely. I know the nine-goal loss to UC Santa Barbara sticks in everybody's mind, but the Mustangs were neck-and-neck with Duluth in an overtime game and gave ASU everything it could handle. This team isn't very far off. Plus, this Chapman edition isn't quite as complete (yet) as it has been in the last couple of years.

If this game is played in SLO or even at a neutral field, I'm take Poly in an heartbeat. Alas, Chapman is traditionally a much different team at home than on the road, and that saves the Panthers here. Chappy, 9-8.

SCHOOLER: Chapman has had some crazy and close games this season. Take last weekend for example. They beat ASU by a goal then turn around and barely beat a lesser Grand Canyon by a goal. Earlier in the season, they crush San Diego then lose to Oregon. What team are we going to get?

While Cal Poly has improved since they were stomped by the Gauchos (you knew I would have to bring this up), they have improved. A two goal loss to ASU is commendable, but not enough to convince me that they can put together what is needed to beat Chaptown. Panthers win, 12-8.

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