March 29, 2009

Making Sense of it All - March 29

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

Come rain or shine, the Salisbury women are going to be contenders for the national title. If the Gulls do win it all, they'll have to thank a bunch of White Mules.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Considering the weather we've had this spring, Salisbury women's coach Jim Nestor was a little sheepish bringing up the conditions for Sunday's game against Franklin & Marshall, especially since no one likes to hear griping about a pleasant climate in late March.

"The sun came out," said Nestor on the bus ride back to campus after his top-ranked (for now) Gulls nipped the No. 3 Dips, 10-9, on the road. "It was a great day, but it was a little hot for some of the players who don't get the amount of rest they normally do."

In order to defeat F&M and truncate a rare, one-game mid-season losing streak, Nestor had to shorten his bench and throw everything he had at the Diplomats. Early on, it looked like the strategy would pay off as the Gulls built a 7-3 lead late in the first half.

Five consecutive goals bridging the two halves by the hosts, which resulted in an 8-7 lead for F&M, forced Nestor to alter his game plan.

"I thought we were running out of gas," he said. "I started looking at our team and I said to myself, ‘We might be hitting a wall here.' So I wanted to slow it up on the offense a little bit because we were rushing things. We were connecting on [our possessions], but we were playing long sets on defense, so I started thinking about our endurance."

After trading goals 40 seconds apart midway through the second frame, Salisbury tied the game with 14:22 left on Ashleigh Gender's second marker of the game and then took the lead for good on a goal from Sarah Clemmens - one of Nestor's four subs. The Gulls then methodically bled the clock until the victory was in hand.

Salisbury was helped by the fact F&M used an even shorter bench - Lauren Paul rolled only two substitutes for the entire game - in addition to the dismissal of Dips stud Jen Pritchard (LM's Preseason Player of the Year) late in the first half because of a second yellow card.

The biggest key for the Gulls' win may have come for days prior, however, when the top-ranked team was outclassed by Colby, 15-14, snapping a seven-year regular season home winning streak. Classified by Nestor as "an eye-opener," the White Mule triumph exposed some deficiencies that Salisbury was able to eliminate prior to Sunday.

"We didn't put it behind us right away," said Nestor of the Colby loss. "We broke down the film and saw a lot of mistakes that we made. Of course Colby is very good team, but at the same time we saw a lot of things we didn't do so well as a team. We really focused on that, knowing how strong F&M was with its offense. We knew we had to come in and play great defense to pull out the victory."

With the possible exception of a home date with TCNJ on April 11, Salisbury will be large favorites in the rest of its contests. If they can take care of business, the Gulls will likely host a regional, meaning there is nothing but sunny skies ahead for Nestor's team, regardless of the weather.

The Difference a Week Makes
When we headed into this week, not only did the No. 1 Salisbury men have the look of a team ready to coast to another national championship, but the only team that appeared to be a threat to the Gulls' crown was their conference rival, and national No. 2, Stevenson.

Now, in the matter of four days, the men's Division III title race is officially wide open.

It started on Tuesday, when Salisbury nearly had its 104-game conference winning streak snapped by CAC lightweight York. Trailing at halftime, the Gulls held just a one-goal lead midway through the fourth quarter before pulling out a 13-9 victory. It continued on Saturday when No. 16 Gettysburg, which stumbled at the outset of the season, traveled to the Eastern Shore and handed Salisbury its first home loss in six years, 11-10.

Stevenson concluded things by showing it was vulnerable, as well, when it barely squeaked by a Wesley team that had one win over an above-.500 team, 12-11, on Saturday. The Mustangs trailed, 9-6, in the third quarter - the largest deficit of the season for Stevenson - but managed to rally for the win.

Neither Stevenson nor Salisbury should be discounted from the national title race, obviously, but their vulnerability makes the prospects for this year's tournament extremely exciting. Instead of the championship going to one of two teams, it is plausible that seven or eight teams could be playing on the day before Memorial Day.

And that's a great thing.

It's a White Mule World
So now that Salisbury has blown up the women's Division III rankings with a 10-9 victory over No. 3 F&M on Sunday afternoon, who is the No. 1 team in the land? This will be a very tough week for the pollsters, especially because the results aren't orderly. I reserve the right to criticize the pollsters (i.e., coaches), so I'll go on record with my picks just to be fair.

Here's my annotated Top 10:

1. Colby (6-1) - No. 8 to No. 1 is a big jump, but if you knock off No. 1 and No. 5 in the same week, you have to reap some reward, right? Plus, name another team that could beat Salisbury and Middlebury in a four-day span.
2. Salisbury (9-1) - The Gulls lost to Colby, so they drop behind, but take a look at that schedule. Brutal. And remember they smoked a Roanoke team that just crumpled W&L.
3. Gettysburg (8-0) - We'll give the Bullets points for the program tradition and the undefeated record, but who have they beaten? No. 19 Mary Washington, which might be out of the poll this week? They'll get a chance to prove themselves worthy later this year against F&M and TCNJ.
4. F&M (8-1) - The Dips drop one spot with the loss to Salisbury, which seems pretty fair, all things considered. Especially since they were at home.
5. Hamilton (6-1) - This is where the pollsters will have to swallow some pride. Keeping the Continentals at No. 2 after the loss to Salisbury was an artificial nod to winning the title last year, but Hamilton doesn't deserve the automatic bump to No. 1 now. Hamilton and Ithaca both beat Cortland by one at home. What does that tell you?
6. TCNJ (6-0) - Nice record; weak schedule so far. Like Gettysburg, the Lions will get their chance - Gettysburg, Salisbury and F&M still to go.
7. Tufts (5-1) - Beating Colby earns a thumbs up for the Jumbos, but they receive deductions for the lazy scheduling. Only two non-conference road games and both against teams within 45 minutes (Babson, Wheaton) of Medford? And no non-con games against opponents outside of Massachusetts? Weak.
8. Middlebury (4-2) - Don't shed too many tears for Missy Foote. A pair of one-goal losses against quality opponents will do nothing but help the Panthers down the stretch.
9. Trinity (6-1) - They lost to Colby, but beat Williams and W&L. Staying static sounds right.
10. Union (2-1) - This ranking might be a gift, but we'll let the Dutchwomen get a couple more games under their belt before passing judgment.

My second ten for those interested, in order: Babson, W&L, St. Mary's, Stevens, William Smith, Buffalo State, Williams, Cortland, Elizabethtown.

Tigers De-clawed
Anyone remember back to 2005 when the Colorado College women made it to the national semifinals? The Tigers became the face of Western small-school women's lacrosse after that and paved the way for non-traditional teams to grab a piece of the NCAA pie. In some small part to CC's success, there are now NCAA D-III women's lacrosse programs springing up all over the place - Michigan, Texas, California, Oregon, Missouri, Washington, and Illinois.

Unfortunately for Colorado College, it is slipping behind some of the programs it helped elevate.

It started last year when Claremont grabbed the Pool B bid typically allotted to the schools out west in front of CC. This past weekend, the situation became direr as the Tigers were not only beaten by Adrian - a second-year program from Michigan - but handled by the Bulldogs, 15-9.

Colorado College put non-traditional D-III women's lacrosse on the map. Alas, the Tigers are fast becoming a footnote in that same arena.

Slides & Rides
- As great a week as Colby had in women's Division III, No. 6 Mercyhurst was a step better in WD2. In the span of three days, the Lakers defeated two Top 5 teams and then survived an overtime scare in a "trap" game. It started on Thursday with a 13-12 victory on the road against Lock Haven and was followed up with an 11-9 home triumph against No. 1 and defending champion West Chester. On Sunday, ‘Hurst stumbled a bit against Bloomsburg, but managed to eek out a 15-14 double OT win to improve to 8-0. The Lakers probably won't be able to hop both Adelphi and C.W. Post in the polls, but they should be a solid No. 3 this week with a huge leg up for an NCAA bid.

- The Denison men put up some nice numbers in its 12-4 victory over NCAC foe Wittenberg on Wednesday. The Big Red won 18-of-19 faceoffs, were successful on all 13 of their clearing attempts and went 3-for-4 on the man-up. And there was only one technical foul called on Denison the entire game. That's about as efficient as you're going to get. But just to let you know how fickle lacrosse can be, Denison couldn't come close to matching that trajectory on Saturday against Wooster. The Big Red watched the potential tying shot fly past the goal as time expired, allowing Denison to take home an 8-7 win.

- This has been a season of threes for the Washington & Lee women. After racing out to a 3-0 start to the season, the Generals then lost three close games to F&M, Mary Washington and Trinity - all possible NCAA participants this spring. W&L rebounded with three more wins, including an 11-10 triumph over No. 5 Middlebury. The latest three-game cycle is not off to a promising start as unranked Roanoke handed the No. 12 Generals a stunning, 12-8 defeat on Saturday, snapping the program's five-year undefeated run in the ODAC.

- Like a fine wine: meeting up with Washington College for the 20th time, Haverford finally dealt the No. 8 Shoremen a loss on Saturday after going 0-19 in the previous meetings. The Black Squirrels, ranked No. 14, took an early, 4-1 and held on for the 8-5 victory on the road. The win not only snaps Haverford's ineptitude against WAC, but also vaults the program into first place in the Centennial. The Fords have rebounded nicely from the 15-3 dismantling by Cabrini in the season opener.

- This is not shaping up to be a promising season for the Amherst women - once a huge player on the national scene and a program that entered this season ranked in the Top 10. After Saturday's 10-4 loss to Bates - one of the few unranked NESCAC teams - the Lady Jeffs are 4-3 with Williams, Middlebury, Colby and Trinity (not to mention non-con Babson) left on the slate. Finishing above .500 would look pretty impressive right now for Chris Paradis' troops.

- I referred to the York men as "lightweights" in the CAC above, but after the Spartans followed the narrow loss to Salisbury with a victory over conference foe St. Mary's, it could be a case of York finally rounding into form. We'll see how they do against Stevenson on Wednesday, but the Spartans might be a team the CAC heavyweights don't want to see in their conference tourney bracket. So we'll upgrade the Spartans - they're officially middleweights.

- A quick update of my favorite Upstate programs: the Buffalo State women were idle this weekend and start their SUNYAC season on Tuesday against Brockport. The St. John Fisher men improved to 9-0 by downing Hartwick, 7-5. Things get a lot tougher for the Cardinals starting Wednesday, when they travel to Ithaca...the Ithaca women showed some signs of life with an upset win over No. 14 Cortland, 13-12 (FYI: Buff State rocked the Bombers, 17-12, earlier)...the Trinity women are quietly putting together a great season, heightened by their win over Williams on Saturday...speaking of the Ephs, the men are now 1-5 after bowing to Trinity, 6-3. Williams loses to Roanoke, 17-16, in overtime and then manages three goals against the Bantams? Odd...with the win over Mary Washington, the St. Mary's women put themselves into the second slot in the CAC behind Salisbury - a nice place to be come selection Sunday...when you look at some of the games in all three divisions and both genders, these past seven days have been the most entertaining week of lacrosse in about three years.

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