May 5, 2010

NESCAC Women: Greatest Show in Division III

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Rachel Romanowsky (above) and the rest of the Trinity women's team must meet two more huge challenges if they want to claim the NESCAC championship.
© Jonathan Lester

The NESCAC is more of a Saturday Night Live skit than a women’s lacrosse conference.

When you see the conference boasting seven ranked teams for much of the season, often with three in the Top 10, and wins over other top drawer programs from other conferences, all you can do is shake your head and laugh.

It’s becoming an annual ritual for the conference to have as many as eight representatives in the national Top 20, but what is often lost to those on the outside of the conference is just how narrow the margin is between the conference champion and a squad that may finish below .500 in league play.

It was on display from the start, with unranked Bates jumping up and biting then-No. 6 Middlebury, 11-9, in the season opener for both teams. It continued throughout the spring, highlighted by trios of scores that made no linear sense.

Colby 11, Middlebury 10 (ot).

Middlebury 18, Bowdoin 7.

Bowdoin 14, Colby 7.

That triumvirate was just one of many. Even the seedings for the conference tournament that commenced last weekend seem counterintuitive. On Sunday, fourth-seeded Amherst hosted fifth-seeded Tufts even though the Lady Jeffs were ranked No. 18 in the country and the Jumbos were No. 9. And Amherst won.

Any coach in the NESCAC will bring up the word parity to describe the league. It’s something that has been bandied about for quite a while, mostly because it has evolved as a league-wide talking point, but it’s only in the last couple of years that balance has really been evident. It is a development that coincides with the league catching up with the flagship program, Middlebury.

Whereas the Panthers were earning bids to the NCAA tournaments since the NESCAC became eligible in 1994, it took several years for two of the other teams – Amherst and Williams – to catch up to Middlebury’s national success. Now, Bowdoin, Colby, Tufts and Trinity have joined the group and the remaining three teams (Bates, Conn. College and Wesleyan) are nipping at the rest of the conference’s heels.

“Some of the schools that weren’t recruiting are recruiting, and some of the schools that weren’t coached necessarily very well in all of the areas now are,” said Middlebury coach Missy Foote. “Once you have seven or eight teams who are competitive, then you’ve got a battle. Then you throw in your fluke loss and you really say, ‘Whoa!’”

The league has matured to the point where Middlebury, once a team that imposed its will, has had to change its style just to keep up.

“Our strategy used to be run like hell and put the ball in the goal,” said Foote. “Fast break and zone defense: that’s what we worked on all the time. Run, run, pass, catch, shoot like crazy. That was our practice. We can’t play that style of lacrosse and still win games. My strategy for 30 years has always been we’re going to do our thing and let everyone adjust to us. We have to adjust to what other teams have now.”

With the bulk of NESCAC teams operating at nearly the same level, the small nuances of the game that once determined the goal differential now directly impacts whether a team finishes with a win or a loss.

Perhaps the biggest variable is how specific teams match up and how quickly they can adapt to any wrinkles.

“Some teams don’t change anything for anyone. If their game matches up better that day, great,” said Amherst coach Chris Paradis. “But other teams do a lot of adjusting to what they’re going to see; changing their offense and defense to what they think they need for that particular match-up. The teams that can do that certainly are going to be better off.”

“Teams have an identity,” added Trinity coach Kate Livesay. “Some teams are explosive and can gain a lot of momentum, so can you stop the momentum? Some teams are methodical and want to slow down the pace, so are you patient enough? It’s part of the game.”

For Colby coach Karen Henning, you can prepare a team as much as you want tactically for a NESCAC opponent, but if there is something missing emotionally or mentally, there’s not a whole lot you can do on a given day.

“If you’re not ready to come out and play at the highest level, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing because the rivalries are that big,” said Henning. “If you break your focus for a little bit, then another team is going to sneak past. It’s a high-quality student-athlete across the board in all sports. They want to be successful in the classroom, on the field and in life, so they’re going to go out and give 100 percent and always think they have a chance. You have to be ready to compete.”

There certainly is a non-physical aspect that explains a lot of the results one sees in the conference.

“Sometimes psychology plays into it,” said Paradis. “There is history and the players have some preconceived notions, which you need to clear them of so they take each season and game for what it is. The team that can maintain that sense of innocence, if you will, can also play into it. Not, ‘Oh, we haven’t beaten this team for so many years; these things have happened in the past and, Oh, no, it’s happening again.’”

Trinity, which has been the highest ranked team in the conference for much of the season, was upended by Tufts for its first loss midway through the spring. Livesay said being undefeated was a huge burden that made her team tighten up when the Jumbos kept the contest close.

“We have talked a lot this year about playing fearless and not worrying about the score or the consequences,” said Livesay. “Why wouldn’t you go after that ball? I don’t know if I’d want to call a time out and say, ‘You guys are playing not to lose!’ That’s not me, but I think that is hard. With our program being relatively new to that situation of winning every game, it may be just a psychology of our team.”

Foote believes part of avoiding the emotional pitfalls that can arise during a game is to mimic those situations in practice. Basically, it comes down to preparation, but even that isn't always enough.

“In the long run, they’re 18 to 21-year-olds and you think you’ve got them figured out and they’ve got it, and then your captain gets face-guarded and she forgets she can speak,” said Foote. “It’s a life-lesson, and it’s hard.”

“That’s the whole thing: you have to have a Plan B,” added Paradis. “If this is how an opponent is against a team, say a low pressure defense, you have to be ready for the quick double here or the face-guard there. Some players aren’t fazed by that pressure and some are wet noodles.”

There is undoubtedly going to be pressure, as well as life lessons, on display when the NESCAC semifinals – featuring No. 5 Trinity, No. 9 Colby, No. 13 Amherst and No. 15 Williams – and finals are held in Hartford, Conn., on Saturday and Sunday.

While the conference will send at least two other teams, possibly three, to the NCAA tournament, coming out on top in the NESCAC will be a spectacular achievement. It could potentially be considered a far more grueling feat than winning five games in May.

And, frighteningly enough, the NESCAC women’s lacrosse league will soon move from a Saturday Night Live skit to a horror flick. Hamilton, currently No. 1 in the country, joins the league in 2012.

Grab some popcorn.

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