April 22, 2011

NCAA Division III Women's Lacrosse Notebook: Yo, Adrian, How 'Bout a Pool B Bid?

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Adrian attcker and Ontario native Rachel Johnston, one of John Sung's far-flung recruits, ranks in the top 25 in Division III in scoring.

Scrappy underdog from nowhere hangs with the defending champion, matching Goliath blow for blow. The challenger gives the champ a scare, but ultimately falls short. Comes back better because of it. Earns something maybe bigger than a win, the champ's respect.

It's enough to make you shout, "Yo, Adrian."

Rocky Balboa was talking to his girlfriend from South Philly, not the fourth-year women's lacrosse program from Southern Michigan, but it's probably time the NCAA tournament said yo to the Adrian College Bulldogs.

Adrian (14-4) first made some noise in 2009 when it lost at then-No. 17 Roanoke by a goal. Since then they've took on everyone but Apollo Creed, losing at Catholic later in 2009, defending national champion Franklin and Marshall and West Coast power Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in 2010 and Salisbury this season.

Salisbury won an 18-15 decision in that one. The champs had Adrian against the ropes often, but couldn't deliver the knockout blow. Down 7-3 midway through the first half, Adrian rallied to make it 8-7 at the break. Salisbury took an 18-11 lead with four minutes remaining and again Adrian fought back, cutting it to 18-15 and giving Salisbury its toughest game of the early season.

Maybe basking a bit too much in the glory of pushing the champs to the brink, Adrian lost to Buffalo State 19-11 a week later. They followed that up with 13 straight wins.

"The only way we'll learn is if we fail," said Adrian coach John Sung. "If you tell your kid don't touch the stove, they want to touch it, they want to know. We learned how hot the stove really is."

Adrian's transformation from cobbled-together brand new team to potential giant killers has taken only four years. Mariana DiGiovanni, the only player brought in specifically to play on that inaugral 2008 team, scored 41 goals as a freshman and was one only two players to have more than 20 points. Now a senior role player, DiGiovanni is one of nine players to crack the 20s.

"She's a tremendous kid," Sung said. "She helped build this program."

Three seniors remain from that first team that helped build the program. The players that accelerated the growth are Sung's first recruiting class, the current juniors. Sung thought outside the box -- and outside the country -- bringing in players from Maryland, New York, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois and Canada.

"I leveraged everything I had against that recruiting class," Sung said. "Personal life, friends, family, anyone close to me... I went to exile. Literally I'd make recruiting phone calls from time zone to time zone making sure I'd catch them from 7 o'clock to nine o'clock. It could be midnight in the Eastern time zone and I was talking to kids in the West. It was brutal."

It paid off. Two of those juniors, Amanda Lambert from New York and Rachel Johnston from Ontario, rank in Division III's top 25 in goals. Sophomore Stacy Brilson from Colorado leads Division III in assists.

Adrian has topped 20 goals for nine straight games. It's blown through the first year of competition in the Midwest Conference, winning the regular season title, going 6-0 and taking down second place Carthage 19-3 along the way.

Automatic qualification for the NCAA tournament is still two years off for the Midwest Conference, so Adrian will hope its non-league resume -- in addition to Salisbury and Buff State, the Bulldogs lost by one goal to Christoper Newport and Drew -- is enough to earn one of Pool B's four spots.

"It had been pretty much if you're west of Philly or upstate New York, you don't have any business [in the NCAAs]," Sung said. "Now the western side of the country can play with anyone. We've shown we can be competitive. That's a big thing for us."

That's four years from start-up to tournament threat for those keeping score at home. It only took Rocky 10 months before his rematch with Apollo Creed, but he's a fictional boxer.

"There are times I've had to step back and say 'wow, that's pretty cool,'" Sung said. "You're going through the motions, sometimes you have to step back and say, 'What is going on here?' But these are all just parts of the journey."

Pool B gets clearer

One obstacle in the way of Adrian's journey to its first NCAA tournament is the strength of Pool B. No. 1 TCNJ (15-0), No. 10 Catholic (9-3) and No. 20 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (12-2) have all but locked up three of the pool's four bids.

TCNJ has rolled past every opponent and its postseason future has never been in doubt. Catholic has three losses -- to Salisbury, Gettysburg and Middlebury -- but those teams all rank in Division III's top 11. The Cardinals are unbeaten in Landmark Conference play and have a win over No. 15 Washington and Lee on their resume. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps has won seven straight and locked up its West Coast supremacy when it beat Redlands for the second time last week. The Athenas also defeated No. 19 Bates earlier this season. Even if they stumble in the SCIAC tournament, they should be in.

Based on the numbers, Adrian should get the fourth bid. Scranton and Rowan each have games against Catholic to boast their chances, but this spot is Adrian's to lose. The Bulldogs are unbeaten in the region and their out of region strength of schedule is tough to top.

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