Monday Notebook: MCLA Division I
After bouncing Oregon and top-ranked BYU in a three-day span last weekend, Cal Poly became the hottest team in the MCLA. The person least sucked into the magnitude of CP's 4-0 start? That would be Mustangs head coach Marc Lea. It's not that he's not proud of his team, but Lea still sees remnants of problems that have plagued his teams in years past.
"We definitely need to work on those end-game scenarios," said Lea. "If you are up a couple of goals, don't make the mistake of going to the cage with under a minute to go. Also if you're down a couple of goals, you need a game plan to get the ball back and give yourself a chance to win. We made some mistakes at the end of the Oregon game and we got away with them. We can still get quite a bit better.
"We had a big enough lead on BYU that it didn't come back to bite us. Some of it was us, but they put a lot of pressure on us. We just kind of withstood their fourth quarter rally. It was more the Oregon game where we made some mistakes up two or three goals that didn't hurt us, but could in the future. We need to finish games intelligently."
It's not that Lea is trying to be a bring-down. He's the one who has built this team, which – depending on how the pollsters see it – will be the No. 1 or 2 in the country on Tuesday. However, he's been around his program long enough to know that his team only has one speed, and that has been a killer against top teams in the last couple of years. Lea saw it again against BYU when the Mustangs had a commanding lead, but didn't necessarily play like it.
"We have a tendency to play the same way whether we're up or down, and we have a hard time slowing things down," Lea said. "That has always been our Achilles' heel. We don't want to stall, but just work for a higher percentage shot. We'll always struggle with that because we play really fast. Sometimes it's hard to change the way you do things at the end, but we have to get a little bit better at it. We don't have to push every single transition and push the ball to the middle when we're ahead by five goals."
While there's still plenty to work on, the win over both Oregon and, in particular, BYU, Lea is encouraged by pulling out tight games at the end. It'll not only help when the seeds come out in May, but also with the confidence as the Mustangs get ready for games against – and in order – No. 10 Santa Barbara, No. 5 Boston College, No. 14 Duluth and No. 2 Colorado State.
"We just needed to find a way to win a game against a good team and not just be close," said Lea. "I think that is a good sign of things to come."
- Clemson head coach Buff Grubb was ready to take off the training wheels. With an experienced team and a key non-conference game against Texas A&M last weekend in front of him, Grubb made the decision to let his team operate without a net.
"I basically told the team that I was going to take the chains off and hopefully they'll step up to the challenge the way they should," Grubb said about the conversation with his team. "It just sort of snowballed from there. It took a lot of pressure off them; they weren't thinking, 'Am I running this right?' It's been clicking, so I'm not about to change what ain't broken."
The latest evidence that the Tigers are doing just fine is the 10-3 victory over No. 12 Florida State on Friday night in Greenville, S.C. In the back of his mind, Grubb wasn't sure if his 13th-ranked team could overcome the mental hurdle of beating a Seminoles team that has owned them. Those fears were unfounded.
"When you play a team that has had your number for a little bit, you worry about your team being tentative in that situation," Grubb said. "If something goes wrong or doesn't quite working out the right away, you start pressing. Fortunately, our kids didn't do that last night. They played head's up, and it was a tight first half. We just stayed on course and slowly started pulling away. It was a pretty emphatic win."
The defense was the key. Despite three season-ending injuries among the close defense ranks, Alex Branton (15 saves against FSU) and the remaining group has held up for nearly the entire season. Grubb is expecting that the early success will breed even more down the line.
"We'll get more buy in," he said. "The kids will see that what we're doing is working, and working against quality opponents. Our only loss is to BC and we played them well for three quarters. We're on the right track, but we're only halfway through 22 games, so we have to figure out a way to keep that going. It'll be a long March. It's a good group of kids, and not just in terms of talent."
- I spoke with Arizona State head coach Chris Malone after the fourth-ranked Sun Devils loss to No. 16 Texas on Saturday night in New Orleans. On the other end of the line was not a hangdog coach. "I'm happy with the effort," he said.
There's certainly some exasperation with the lack of scoring – ASU managed just three goals against a Longhorns team not exactly known for its defense – especially for an offensive guy like Malone, but he's a realist. He believes he has a top 2 defense, but a top 12 team as a whole. It might be time to pile on the Devils now, because the head coach doesn't believe it will be for too long. "I like my team," he said.
- The bad news? Simon Fraser is essentially out of the at-large hunt. The good news? The Clan can just focus on preparing for the PNCLL tournament...judging by the performance this weekend, there aren't a whole lot of wins left on the Florida schedule...it's a 60-minute game, Chapman. The Panthers are a couple of minutes away from being the consensus No. 1...keep an eye on Texas goalie Jordan Lee. I'm hearing he's the real deal...great to see the Minnesota v. Duluth game blossoming into the rivalry it should be. Looks like Duluth's Joey Slattery (17 saves) and UM's Josh Hofstad (15 saves) put on a show in goal in the Dawgs' 11-9 win...Wednesday's game between UCSB and Cal Poly is the biggest game for the Gauchos since 2008.