April 26, 2012

UnCensered: Evaluating Nine MD1 Contenders

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

A year ago this time, Virginia was at rock-bottom and reinvented itself in way offensively and defensively that got them to championship weekend. Who will make it this year and what needs to happen for them to get there?
© Matt Riley

A year ago, Virginia was reeling. ACC thorn Duke took the Cavaliers out in successive weeks, including a 19-10 throttling in the conference semifinals. A few days later, star senior middie Shamel Bratton was kicked off the team after his third rules infraction. His brother, Rhamel, was suspended indefinitely. Not to mention the Cavs' best cover defenseman Matt Lovejoy needed season-ending surgery for a bum shoulder a couple weeks earlier.

At the time, the idea of the dysfunctional outfit making championship weekend -- having lost their two primary initiators and sporting a paper-mache defense -- seemed implausible.

Of course, offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale started tinkering with lineups, scrapping alley dodges for grinding big-little games behind the cage. Coach Dom Starsia and John Walker channeled their inner Jim Boeheim and started relying more and more on a pesky zone defense. Steele Stanwick began recovering from lower leg injuries. Converted attackmen Mark Cockerton, Matt White and Nick O'Reilly got some late-season confidence. Bray Malphrus dyed his Mohawk haircut and beard black. The Wahoos rumbled off five straight victories wins to secure an unlikely title.

In 2010, a similar thing happened, save the suspensions. Duke went from preseason darlings to losing three of their first five games (they could've lost all five) and playing with their backs against the wall. But over the next two and a half months, skilled long sticks like Parker McKee, Mike Manley and CJ Costabile, who had broken his ankle that December, started creating havoc, picking up tough ground balls and running downhill. Meanwhile, Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani cleaned it up on the offensive end and began finishing those transition opportunities with startling efficiency. On Memorial Day, Costabile hit twine in OT against Notre Dame to lift the Dukies to their first championship.

Sifting through all the online, often anonymous bickering about what teams should book their tickets for Foxborough, people seem to forget that it took time (or hardship) for Crotty to develop as a skip-passing savant or Stanwick to play maestro for Virginia's two-man stuff. Regardless, as LaxMagazine.com's resident lax pundit/hot air-icist I'll try to pick why some teams are poised (or not) to make championship weekend noise.

In no particular order...

Notre Dame

Why They Can Win It: I admit I wasn't totally sold on all the media fawning/using Cold War rhetoric to describe Gerry Byrne's defensive schemes. It wasn't that I didn't respect Notre Dame's defense. It was more that I thought their success at that end was as much about talent as anything else. Andrew Irving running and gunning at longpole. Rangy Kevin Ridgeway making life miserable for opposing attackmen. Scotty Rodgers taking up the entire cage. Those guys were elite defensive players.

But over the past couple years, I've turned from skeptic to believer. That whatever schemes or rules the Irish coaches are preaching in South Bend make those individuals even better as a unit. In 2012, despite graduating Irving, Ridgeway and Sam Barnes, the Irish have still quietly shut down everyone, averaging an insane 5.7 goals against average.

If Notre Dame makes a run like in 2010, they'll do it with their own brand of stingy defense and probing offense. With John Kemp (66 percent save percentage) in net, you know no team wants to play the Irish in a race to seven goals.

Why They Can't: At some point, Notre Dame is going to have play a squad with a high-octane offense (and I'm not talking about the February version of the Blue Devils). The Irish will have to play a team that is better at the defensive end than the likes of Denver. So we'll see if the Irish can go for goal-for-goal with a team that can fill it up and guard you in the half-field.

What/Who to Watch: Sean Rogers, Sr. A

I like ND's balanced offensive attack. They have midfielders who can dodge (sophomore Jim Marlatt and lightening quick Ryan Foley are probably the headliners). And attackman Westy Hopkins can get underneath, even against premier defenseman.

But for the Irish offense to put up the requisite amount of goals to win in May likely means a heavy dose of Rogers filling it up. A blue-collar, no frills lefty attackman, the Long Island native may not have Sean Hartofolis-dangle, but Rogers is a lethal finisher with a nose for the goal.

Duke

Why They Can Win It: It's been fascinating how media/message-board narratives have changed for the Blue Devils this century. In the early 2000s, the Blue Devils were thought to be a bunch of a Lou Ferrigno clones who were at the bottom of the ACC totem because they lifted more than they hit the wall. But then coach Mike Pressler brought in Matt Danowski, Nick O'Hara, Peter Lamade and Co. After losing a couple close calls in Championship Weekend and not being able to get past the Blue Jays half-field grinder, people mostly talked about how the Devils couldn't win the big one. Now after the glow of the 2010 championship, and three straight slow starts, every lacrosse media member knows that the Blue Devils' struggles in February and March are just because coach John Danowksi is purposely gearing them up for some postseason run. How quickly people forget that Danowski's 2007 and 2008 Duke teams were solid at the beginning of the season.

Regardless of whatever meme is trending, we saw during ACC championship weekend what people expected of Duke all season. There's the diverse attack which includes the best dodger in the country; athletic midfielders who can dodge, defend and shoot; a unique longstick who single-handedly changes the complexion of face-off war; and rangy longpoles with the length to pester and the hands to match (Henry Lobb is a Casey Carroll clone). Not to mention Dan Wigrizer is finding himself in the net.

Why They Can't: You never really know what you're going to get. Sometimes the Blue Devils look like the best team in the country. A five-goal run against North Carolina in the ACC final is Exhibit A. But Duke also struggled to break Marist's zone. We'll find out soon enough what version of themselves they bring to the post-season.

What/Who to Watch: Christian Walsh, So. A

Walsh has always interested me as a player. He's not an in-tight finisher. He doesn't bomb from the outside. He's not blowing by defenseman or muscling them up on the corner.

But after dropping six points against Carolina on Sunday, the lefty very much flexed what he can do: move to space in unsettled situations, find open teammates, hit shots from two to eight yards, and be the coldly efficient off-handed complement to dodging phenom Jordan Wolf and the rest of the rumbling middies. I think the southpaw is a bellwether for the Blue Devils. In Duke's three losses, Walsh has just two points.

North Carolina

R.G. Keenan will be responsible for giving possessions to the Tar Heels' revitalized attack unit, which if effective could mask a suspect defense.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Why They Can Win It: Until the aforementioned third quarter letdown against Duke, I was prepping to write how Carolina had silenced all of the doubters. How a team with seven potential starting attackmen had finally figured out the right lineup, and was now ready to ride Marcus Holman, two precocious freshmen, depth at midfield and faceoff warrior R.G. Keenan all the way to the Foxborough.

While Duke ended up winning the ACC championship, I still think Carolina put the rest of the country on notice. Headfakin' Marcus Holman is as complete an attackman as there is in Division I. Freshmen Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter are a match-up nightmare for a team without two fleet-of-foot defensemen (ask Hopkins). Coach Joe Breschi found ways to incorporate Davey Emala, Nicky Galasso, Jack McBride, Thomas Wood, Jimmy Dunster off the bench.

If R.G. Keenan can keep playing make it-take it at the X it's just hard to think of many teams who can contain, much less keep up, with the Heels' offense for 60 minutes.

Why They Can't: UNC's Achilles (Tar) Heel isn't a secret. Despite all the extra possessions -- Keenan is eight in the country in faceoff percentage -- UNC is just 36th in scoring defense. Not good.

What/Who to Watch: R.G. Keenan So., F/O

I'm not a believer that you have to have a dominant defense to win a championship. Virginia won with that makeshift zone last year. In 2010, a freshman and a walk-on split time in goal for Duke. Moreover, the distinguishing characteristic of five of the last six title teams is that they had top three scoring offense.

To keep the baby blue gravy train rolling, Sankey, Bitter and Holman are going to need to get all the extra possessions Keenan can get them. If the Boys' Latin (Md.) product can channel 2007 Alex Smith, watch out.

Cornell

Why They Can Win It: They can score goals. They have a bunch of accomplished seniors at the midfield. They are playing tough defense. They're still out-scrapping teams (sixth in ground balls per game). They are winning faceoffs at a higher clip than in 2011 (a problem since Austin Boykin graduated). They have plenty of hardened vets who know what it takes to get to through the NCAA gauntlet. They seem to have quit the musical chairs act in goal and are going with sophomore Andrew West (only 53 percent though). They are a well-conditioned force in the fourth quarter.

Why They Can't: First the Big Red has to just make the NCAA tournament. A couple of quality wins (hello, Syracuse), look like they are losing their luster by the day. Then the Big Red needs to get everyone healthy. Besides missing Rob Pannell, the Big Red faithful could probably chalk the Brown loss up to running into a hot goaltender and not having their best defenseman (Jason Noble).

Cornell doesn't have a ton of time. With Princeton this weekend, and then followed by the Ivy League Tournament, coach Ben DeLuca will have to figure out how incorporate the moving pieces quickly.

What/Who to Watch: Rob Pannell, Sr. A

We know who all eyes are going to be on the next few weeks. Can Pannell, only six weeks removed from breaking his foot, return to the field and to form?

I don't think anyone, even the rest of Ivy League, wanted to see this happen in the senior's final season. This was supposed to be the swan song for college lacrosse's most dominant attackman. It was supposed to be about skip passes, question marks, and z-dodges. Not sideline carts and "no comment" injury updates.

But if the "Red Mamba" is actually healthy and shows he can fit in seamlessly back into the lineup, then the Big Red become an immediate favorite for a spot in Championship Weekend.

Loyola

Why They Can Win It: LaxMagazine.com's Gary Lambrecht did a better job that I ever could summarizing Loyola's success. They're scoring goals with gunslinger Mike Sawyer and left-hand man Eric Lusby playing catch down low. They have game-changers in d-middie extraordinaire Josh Hawkins and longstick Scott Ratliff working between the stripes. And they have a very solid backline and first midfield.

Why They Can't: Hopkins is an interesting game for the Greyhounds. If the Blue Jays bump longstick Jack Reilly down to close defense to pair him and Tucker Durkin against Saywer and Lusby, then the Hounds are probably going to have to rely more on their first midfield to get the offense going. In this case, I'll be very interested to see if Davis Butts, Sean O'Sullivan and Chris Layne can consistently break down and initiate against an elite defense.

What/Who to Watch: Resilience, backbone, confidence

The Baltimore lacrosse community has spoken. The sellout crowd at Loyola means the people really are interested in seeing if this Loyola squad is for real.

Some teams rise to the occasion in games like these. Others wilt under the pressure of ESPNU cameras, USILA rankings and Eamon McAnaney's inevitable "Right down Charles Street!" references. Winning in a bloodspat, turf war to a longtime older brother and neighborhood bully will go a long way in proving to everyone, including themselves, that the Hounds are primed for a long postseason run.

Virginia

Why They Can Win It: They know they can. This is pretty much the same group that made the run in 2011. And this go around, they're more athletic on defense. Matt Lovejoy and Chris LaPierre (J.J. Morrissey 3.0) are bonafide first-team All-American candidates, while Rob Fortunato has done just fine filling in for Adam Ghitelman in net.

Why They Can't: You know what was most interesting about LMO's three-part documentary on Duke before the Virginia game? How well prepared the Blue Devils were for Stanwick and the whole assortment of two-man pick games the Wahoos use from behind. Not to mention Duke seemed to have a left a pretty good blueprint on how to guard last year's Tewaaraton winner. Enlist a star rangy defenseman (in their case, Lobb) to stay on Stanwick's hands. And be very, very, very slow to slide. Because while Stanwick is probably going to get a couple on his own, the alternative -- sliding early and letting Stanwick and his cadre of willing Wahoo cutters pick you apart – seems utterly fatalistic.

What/Who to Watch: Rob Emery, So. M

With teams having nearly 12 months to look back, learn from, and ultimately prepare for UVA's pick games and booby traps from behind the net, it makes sense that defenses are covering it better. Now the 'Hoos just need a couple more guys to start running by their guy and get a defense moving the old-fashioned way. In this regard, Emery is the key. For the California native, I think it's going to just be about realizing he's a prototype who should be getting to whatever spot he wants on the field, especially if he's covered by a short stick. There's just no need for the swim moves and circle throwbacks.

UMass

UMass may need senior goalie Tim McCormack to come up big down the stretch if it's going to make final four weekend a homecoming event in Foxborough, Mass.
© Matt and John Risley

Why They Can Win It: Who's calling this team the Minutemen? UMass is going to press a team for all 60 minutes like they're playing hoops for Nolan Richardson at Arkansas in 1994. They're going to ride. They're going to fly around and cause turnovers. They're going to take advantage of all those unsettled situations.

With Will Manny playing maestro, the Gorillas undoubtedly have their best team since 2006, when Sean Morris and Jack Reid willed UMass to the championship. If Manny can lead the hometown team -- in all their up-tempo, opportunistic glory -- all the way to Foxborough, the atmosphere at Gillette Stadium could be electric.

Why They Can't: It's easy to wonder what will happen if UMass plays in a game where a team forces them into a half-field grinder where they have to earn their goals. Can Manny, Colin Fleming, Mike Fetterly and Co. be efficient enough in their settled situations to win those types of games?

What/Who to Watch: Tim McCormack, Sr., G

Against Drexel, when UMass wasn't getting those same unsettled type opportunities, they needed 14 saves from their senior goalie to survive. I think UMass is going to get some more of those grind, half-field games and will again need the netminder to come up big.

Maryland

Why They Can Win It: If I was given a vote for the Tewaaraton Award (and the last time I checked they aren't particularly concerned with the opinions of bloggers with a functional DVR), I'd vote for Maryland's Jesse Bernhardt.

Did anyone see the Duke game? Facing arguably the most athletic midfield unit in the country, Bernhardt had them all running for their lives. I personally haven't seen a defensive longstick performance like that since Brodie Merrill was running roughshod against the Terps in 2005 (Bill McGlone's "stickgate" game).

With Bernhardt leading the way (and goalkeeper Niko Amato isn't too far behind), we know Maryland can dominate the 30s, play tough defense and generate transition. If Joe Cummings, John Haus, and the rest can squeeze out a few more goals, the Terps will be a tough out come May.

Why They Can't: With the Terrapins, I always come back to that first Duke game in March. The Terps took it to the Blue Devils, 10-7, and Haus, Mike Chanenchuk, Drew Snider and the rest of the Maryland middies looked like they could generate offense at will. I remember referring to it as the post-Catalino era in College Park.

But this past weekend in the rematch against the Devils, it was all dodge, redodge and look for something on the backside. No one could just blow by their guy. Maybe Maryland was being smart and methodical to prevent any Duke transition, although I doubt it. At the end of the game when it had to score a quick goal, Maryland was still having to probe away.

What/Who to Watch: Curtis Holmes, Jr., F/O

The technician put the Terps on his back last post-season, winning 11 of 14 faceoffs in Maryland's quarterfinal upset over Syracuse. But In 2012, he's had to deal with a whole spate of injuries and has been pretty hot and cold. If I think if Maryland is going to back in to title game, they're going to need Holmes to tilt the possession game pretty drastically in their favor.

Johns Hopkins

Why They Can Win It: The 2007 Johns Hopkins team won a national title with great goaltending, stingy defense, some crafty scorers down low and arguably the most impressive midfield of the decade. Still, even that squad had its regular-season struggles along the way. So history tells us to doubt the 2012 Blue Jays at your own risk.

Certainly, there are some similarities with that team and the current Blue Jays. Attackmen Brandon Benn and Zach Palmer can fill it up. Pierce Bassett's a Jesse Schwartzman-like rock in cage. Tucker Durkin and Jack Reilly can d-up anyone. Rob Guida, John Ranagan, and Lee Coppersmith may not be Paul Rabil or Stephen Peyser, but there's no question they can get to the goal.

Why They Can't: The last six quarters the Blue Jays have played they've scored three goals (one of which was very clearly a dive). I've been scratching my head over the Navy loss all week. How you can you get throttled by a team that so clearly can't run by you on offense? But the Jays got poked and prodded, outplayed between the lines, and then started making mental mistakes (how many times did Durkin inexplicably double?) when they got down.

I also wonder if it's hard playing with two Canadian finishers at the same time. Benn and Palmer are wonderful players with a soft touch around the cage. But they're not dodgers. So it puts a lot of pressure on just a couple of guys to generate offense.

What/Who to Watch: The first midfield

Look, enough is enough. Ranagan should take it personally if he draws a shortstick. Coppersmith and Guida need to also start hitting a couple more shots and forcing slides, too. Because once those guys start finding the twine a bit more everything else will start opening up.


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