April 26, 2013

Drexel Takes on New Identity as it Hunts NCAA Tourney Bid

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Despite the defensive background of Drexel coach Brian Voelker, the 2013 Dragons' have taken on a high-scoring approach.
© Kevin P. Tucker

No. 17 Drexel used to be known as a defensive team that occasionally would go on scoring runs. Former goalie Mark Manos, who started for four seasons before graduating in 2012, typically set the tone for the Dragons, who held teams to 8.75 goals per game last year.

The Drexel identity has flipped drastically in 2013. These Dragons are mostly a scoring explosion waiting to happen.

The latest example was Saturday's 14-11 victory over Towson. Drexel shattered a 5-5 tie at halftime by opening the second half with eight straight scores against red-hot goalie Andrew Wascavage. The victory secured a No. 2 seed for the Dragons in next week's Colonial Athletic Association tournament at Penn State.

Brian Voelker, Drexel's third-year coach, said his defense is improving. But he is the first to admit that the reason Drexel (10-3, 5-1) is in the hunt for the CAA title and a trip to the school's first NCAA tournament is that the Dragons can really pound the back of the net.

The Dragons entered this week ranked eighth in Division I in scoring offense (12.3 goals per game). They were ranked 46th in scoring defense (11.15 goals allowed average).

"I'm a defensive guy. I'd rather not be giving up 11 goals a game," said Voelker, whose team lost, in addition to Manos, three longtime starters and its two most experienced defensive midfielders from last year's 8-8 squad.

"We knew we'd have a lot of growing pains [on defense]. And we do need to be better defensively to beat some really good teams," he added. "I understand coaches have systems, but I've always believed you've got to win with the players you have. We're plugging away on defense, but we are who we are."

Drexel has been potent all season with Robert Church (27g, 21a) and Frank Fusco (21g) leading the attack, and Ben McIntosh (32, 16) and Ryan Belka (25, 16) leading essentially a four-man, first-line midfield. Five of Drexel's top six scorers, including midfielder Nick Trizano (16, 10), are shooting at least 30 percent.

Since losing a season-opening, overtime decision to Virginia, Drexel has won 10 of 12 games. The Dragons have averaged 15 goals in those wins, which include a 20-19 thriller over Albany two months ago. But in its two losses, Drexel managed only six goals each against No. 8 Penn State and No. 13 Bucknell, while surrendering a combined 30 scores.

In other words, Drexel cannot afford an upset loss to High Point on Saturday, and might not have room for an at-large bid to the NCAAs. Winning the CAA and earning an automatic qualifier — by presumably taking down Penn State in the tournament final — could be the Dragons' only ticket in.

Thompson's Absence Glaring

As if anyone needed to be convinced of the importance of the Thompsons — Lyle, Miles and Ty — to No. 10 Albany's fate, unranked Siena came along to prove it on Tuesday evening.

The Great Danes, who are only the second team in NCAA history to win at Syracuse and at Johns Hopkins in the same season, went down, 10-9, on a night when two-thirds of the most explosive attack in the game was absent. It was Siena's first-ever win over a top 10 team and only the school's second over a ranked team.

Lyle Thompson, the nation's leading scorer, missed the game after going home to the Onondaga Nation, due to the birth of his second child. His brother, Miles, was held out after suffering a concussion in last week's victory over UMBC. Ty Thompson, the cousin of the two missing Thompsons, was held scoreless by Siena.

Three weeks ago, Albany (10-4) survived its 10-9 upset at Hopkins, despite a scoreless outing by Lyle Thompson (38g, 51a), while Miles and Ty helped to pick up the slack. The Great Danes could not compensate enough against Siena for zero Thompson points.

How dominant has this trio been? As of Monday, the Thompsons had combined to score 109 goals in 13 games. That was more than the entire output — through at least 13 games — of Navy (103 goals), Binghamton (108), Vermont (105), Michigan (86), Manhattan (108 in 14 games) and St. Joseph's (91 in 14 games).

Conference Needed for Hopkins? Maybe So

When Johns Hopkins came to Loyola last year for the 50th meeting between the two schools in a very lopsided series, Hopkins needed to win the game against the undefeated, top-ranked Greyhounds to secure a home playoff game. In one of the more exciting contests of the regular season, the Blue Jays slowly lost an early, five-goal lead before escaping in overtime, 10-9. Loyola then won the ECAC tournament, earned the top seed in the NCAAs and won it all with an 18-1 record.

The stakes are considerably higher for both schools this time, as Baltimore's Charles Street "rivals" — Hopkins has won 13 straight and leads the series, 47-3 — prepare for a huge clash at Homewood Field on Saturday before what should be a huge crowd.

No. 11 Hopkins (8-4) most likely needs a victory to clinch its 42nd straight NCAA tournament appearance. Loyola (10-3) likely doesn't need the game quite as much, although a win would put the Greyhounds back into the NCAAs, regardless of what happens in next week's ECAC tournament.

But even with a Loyola loss on Saturday, the Greyhounds could win the ECAC and take the AQ route toward defending their title, or possibly gain an at-large bid just by winning a semifinal matchup in its league tournament.

And that illustrates sharply why Johns Hopkins is examining the notion of joining a conference in the near future. The Blue Jays have beaten Maryland, but have lost to Princeton, Syracuse, North Carolina and Albany. And their blowout win over Virginia has been diminished by a down year in Charlottesville — unless, by some miracle, the Cavaliers win the ACC tournament.

There is no AQ in the dwindling land of the independents. And in the parity-driven land of Division I, only eight at-large bids to the NCAA tournament remain. And this year, Maryland, Duke and North Carolina already are at-large locks, thereby reducing the at-large slots to five.

"In a typical year, with wins over Maryland and Virginia, we'd be sitting pretty. But this isn't a typical year," said Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala, who has attended internal committee meetings looking into the conference affiliation issue.

"There is so much to consider. There's tradition, mystique, academic and institutional policy, safety and security of your schedule. We've got a sweetheart TV deal. But where is lacrosse headed?" he added. "Which conference would be the best fit? All I know is this time of year, teams [in conferences] get a second bite at the apple [league tournaments and automatic qualifiers], and we don't. The writing is on the wall."


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