May 14, 2014

Lambrecht: Is Lacrosse Age of Parity Finally Arriving?

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

After years of a slowly-expanding 'elite' group dominating the NCAA tournament, four unseeded teams - including Albany, which routed No. 3 seed Loyola on Satudray - are through to the quarterfinals. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

When the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament expanded to 16 teams back in 2003 and beefed up the field with automatic qualifiers, the sport's rule makers probably envisioned a wild scenario taking shape in May.

As quarterfinals weekend approaches, following a first round highlighted by the dismissal of three of the tournament's top four seeds, let's peek at recent history and toast the possibilities in the upcoming doubleheaders at Hofstra and Delaware.

Remember back in 2006, when Syracuse, Hopkins, Virginia were always among a select group that dominated the tournament? That year, unseeded UMass rocked the natural order of things by joining the final four in Philadelphia and eliminating heavily-favored Maryland in the semifinals, before undefeated Virginia crushed the overmatched Minutemen on Memorial Day.

A year later, unseeded Delaware stunned UVA in Charlottesville by six goals in round one then earned a quarterfinals win over unseeded UMBC – which had beaten Maryland in College Park in round one – before eventual champion Johns Hopkins smashed the Blue Hens' Cinderella dreams at M&T Bank Stadium.

Well, get ready for what could the invasion of the unseeded interlopers in Baltimore, where the NCAA Championships will revisit M&T May 24-26.

After an unprecedented first round in which second-seeded Syracuse, no. 3 Loyola and no. 4 Penn went down, this has the makings of possibly the most unpredictable and entertaining quarterfinal rounds ever.

In hindsight, the opening-round upsets – first-time NCAA tournament participant Drexel whipping Penn, ultra-dangerous Albany routing Loyola and second-year tournament player Bryant ending Syracuse's season in the Carrier Dome – are not really all that shocking. There is simply so much talent spread throughout the sport that these kinds of outcomes now appear inevitable.

"This isn't the Stanley Cup. Syracuse is going to win that series every time against us," Bryant coach Mike Pressler said. "This is one game, two hours."

What commands a double-take this year is that every quarterfinal game features a school from unseeded territory. That has never happened before.

"I'm looking at a different world," said Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, whose unseeded Blue Jays, in the least striking "upset" of last weekend, drilled no. 8 seed Virginia, 14-8.

The fact that Hopkins and Virginia met in the first round spoke volumes about the growth of the sport. When Pietramala took the job at his alma mater in 2000, the blue bloods ruled the lacrosse landscape. Memorial Day weekend was basically reserved for a four-team combination from a pool that consisted of Hopkins, Princeton, Syracuse, Virginia and Maryland.

Although Duke and Loyola are the only schools in the past five years to break into the club and win a crown – and defending champ Duke, with two titles in four years, has been part of lacrosse royalty for pretty much the past decade – the playoff picture keeps getting altered by the up-and-comers. It includes some near-miss schools such as Notre Dame, and it includes newbies that could refresh the big stage in Baltimore next week.

Do you think Bryant (16-4), the two-time Northeast Conference champions, feels the least bit intimidated by the prospect of facing no. 7 seed Maryland on Saturday? Not after out-playing Syracuse in a 10-9 win Sunday night, a year after putting a major first-round scare into the Orange at Syracuse.

Bryant, with top players like face-off specialist Kevin Massa (above) and goalie Gunnar Waldt, knocked off Syracuse in the first round after rallying past Siena in the play-in game. (Kevin P. Tucker)

The Bulldogs are blessed with a terrific goalie and faceoff specialist in Gunnar Waldt and Kevin Massa. They form the strengths that can transform any playoff team in the one-and-done, postseason format. Granted, Maryland has the ideal, playoff-seasoned answers in goalie Niko Amato and faceoff man Charlie Raffa.

But Bryant, the only team in America with 16 victories, just won its fourth games over 11 days in three different cities. That included a play-in victory over MAAC champion Siena only three days before the Bulldogs' historic work at the Carrier Dome. Oh, and Bryant is 5-0 against the tournament field – Drexel, Albany, Siena, Richmond and Syracuse.

Albany (12-5) amazingly lost to Canisius and came perilously close to losing to Stony Brook in the America East tournament semifinals (there's that parity thing again). A loss in the AE tourney would have torpedoed Albany's season.

But does anyone doubt that, after they smashed Loyola's 15-game winning streak with a 13-6 rout at Ridley Athletic Complex, the Great Danes have the ability to solve experienced and well-coached no. 6 seed Notre Dame on Saturday and get to the school's first, final four?

It's not just the marvelous playmaking of Lyle, Miles and Ty Thompson that makes Albany so dangerous with the highest-scoring offense in the game. Sophomore goalie Blaze Riorden, whose 13 saves hurt Loyola, has become a big-game stopper that can get in the heads of shooters with his wide frame, quick hands and unorthodox, left-handed style.

Fifth-seeded Denver (15-2) has won 12 straight games and has the best offense this side of Duke. It would be very hard to pick against the Pioneers, who lately have strung together their best defense in the five-year, Bill Tierney era.

But unseeded Colonial Athletic Conference champ Drexel (13-4) has found another gear during its nine-game winning streak. With one of the top faceoff men in the game in Nick Saputo, the Dragons could generate a shootout with a balanced, unselfish offense that goes through Ben McIntosh (46g) but also relies on Nick Trizano (38g), freshman Cole Shafer (35g) and Ryan Belka (25g).

And then there's the Duke-Hopkins confrontation on Sunday, which matches the top-seeded Blue Devils (14-3) with an old nemesis. The two haven't met since 2010, when Hopkins (11-4) was no match for eventual NCAA champion Duke in the first round. Before that, Hopkins foiled Duke at three huge moments – in the 2005 and 2007 title games and in the 2008 semifinals.

You could make the argument that Duke was the more talented team in every one of those postseason meetings. And the Blue Devils, with the premier attack-midfield punch in Division I right now, are averaging an astounding 17 goals during their current, 11-1 run.

Hopkins, back in the hunt for a title after missing its first tournament since 1971, has a faceoff man in Drew Kennedy who could make it a 50-50 day with Brendan Fowler. Goalie Eric Schneider has played his best over the past six weeks. The highly-skilled and unselfish attack of Wells Stanwick, Ryan Brown and Brandon Benn could turn this one into a shootout, which might create the best chance for Hopkins to score an upset.

The odds say Duke will roll on to its eighth straight final four. But the odds didn't favor the interlopers dominating the early discussion in this most interesting tournament.


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