March 22, 2012

Coyne v. Censer: Whittier Still California Dreaming

by Jac Coyne and Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Joel leads us off this week...

Senior midfielder Sam Russell, a native of England, has been one of the steadier players during Whittier's quest to reemerge as a Western -- and Pool B -- power.
© Kevin P. Tucker

It was unique. It was cool. It was a geographic anomaly. It was the kind of story that if Malcolm Gladwell had discovered it, he'd spend 5,000 words in the New Yorker trying to find an answer. Frankly, we didn't appreciate it enough.

About a decade ago, Whittier, a small, Quaker, liberal arts college located in Los Angeles, threw a wrench in the existing Division III power balance. Buoyed by a bunch of Canuck scorers (Ryder Bateman, Kelly Hall, Dan Finck, Andrew Biers) and some elite east-coast bred defensive talent (now coach Brian Kelly, Aaron Jaffe), the Poets lost to eventual champion Middlebury 13-12 in the 2002 NCAA Quarterfinals. A year later, the Poets made the NCAA semifinals, before falling to Salisbury. In 2004, the Poets lost a 9-8 heartbreaker to a Stephen Berger-led Washington College squad.

This was before Bill Tierney and Denver. Before Roy Lang and Rob Emery came straight outta 'Frisco. Before Colgate had to go to Portland, Ore., to find arguably the best player in the country (Peter Baum).

But there was Spencer Wright, a San Diego native, tearing it up at Syracuse. In 2004, San Diego public school Torrey Pines put the rest of the country on red alert when they took down traditional power Garden City on spring break. And there were the Poets.

Whittier didn't play many games. They'd host a couple East Coast teams coming in on break and go on a road swing through Ohio to take on a bunch of opponents in a few days. But they did snatch up Pool B bids and provide a sort of Canuck-infused blueprint for how to win out West.

By 2005, however, the Northern pipeline had frozen over, and Canadians started getting recruited with increasing regularity to Division I schools. The Poets shuffled through coaches, and the Pool B started going exclusively to Ohio schools. The NCAA playoff scheduling nightmare was over.

Of course, the in-state talent coming out of California has grown exponentially since Whittier's glory years. The question then is can Kelly revive the purple and yellow monster? Can they outrecruit the MCLA schools -- with their in-state tuition and Division I facilities -- for talent? Can the school where Richard Nixon did his undergraduate work and is 3,000-plus miles from I-95 claw its way back into the elite of Division III?

COYNE: Much like Doug Locker when he started his West Coast experiment at Whittier, I thought it'd be different now.

I figured the SCIAC would be an automatic qualifying conference and the Northwest Conference would be flirting with one of its own. I assumed all the divisional powers would be making biennial spring break trips to the Left Coast to get a little sunshine and three decent games.

Yet here we are, over a decade later, and it's still just Whittier as the lone Division III flag-bearer for the Pacific Time Zone. The Poets salad days in the early part of the aughts didn't make any of the other potential lacrosse schools budge, and the MCLA was more than happy to fill the void. Now, with endowment dollars dwindling quicker than a Canadian finishing a one-timer in front of the Whittier goal, the likelihood of the Poets getting any company soon is slim.

But there are a couple of things going for Whittier right now.

First, they have found the right coach in Kelly, who played under Locker and provides the program a connection from its prolific past to the hopeful present. Second, the Poets have learned how to use their location to entice competitive programs to L.A. This year, they coaxed both Babson and Union out for a de facto round-robin tourney, building its NCAA credentials all the while.

Third, and most importantly, the Poets are resurging as a program at just the right time. At 4-0 after its win over Babson on Tuesday, Whittier is the front-runner for this year's third Pool B (independent) slot, but when Denison, Ohio Wesleyan and the rest of the NCAC schools join the Pool A/C ranks next year, it appears that the Poets will be well-positioned to profit from the NCAA's largesse.

Until other schools in the SoCal or on the West Coast magically decide to add lacrosse, Whittier will have to remain crafty. They'll have to maximize their annual East Coast swing and use their spot just east of downtown Los Angeles as a hammer to attract both opponents and recruits from all over the country.

It might be Pollyannaish to believe that Whittier can reach the heights it once achieved, but why not aim high, right?

To the games (the 10-game speed round yielded a 6-4 push, so it's Jac at 22-8 and Joel posting a 21-9 mark)....

No. 17 Middlebury (2-2) at Wesleyan (3-1) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: Both of these squads are licking their wounds. Wesleyan bounced back with a win over a 1-7 Maritime squad on Wednesday, but the Cardinals still have to be stinging from the 6-5 loss at the hands Bates over the weekend. Meanwhile, Middlebury has been rocked by the two ranked teams it has bumped into so far, including Tuesday's 15-5 loss to No. 3 Cortland.

It's still very early and both of these teams are typically strong at the end of the season, but still, I have to wonder if they're really any good. It's a painful question for two of the NESCAC's stalwarts, but scores don't lie. Neither of these teams has a prolific offense, but Wesleyan's defense seems a tad more consistent. I'll take the home team Cardinals in a squeaker, 7-6.

If the Poets want to grab one of the three Pool B bids this spring, they'll need a big season out of senior goalie Robert Bazlen. He has a 66.0 save percentage and 5.04 goals against average in Whittier's 4-0 start to the year.
© Kevin P. Tucker

CENSER: Middlebury has only played four games. Still, it's worth noting that any of their offensive players who have scored more than a single goal is shooting below 30% (and most are much worse).

So can Middlebury find some Holt Hopkins-inspired offensive mojo? Because we know Wes is going to mix up defenses. We know a zone is an easy way to throw a wrench in a skittish offensive attack.

But the Cardinals are going to have to find net, too. With the Panthers beginning to get healthier on the backline, I'll take a flyer on Mike Giordano and Co., scoring just enough. 8-7, Midd Kids.

No. 20 Endicott (3-3) at No. 12 Springfield (4-1) – Saturday, 3 p.m.

COYNE: Sean Quirk takes on his former mentor and coach in Keith Bugbee in this annual tussle that has been dominated by the Gulls (4-1) since the rivalry started in 2007. The records give the impression that Endicott is struggling this year, but all three of those setbacks came at the hands of top 7 teams – No. 4 RIT, No. 7 Stevens and No. 5 Amherst. On the flip side, all four of the Pride's wins have come against teams at .500 or below.

I've been burned pretty much all year by Springfield, and it looks like I'm going to set myself up for failure again. I'll take the road team with the lower ranking. Don't call us the Power Gulls, 9-7.

CENSER: I'm a believer in this Springfield squad. The Pride has a stacked senior class, including some big-time midfielders in Mike Delia and Shane Ferguson (not to mention an emerging Eric Balslov).

Most impressive, after graduating stud face-off technician Mark Eaton, the Pride are still facing-off at a 60 percent clip (enough to not be intimidated by the Sam Ozycz show coming to town). Springfield rolls here. 12-7 Pride.

No. 2 Tufts (3-1) at No. 19 Western New England (3-1) – Sunday, 2 p.m.

COYNE: After the struggles Tufts had in their 9-5 loss to Stevenson on Tuesday night, Western New England has to feel pretty good about this game. The Golden Bears have the Jumbos at home and have cobbled together a three-game winning streak after beating Colorado College on Wednesday. WNE Goalie Brewster Knowlton is always an X-factor in big games and the "Kirwan Question" is looming for Tufts.

Watching that game on Tuesday night, I was struck by how many near-misses the Jumbos had. Mike Daly always plays fast, but it seemed like his players were stuck on fast-forward, and turned the ball over way more than necessary. The pachyderms will have that straightened out for the weekend. Jumbos, 13-9.

CENSER: I've heard this story before. Fast, transition-friendly team meets an opponent who wants to play 60 minutes of rope-a-dope.

So what tempo will this game be played at? Somewhat lost in the demoralizing loss in Owings Mills, is that Jumbo face-off man Nick Rhoads had a monster day at the face-off stripe. Like Jac, I think Rhoads and Tufts avoid the slugfest, get up and down the field, can their opportunities and preserve some state bragging rights here. 11-8, 'Bos.

Coyne's Pick

Whittier (4-0) at Swarthmore (3-4) – Sunday, 1 p.m. 

COYNE: This is no easy assignment for the Poets. Swarthmore can grind with the best teams – they were in the hunt with both Cabrini and Ursinus – thanks to decent goaltending and ball control. But Whittier can expose Swat in two areas on Sunday – faceoffs and man-up. The Garnet are weak in both facets (47.2 faceoff percentage; 46.2 percent EMO defense) of the game while it's a mild strength (51.8 faceoff percentage; 42.9 percent EMO) for the Poets.

Whittier will be coming off a tough game against Union on Thursday and jet-lagged, but the Poets steal one in overtime, 6-5.

CENSER: Ah, the ole' coastal Quaker battle. At Haverford, we were generally encouraged not to hate. Unless of course, we're talking about archrival Swat (or on occasion, the inequities of the free market).

So while it pains me to say it, I admit I've been impressed with the Garnet this season. If they're holding Cabrini and Ursinus to single digits, I'll think they'll be just fine against the Poets here. Sweatmore, 7-5.

Joel's Pick

Skidmore (4-3) at St. Lawrence (4-0) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

CENSER: Yes, St. Lawrence is undefeated. But are they any good? Early-season wins over Haverford and Geneseo don't mean much anymore.

For the Thoroughbreds, they've welcomed Mike Holden back recently, who has responded with eight goals in two games. Throw in Ryan Paradis's work at the dot (60 percent) and I think Skid takes it to the perceived "older brother" of the Liberty. 10-5, Skidmore.

COYNE: The schizophrenic nature of the Thoroughbreds is very disconcerting in a pick 'em contest. They go on the road and pick up an overtime victory against Trinity and then get annihilated by Dickinson, only to go on a two-game streak.

Meanwhile, we have the Saints back to their bland, no-frills selves, grinding out single-digit victories. SLU is winning faceoffs, running a deadly EMO (47.6 percent) and generally playing error-free lacrosse. That's a bad match-up for the run-and-gun Thoroughbreds. Plus, this is the first game for St. Lawrence on its home field in Lower Canada. Saints stay perfect, 8-7 in overtime.

Coyne v. Censer Archive
Week Five: Finding the ODAC's Blueprint
Week Four: NESCAC's Degree of Difficulty
Week Three: Using Scheduling to Recruit
Week Two: The State of the Shoremen
Week One: Starting with a Must-Game


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