March 29, 2012

Coyne v. Censer: Making a Case for the NCAC

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

There is plenty of quality talent flowing through the NCAC, including Denison's Cory Couture (above), to allow the league to remain a contender for multiple bids to the NCAA tournament next year. It may just have to take a different approach to scheduling.
© Jace Delgado

In the last five or six years, there is no lower-hanging fruit than sniping at the North Coast Atlantic Conference for their grandiose living through the largesse of the NCAA's Pool B system. The anger from fans of the power conferences about perceived injustices was visceral, and all because the NCAC managed to operate with the one-less-than-mandated number of teams to trigger an automatic qualifier.

So when the word came down that both Hiram and DePauw were adding men's lacrosse in 2013, simultaneously booting the NCAC out of its cozy niche, there was enough schadenfraude to fill up pools A, B and C. Even I felt the need, unnecessarily, to join in the Greek chorus.

Now that we're moving into a less comfortable stage of the NCAC's evolution, what should we realistically expect from the conference moving forward? Those operating under the assumption that the NCAC has been making hay off a de facto NCAA welfare system will say that the conference will revert to a one-bid conference in the shadow of the Centennial and NESCAC.

But could that just be wishful thinking? While instantly shuffling the NCAC off into the same category as the CSAC, MAC or Skyline may fulfill a long-awaited quest for marginalization, it may not fit reality.

Haters may find it difficult to accept, but Ohio Wesleyan has four visits to the Division III national championship game to its credit, and if not for the Hobart dynasty, there might have been multiple crowns in the Bishops' timeline. Current Bryant head coach and former Team USA head man Mike Pressler was the coach of the first three trips from 1987-89 and Lelan Rogers, the current assistant at Syracuse, was at the helm for the last finals appearance in '93, so OWU certainly wasn't lacking stewardship.

The Bishops have also had numerous semifinal appearances, as has Dension under the tutelage of Mike Caravana. As convenient as the narrative might be to assume the NCAC has always been a ward of the NCAA state, it's hardly the case. Both OWU and Denison have always been swimming in the deep end of whatever pool was out there.

Honestly, I think the NCAC will be better served to be out from behind the Pool B curtain. OWU and Denison have shown the most potential of the conference members, and as the sport has pushed westward, Ohio is no longer considered some kind of frontier. All of the NCAC schools are fully inside the footprint of the established lacrosse world. It may take a couple of years to get some of the lesser lights in the Buckeye conference to fully embrace their new station in an AQ conference, but they should get there.

What do you think, Joel? Can the NCAC rise up to be a multi-bid conference or are we looking at Landmark, Jr.?

CENSER: Seriously Jac, when's the last time the NCAC has been relevant beyond the free Pool B playoff pass?

I respect the way Denison plays. Generally, they face-off well, have a rock solid defense, and make you earn everything. In 2001, the Big Red made it all the way to NCAA semifinals, and in 2009, knocked out Roanoke in the second round. But mostly it's been first-round (or play-in game) and bust for the grinders from Granville.

As Jac mentioned, OWU is knee-deep in history. We are, however, more than 10 years removed from the Lelan Rogers/Zach Gagel era (and 20 years removed from Pressler and Kevin Finneran). Except for one Chris Eccles-inspired win over fellow pool B beneficiary Kenyon in a play-in round in 2008, the Battling Bishops haven't won anything in the NCAAs the entire decade.

That doesn't mean there's not hope. Both OWU and Denision have two top notch Division III coaches in Mike Plantholt and Caravana. Kenyon also has some institutional advantages that could give them a recruiting leg-up. In 2011, even Wittenberg showed it can compete with the NCAC big boys. Not to mention the growth of the game in the Midwest has certainly given the conference's schools a geographic advantage when recruiting at high school powers like New Trier, Upper Arlington and Brother Rice. Quality kids are still taking their talents to Ohio.

Maybe playing without the Pool B subsidy will allow the NCAC teams to grow more organically. Maybe having to do more than just outmaneuver Whittier, Adrian, Colorado College and Trine for a couple playoff spots will force the Denisons and the OWUs to beef up their schedules and compete on a more national level. But let's just say I'm withholding judgment for now.

To the games (after a devastating week for Joel, it's Jac at 27-8 and Joel posting a 22-13 mark)...

Ohio Wesleyan (7-1) at No. 10 Denison (7-0) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: In the future, this game will likely be the one to determine who will host the NCAC's four-team conference tournament, but the spoils in this game are the avoidance of Salisbury in the first two rounds of the tournament – not a small bonus. By traditional standards, Denison has played the more impressive schedule, but it's OWU that has played the only game against a ranked team so far (a 17-8 loss to the aforementioned Sea Gulls).

I was trying to find an area where the Bishops might be able to expose the Big Red, but I like Chip Phillips' 73.1 faceoff percentage, Cory Couture's savvy, and Denison's home field advantage. Rojo Grande, 14-11.

CENSER: Only 50 Miles of Ohio highway separate these two schools. One of the most bitter rivalries in Division III, you better believe battlelines are being drawn for this barnburner.

Ohio Wesleyan has had a nice youth movement the past few years and is well positioned for the future. Junior Colin Short is a gamer on attack.

As for Denison, I have real questions about whether the Big Red offense can consistently generate offense against elite teams. But Jac's right. Denison is a little more experienced and has some more savvy around the stripes. This might be a different game by the time play-in purgatory rolls around in May. But for now, Big Red, 10-9.

Mary Washington (7-2) at St. Mary's (6-3) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: This unranked clash will determine which program earns the right to carry the No. 3 seed into the CAC tournament behind Salisbury and Stevenson. While it's easy to get caught in the jet-wash of the Gulls and Mustangs, these are actually two pretty solid teams. The Seahawks have defeated No. 8 Dickinson and the Eagles were trailing by just a goal heading into the second half with Stevenson.

St. Mary's should probably be the pick here, especially at home, but there's something about this Mary Wash team that has me believing. They don't faceoff particularly well and nobody on the offensive end makes an opposing coach lose sleep. But they do have Matt Prin in goal and a high confidence level. Give me the Eagles, 7-5.

CENSER: Ah, my favorite kind of game -- a middle of the road CAC bloodbath. I'll just come out and say it. Both these schools – with quality academics and in-state tuition (in states with lots of local lacrosse talent) – should both be better than they are.

Still, Mary Washington, having raced out to a 7-2 record (including an early-season takedown of pre-season darling Hampden-Sydney), has looked pretty good this season.

But I think St. Mary's – with Patrick Mull playing tablesetter – has much more offensive firepower and a netminder in Stu Wheeler who can take care of the rest. Seahawks, 11-8.

No. 16 Endicott (5-3) at Wesleyan (5-1) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: Well, this game just got a whole lot more interesting after Wesleyan improved to 14-1 in the last 15 games with Amherst when they took down the third-ranked Lord Jeffs, 6-3, on Wednesday. The funny thing is, nothing that happened on Wednesday (including Endicott's defeat of Curry) changed the team I was going to pick.

The Cardinals win over Amherst is undoubtedly an accomplishment worthy of the laurels they'll receive, but this is still a team that lost to Bates on their own field 10 days ago. And Endicott has played some of the toughest competition around to this point, so the Gulls will certainly not be intimidated by the arts festival, Ultimate Frisbee jamboree or whatever else is going on in Middletown this Saturday.

If Wesleyan can stifle Endicott like they have against Middlebury and Amherst, I'll become a Cardinal convert. But at this point, I'm all in on the Gulls, 8-5.

CENSER: Endicott drives the two and a half hours down I-84 to see the campus that inspired the movie PCU.

There's a couple things I've learned picking NESCAC games the past two years. First, a bad loss here and there doesn't mean necessarily mean much. Conference play is long hard slog. Sometimes, a team can find themselves losing to Bates, and only a couple weeks later taking down Middlebury (even if that means a lot less this year). Second, never bet against a team playing stifling defense (the zone never gets old huh?) and with a red-hot senior goalie (Grant Covington is at 71%!). Cardinals, 8-6.

Coyne's Pick

Middlebury (2-4) at No. 14 Bowdoin (5-1) – Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: On Feb. 27, Middlebury was ranked No. 4 in the country. A little over a month later, the Panthers appear to be punchless, and have very few safe harbors remaining on their schedule. Obviously, this is a desperate team after losing to Hamilton on Wednesday to drop to 2-4 with Bowdoin, Tufts and Amherst awaiting, in that order. Desperate teams are dangerous teams.

Unfortunately, Brunswick, Maine, has always been a tough spot for Middlebury, regardless of whether they were running hot or cold. In 2002, when the Panthers went 18-1 and breezed past Gettysburg for the national title, can you guess where their only loss came? That's right. Now they've got to go in and beat a Polar Bear team that has used Middlebury as a measuring stick since the 1970s. Good luck with that. Mainiacs, 11-7.

CENSER: Wow and I thought it was tough year to be a Haverford alumni. Personally, I can't begin to imagine what the Panther faithful, spoiled by championship rings and countless NCAA appearances, are thinking during this nosedive.

Things get no easier for Dave Campbell's troops as they make the biennial, five-hour pilgrimage to Bowdoin to face the gritty, perpetual thorn in their side.

Not only has Brunswick been historically rough place for Midd, but this high-scoring Polar Bear squad seems to be a tough matchup for a Midd team starved for goals. Bowdoin in this one, 13-8.

Censer's Pick

No. 8 Dickinson (8-1) at Haverford (2-6) – Saturday, 3 p.m.

COYNE: Not sure what this pick is all about. Usually when you're trailing by five games on the cusp of April, you don't give your competitor a slam dunk, but I assume Joel's got something up his sleeve (if only a scolding for the alma mater). Devils. Comfortably. 10-5.

CENSER: Wait, I thought we were picking for the Haverford alumni v. Dickinson alumni game being played at 1 p.m.?

Anyway, Dickinson, after an early St. Mary's setback, looks like it's on cruise control mode, winning its last seven games. Haverford meanwhile – and much to the chagrin of the rest of the conference – is in Max Hjelm-less free-fall mode, limping to a 2-6 record.

Maybe the most important thing to note about this game is it might be the last time we get to see Haverford's Dillon Hamill (assuming he plays after being held out the past couple games with a concussion) and Dickinson's Brandon Palladino, the premier long-stick middies in the country, duke it out between the 30s. Arguing about which one is better is easy message board fodder. But it doesn't get to the fact that the two are just different players. Hamill is a rangy guy who, with his whole assortment of trailchecks, is probably the last person a guy wants to see when he crosses midfield. Palladino, a feisty southpaw with a non-stop motor, is at his best digging out tough groundballs, taking them to the rack, and imposing his will.

All signs point to a comfortable Dickinson win. Haverford has had some trouble stringing together passes and I'm not entirely sure how much they want it. But it's alumni weekend, and if there's ever a time to fall in line, it's now. Fords, 6-4.

Coyne v. Censer Archive

Week Six: Whittier Still California Dreaming
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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