Weekender: The MCLA Race for Second Place
Most of the focus during tonight's game between No. 2 Arizona State and No. 3 Colorado State will be on the high-powered offenses. However, this game will be determined by the defenses, including Sun Devil goalie Dylan Westfall.
© Cecil Copeland
The grim reality in MCLA Division I these days is 96 teams are playing for second place. The 97th team – Michigan – has created this dynamic via its three straight national championships and just one loss in the last 67 contests.
On Friday night, two of the biggest contenders for that second slot tangle to determine which team has the best shot of unseating the Wolverines this year.
No. 2 Arizona State, the second place team last year after bowing to Michigan in the national championship game, 12-11, will visit No. 3 Colorado State for a 7 p.m. (Mountain time) clash. Both teams are undefeated and ready to test each other's ability to push the tempo offensively.
"There are a lot of similarities," said Colorado State head coach Alex Smith. "I think we're thought of as a team that runs and guns and gets up and down the field and plays a lot in transition. They are, too. I would say they have the ability to score at a high volume, and our tendency is to score the higher percentage, if there is any difference. I think both teams can score a lot of goals."
Despite the similarities, this game will give the rest of the association a better idea about the Sun Devils than it will for CSU. Arizona State still has senior Ryan Westfall, arguably the best player in the country, but there are two significant questions facing head coach Chris Malone.
The first is how ASU will handle the trip and playing in a pressure-packed location like Fort Collins. The Devils have only had one true road game this season – a comfortable stop at San Diego State for a 23-5 victory on their way back from the Pac-12 Challenge – so Friday will be a test.
"We're on the road against two teams in the top six or seven, so it's going to be a little different atmosphere than we're accustomed to," Malone said. "We have to stick with the game plan and focus on what we need to do, and not worry about anything else. I assume it will be a hostile environment."
Arizona State's focus will be just as critical as the talent they put on display. That became evident last year against Colorado State, when the Rams created some space in the fourth quarter with a scoring spurt and the Sun Devils tanked.
"We were down 9-8 going into the fourth quarter and they reel off two or three goals, and there are still eight or nine minutes to go in the game and it was like the game was over," Malone said. "They get a couple of goals quick and everybody is pointing fingers. I was like, 'Our guys are done.' That hurts us, but we've focused on that this year."
The second question for Arizona State is how its new offense will perform against a high-quality defense. The Devils are surprisingly young. Westfall is running with a sophomore and a freshman on the first middie line, while senior Eric Nelson is surrounded by a pair of rookies on the starting attack.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, ASU might be more dangerous now.
"They were a four-man show last year," Smith said. "If you could stop the two Westfalls, Nelson and LaFlam, you were in good shape. Now they are much more team-oriented. They have a lot of depth and they are getting points from a lot of people. They have a whole new starting attack and they are still producing. We're not going to be able to key on certain individuals like we did last year, so it will have to be more of a team effort."
The relative youth among the offensive players has created a defined hierarchy, whereas last year Tyler Westfall, Ryan Westfall, Nelson and Anthony LaFlam all felt they were at the top of the scoring food chain.
"You've got four studs out there, and there's only one lacrosse ball," Malone said. "Part of what I had to deal with last year that I don't have to deal with this year is egos. This year, we're moving the ball better than we've moved the ball in the past. Those guys are playing for each other and working together and just doing the little things. Not just, 'It's the end of the game and I've got to run through everybody.'"
Colorado State doesn't have nearly as many question marks. The Rams have gone on the road and defeated No. 5 Cal Poly, No. 10 UC Santa Barbara and No. 16 Simon Fraser. They have one of the premier attackmen in the league in Cooper Kehoe, a 10-deep stable of midfielders that has the capability to overwhelm opponents and Scott Gelston, the best faceoff man in the country.
Regardless, the Sun Devils are unbowed.
"We're not going to change anything," said Malone. "We're going to play our way."
Whether ASU, or even Colorado State, has that same attitude next weekend when they both visit Ann Arbor will be a whole different question. But Friday, we'll get a more definite answer to the question, "Who's No. 2?"