MCLA Grind: Four Games in Five Days
Does Michigan State have the physical strength and the mental acumen to successfully navigate its way to four games in five days in Denver?
© Cecil Copeland
For most NCAA programs, playing on back-to-back days is a rarity. There are a couple of teams that do it because of travel issues, others see it in their conference tournament, and of course there are some rescheduled games crammed in. But no varsity coach would ever willingly schedule games right on top of each other.
Would an NCAA coach ever play four games in five days? He probably wouldn't even answer the question, then proceed to call in the men with the white jackets and have you carted away in a straightjacket.
That's crazy talk.
For MCLA coaches, four games in five days means it's time for the national championships. The first round is played Tuesday, followed by the quarters on Wednesday. After a day off for consolation games, the tournament picks back up on Friday with the semifinals and concludes on Saturday.
On a fundamental level, it's a ridiculous schedule, more suited for a non-contact sport like baseball as opposed to the strenuous nature of lacrosse. However, the geographical expanse of the MCLA and the limited funds make it necessary to have the teams navigate in just five days a bracket that takes NCAA Division III two weeks to complete.
Despite the grueling physical demands of the MCLA tournament, there is also a mental component that must be considered. But what is more demanding: the physical or mental aspect?
For John Paul, the head coach of Michigan – the only team that has played all four games in the past three years – it's all mental.
"You are as conditioned as you are; there is nothing you can change about it that week," he said. "There are things we do to prepare for the altitude, but there isn't a lot you can do about the physical part. The mental part you can do a lot about. That's really the variable through the week. We focus on that a lot more. The physical part is done when we get there."
"If you keep your head into your game plan and make smart plays, then the number of games really shouldn't matter," said Briarcliffe head coach SeanMichael Pagano. "Granted, it will take a toll physically also, but if a player mentally has his game in check, then he can overcome that."
"I'm probably our teams harshest critic and biggest supporter at the same time so, it's hard for me not to say that mental mistakes are the difference between winning and losing at the highest level," said Boston College head man Patrick McCavanaugh. "I'd say keeping the team focused on our team goals and their individual jobs will be the top task for the coaching staff."
BYU's Matt Schneck is another coach in the mental camp.
"Every team faces the same physical challenge, so in many ways all things are equal," he said. "Getting players in the right mental state for four games on the road is not an easy task, but one that must be faced."
"Our guys battle it out and work hard all year round for this opportunity," added Western Oregon head coach Justin Brown. "The body is ready for the most part. Sure, there are bumps and bruises and perhaps even nagging injuries. When you get to this stage, the ability of a person to set aside all of these other things, including other distractions, is what separates good teams from great ones. There is plenty of time to be tired in the summer."
"If you have the skill and depth to be a championship caliber team, it all comes down to mental toughness," said Davenport coach Bob Clarkson. "Can you focus and execute in those key moments? That will decide close games."
There is a smaller group of coaches who believe that managing the physical toll exacted during the course of the week is the key for success.
"It's definitely physical," said Oregon head coach Joe Kerwin. "Players are going to get fatigued and injuries are going happen. Back in 2007, we ran out of gas in the finals. There is a balance between playing your top guys and using depth."
"Fatigue is an equalizer if you can minimize mistakes and control tempo," added Westminster head coach Mason Goodhand, who led the Griffins to a Division II national title in 2008.
For Michigan State head coach Dwayne Hicks, the physical aspect is only a factor if you haven't been keeping it in mind during the course of the year.
"I think it's what you're used to," Hicks said. "We played back-to-back games through the year against many of the best teams in the country, so we will be used to the physical aspect of the game. The mental part is more on the coaches. Having your team prepared for the next game is what coaches are working on this week. Covering all the bases so that you know something about your next opponent, because I can tell you, they're going to know something about you. Having your team prepared is a big part of the mental preparation."
Alex Smith, the head coach at Colorado State and one of two nearby teams playing at the nationals, has found that managing the details of the experience can lessen both the physical and mental burdens.
"For us, it's almost more logistical," Smith said. "We have to bus down from Fort Collins, which is about an hour. Sometimes it's nice to be in a hotel and all together. We will have to battle the logistical issues of getting down there, dealing with families, etc. But we also feel like we've been preparing all year for this tournament. We try to play a lot of guys, and we take pride in our depth. Our hope is that if we are lucky enough to keep advancing, that will be a big advantage for us. But certainly, the cliché rings true: it's about one game at a time. If you lose focus, like maybe we did a bit last year, than your run will be pretty short."
It's impossible to quantify the various factors that determine a team's success in playing four games in five days. There is, however, one cure.
"The physical challenge obviously has huge effects on the mental challenges, but winning does amazing things to both the mind and body," said UC Santa Barbara's Lane Jaffe. "Win games, feel good, stay focused."