Morning Jac: Ten Most Intriguing February Division II Contests
With only 56 teams, Division II isn't going to have the density of February games like Division III, but if you dig past the rankings, there are plenty of compelling contests going on in this first month of action. Here's a look at the 10 that I'll be keeping a close eye on.
10. Roberts Wesleyan at Molloy – Feb. 15
Expectations are sky high for Molloy this spring with the return of Joe Leonard, Tom Engelhardt and Co., and the Lions will be favored in this early-season ECC bout with Roberts Wesleyan after crunching the Redhawks, 15-2 last spring. Roberts should be improved this year and last spring's trip to LIU Post, where they lost, 7-5, let's you know what the Redhawks are capable of.
Wild Card: Molloy trounced RWC last year even though the 'Hawks won 16-of-18 faceoffs. That stat didn't matter, obviously, but it could play a role with Roberts possessing another year of experience under Rocky Delfino's tutelage. In addition, whether the Lions have solved this problem area will determine their ceiling within the ECC.
9. Lindenwood at Saint Leo – Feb. 22
This matchup is more about Lindenwood than Saint Leo, which will get its test a week earlier (below). In their third season at the NCAA level and with its second coach, the Lions have both promise and questions. They were in every game they played – lost by a goal to Lake Erie on the road and trailed by just a score late in third quarter to Mercyhurst – but are still searching for a signature victory. This might be it.
Wild Card: While Lindenwood's path to the NCAA tournament will be via knocking off one of the Top 3 in the ECAC, the Lions also have to take care of business with the non-conference slate. That means even if Lindenwood bounces Lake Erie, Seton Hill or Mercyhurst, it won't mean much with losses to another aspiring team like Saint Leo.
8. Tampa at Queens – Feb. 8
Year Three of the Whipple Project is about to commence in Tampa and the Spartans certainly have put together a contender's schedule. While the Queens game may not resonate as much as other matchups, it'll provide a good indication of whether UT is ready to take on the big dogs in the division. A .500 team last year, the Royals still held up well against LIU Post, Mercyhurst and Limestone.
Wild Card: Seems somewhat bizarre to call the season-opener a trap game, but with 21 New York natives on the Spartans roster and a home game against NYIT just six days away, it's not unreasonable to think there could be some peeking ahead. How they handle their business in Charlotte will give us a good idea of how focused the Spartans are.
7. Florida Southern at Pfeiffer – Feb. 8
I wrote a little bit about Florida Southern's motivation last week, but what's Pfeiffer's mindset coming into a game that is as close to season-opening elimination contest as it gets? For starters, they are breaking in their third coach in as many years, which is no easy task for the coach or players. If Jason Lange can grab a win here, he can slowly ramp up the team towards the March 1 date with Mercyhurst.
Wild Card: The last two times these teams met – both of which were won by Pfeiffer by a goal – were in the month of March. Now the Falcons have to face the Mocs with a different system in the first live action of the season. Do they have the talent to overcome that obstacle? If they do, they should remain in the postseason mix for much of the season.
6. No. 1 Adelphi at Mars Hill – Feb. 27
Adelphi's mini-swing through the South (they play Lenoir-Rhyne on Feb. 25) was a last minute move by coach Gordon Purdie. The prospect of playing blood rival LIU Post in the season opener with the Pioneers already having five games under their belt was too concerning, so Purdie made this addition. Mars Hill has won at least 10 games in the last six seasons, so the Panthers will get all they wanted.
Wild Card: Adelphi will be more seasoned for the LIU Post game, but Mars Hill will have played games against Pfeiffer and Mercyhurst prior to this tilt, making them a grizzled bunch. Dave Klarmann, who won a national championship as head coach at North Carolina ('91), has been around the block a time or two. This could prove to be a dangerous trek for the Panthers.
5. Saint Leo at No. 5 Limestone – Feb. 16
The Lions were looking pretty good on March 23 with a 7-2 record, which included a two-goal setback to Limestone in the second game of the season, but the end of the season wasn't pretty for Saint Leo. It lost four of its last five, including an exit in the semifinals of the Deep South tourney. Have they put that all behind them? We'll find out in this road contest with the Saints.
Wild Card: With only one of the four South region tourney participants on the schedule, there isn't much room for error in terms of postseason dreams. This makes the Limestone game important for the Lions. But a loss isn't necessarily the end of the road. If they take care of business in their conference, they'll stay in the mix until the end.
4. No. 2 Le Moyne at Chestnut Hill – Feb. 22
In 2011 – just the second year of the program's existence – Chestnut Hill beat both a ranked Mercyhurst and Dowling teams. Since that time, the Griffins have gone 0-9 against squads that finished in the final poll. It might be a stretch to think that Brian Dougherty's squad can unseat the champs, but staying within 13 goals – something they couldn't do last year in a 16-3 setback – would be something to build on.
Wild Card: With the schedule ahead of them, Chestnut Hill might as well open the season against the Dolphins just to get them ready for what the Griffins have in store. Six of the first eight opponents are likely to be ranked at the time they play Chestnut Hill, which will both be a daunting prospect and a huge opportunity for a team looking to matriculate to the next level.
3. No. 6 NYIT at Tampa – Feb. 14
Tampa's trip to the Island last March not only earned them some respect for heading that far north to take on some quality opponents, but the Spartans hung around with both NYIT (13-9 loss) and Dowling (14-13 three overtime loss). Now the Bears will return the favor with a Valentine's Day hook-up in the Sunshine State. We'll find out of it Tampa is ready for an NCAA bid after this one.
Wild Card: The Spartans should be playing fast and loose in this contest because a win will have far more impact than a loss. A victory will provide a strength of schedule boost while a setback will be factored in well down the criteria list considering games against Lake Erie, Limestone and Mercyhurst still await. This is a fantastic opportunity for UT to show its stuff.
2. No. 3 Mercyhurst at Mars Hill – Feb. 22
We're two weeks before the season starts and Mercyhurst head coach Chris Ryan still hasn't decided on his starting goalie. It's one of several question marks for the Lakers as they prepare to square off with Mars Hill on the road. The warmth of North Carolina will be a welcome reprieve from Erie, but this be the first of three-straight tests (Pfeiffer and Seton Hill follow) for the Lakers.
Wild Card: The good news is Mars Hill is playing its first three games at home. The bad news it is coming against Pfeiffer, Mercyhurst and Adelphi. That's a tough stretch for any team, but the fact that Dave Klarmann was willing to accept the challenge leads me to believe he trusts his guys. Are they ready, or have they bit off more than they can chew?
1. No. 6 NYIT at No. 7 Seton Hill – Feb. 22
When these two showed up on the schedule last spring, it was somewhat surprising. With the "Contiguous States" rule, it was a regional game despite the Griffins presence in the South and the Bears in the North. Alas, it turned out to be a classic, with NYIT winning, 12-11. Better yet, in the tourney's new selection format, neither team was harmed as both eventually qualified for the postseason. I expect the scenario to play out the same once again, making this the game of the month.
Wild Card: NYIT's Luke Miller and Seton Hill's Matt Delmonico are both one of the few contenders for attackman of the year honors, if not outright player of the year. How each of them performs against tournament-quality teams will be the basis on how they are judged, so this will be an underlying storyline. I'm guessing each will gladly trade individual stats for a key early-season triumph, however.