Morning Jac: Middlebury Adopts New Approach
In any other season over the past decade, Middlebury's 13-3 record last spring would have been more than enough to send the Panthers to the NCAA tournament, even if they didn't make the conference finals.
Much of this was due to the weight of the NESCAC schedule. The non-conference opponents weren't as important as the heft other league teams would give to the selection committee number-crunchers, so Middlebury and other programs could schedule budgetary/class-time friendly non-con foes. And waiting at the end would be one or two extra bids for the taking on Selection Sunday.
The rest of Division III got wise, however. The top teams in other leagues started loading up their strength of schedule prior to the start of the conference slate while the NESCAC teams, for the most part, just kept on using their tried and true scheduling model.
Then last year happened.
Middlebury didn't get into the tournament with its strong record while Wesleyan, which finished 13-5 and made it to the NESCAC finals, couldn't even get regionally ranked. For the first time since 2004, the conference only qualified its league champion for the tourney.
"It became obvious that the criteria the NCAA uses doesn't necessarily value what we have in the NESCAC and the amount of teams we have," said Middlebury head coach Dave Campbell.
The scheduling issue has resulted in the Panthers missing the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons for the first since 1994-95 – the first two seasons NESCAC teams were eligible for NCAA team postseason competition. It's also a topic on which Campbell waxes philosophical.
"It's an interesting question for a NESCAC school. At the end of the day, what is the goal of our program? Is it just to make the NCAAs? We're so conscious of the student-athlete experience," he said. "We're trying to find the best competition that we can that is within a few hours so that we're not missing as many classes. We're not taking a full day off from school to play someone six hours away. That is the first concern that we're working with and then I'm trying to put the best schedule we can with that first criterion in mind."
There's no question that Middlebury's schedule is more difficult this year with the addition of Plattsburgh and Endicott – and will get even tougher next year when RIT is added to the slate – but this team appears to have more question marks than last year's edition after the graduation of a large senior class. Not that the cupboard is empty. Sophomore attackman Jon Broome, the NESCAC rookie of the year in '13, senior goalie Nate Gaudio and senior pole Darric White are among the best at their position in the conference.
White, who will be working as both a close defender and LSM, has Campbell particularly excited.
"As I've been telling the other coaches and [former head coach and current AD] Erin Quinn, if White is not a first team All-American defenseman, I don't know who is," he said. "He's the best defenseman I've ever coached besides James Guay. He's only been practicing for two days, but he's been practicing at a different level than everybody else right now. He's ridiculous."
Breaking in new faces has been complicated by the NESCAC moving their schedule up a week to March 1, meaning there is only two weeks between the first practice and the first game. In Middlebury's case, that means taking on No. 6 Tufts in the opener at home on Saturday. Campbell made his final cuts on Tuesday, so there hasn't been much talk of the Jumbos to this point.
"I'm approaching it like any other opener," Campbell said. "They're a very good team and they return a lot of guys and they run their system and they all know it very well, so it's not like they are starting from scratch. I'm sure they picked up right where they left off. I know it's cliché, but it's cliché for a reason: we're just focusing on us and what we need to get ready to make sure we're as prepared as possible.
"Then we'll roll the ball out and play on Saturday. Whether we win or lose, we're going to find out a lot about who we were are and what we need to be working on. That's the best part about playing a team like Tufts: your weaknesses will be exposed, win or lose."
At least the Panthers know that this year, it won't be their schedule strength that is exposed.