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posted 04.22.2013 at 10.00 a.m. by Jac Coyne

NCAA Division II Notebook

Entering its well-deserved bye weekend, Mercyhurst has proven that it is the best team in the country. They rightfully sit atop the weekly rankings, and the first edition of the NCAA regional rankings had the Lakers at the top of the South region. With a 12-0 record and four wins against, 'Hurst is the top dog.

Is this how head coach Chris Ryan expected things to play out to this point?

"No," he said, frankly. "It's a pretty high bar to set to think you are going to come into a season and play some pretty good teams and be undefeated, so I would say it is where we hoped to be. I think I had a little more realistic view on the whole thing, but the kids have really dug hard and found ways to win games. At this point, we can't ask for a better position to be in, but we do we realize that there is more of the season to be played."

The striking aspect of Mercyhurst's run to date has been the Lakers' ability to win the close games against premium competition. They grinded out an 8-5 win against a durable St. Mike's squad in early March and took one-goal victories against Dowling, LIU Post and Lake Erie. It's always nice rolling over an opponent, but finding ways to win close games is a trait that is very useful when the tournament rolls around, especially this year when the eventual national champion will have to win three rough games instead of the usual two.

"There's a ton of value in it," Ryan said of the close victories. "We have a lot of character on the team. They are hard-working kids. The staff is hard on them. Every day there is expectations and we know what we're fighting for. We always tell the kids, once the whistle blows, the game is yours. They have found ways to win and that is a learned trait. That's not something that is natural. Yes, it would be nice to coach in games where you're not having a heart attack on the sidelines, but we're learning valuable lessons and we're gaining valuable experience. You hope that these kind of games pay off down the road."

Another aspect of this season so far that will make Mercyhurst a tough out in the postseason is they are doing it with different players. The Lakers certainly have marquee guys, but it's seems like there is a new hero in each game. Middie James Chayka was the man against Dowling scoring five goals. Middie Zac Reid had four goals and two assists against LIU Post. It was attackman Brian Scheetz (3g, 4a) in the Lake Erie win. Attackman Jake McAndrew and goalie Mike Grace have also had big performances along the way.

"Even going back to 2011 when Ian Wild had no points against Post in the semifinals and then comes out in the finals and gets four goals," Ryan said. "It's a team atmosphere and it's a team mindset. I always tell the kids, 'I don't care who is All-American or all-league. You get out and play for your teammates and you produce and you do your job.' We have a number of kids who can all chip in, and they do. Now all we have to do is try to get them to all show up on the same day; that would be a whole handful for our opponents. Right now, we have guys stepping up on different days and getting it done."

Ryan has been particular impressed with Reid and Chayka on the first midfield line, but he was quick to point out the contributions of long-stick midfielder Ryan Sullivan.

"He's a guy who nobody has ever heard about," Ryan said. "Ryan has lived in the shadow of [All-American LSM] Greg Bensman his first two years and it was an area of the field we had concerns about. How are we going to fill Greg's shoes? Ryan has just done a great job."

The Lakers have two games left on the regular season schedule. There's a make-up non-conference game against Roberts Wesleyan on Tuesday and then the season finale against Seton Hill, a contest that has all the makings of the game of the week. The clash with the Griffins is likely the first of two and will go a long way in determining who will eventually earn that top seed in the South. Ryan concedes that it is a rivalry game, but he wouldn't take the bait any further — "We have all our eggs in the Roberts Wesleyan basket," he said.

What Ryan did concede was that the results up to this point paint a picture, but it's one that can change overnight.

"The problem is we all coach two teams," he said. "There's the team that comes out and does everything and has a great day. And we can also coach the team that shows up and you're acting like Vince Lombardi on the sideline saying, 'What the hell is going on out there?' We all have those teams. As a coach, through one means or another, I want to make sure we're focused and ready to go."

- Tampa's season is not going to end the way it had hoped. The loss to Catawba in the Deep South championship game and this past weekend's setback to Colorado Mesa have left the Spartans out of the mix for the fourth spot in the South, which will be battled out between Pfeiffer and Lake Erie. But this was still an important season for UT.

Tampa's willingness to travel up to Long Island to play Dowling and NYIT and trek out west to square off with Adams State and Mesa established the program as the most serious one in Florida, and among the most earnest in the division. Division II is growing, and its maturation will be sped up when quality teams take themselves out of their comfort zones and make it a more national league. The Spartans are doing their part in making that happen.

I know Rory Whipple and UT would gladly trade bon mots in a weekly notebook for a couple of more wins and a postseason invitation, but it doesn't lessen what the Spartans have added to D-II this season. This has been the best year in the division's existence, and Tampa played a big role in that. For that, everyone involved with the program should be proud.

- Mesa's 11-4 victory over Tampa was a bright spot for both the Mavericks and the WILA, but what should we take from the WILA this year? The four-team league would obviously benefit from some new blood — something that is hopefully in the works — but it did crown a new champion this year after Dominican usurped Mesa's crown with a perfect season so far.

The Penguins and Mavs represented the WILA well. While it went 0-4, Dominican scheduled four tough opponents, including contests against No. 12 Pfeiffer and No. 1 Merychurst. Mesa gave Pfeiffer a good run and took a stab at No. 6 Seton Hill, along with the aforementioned victory over Tampa. Both teams put together schedules that, with a couple of key wins, could have produced an extended glance from the selection committee.

With that said, Adams State and Notre Dame de Namur appear to have regressed, in both competitiveness and scheduling. The former isn't a big deal — every team has its highs and lows from season to season — but the schedules are cause for slightly more concern. NDNU only made one non-conference trip this year, playing only one team (Mars Hill) that could be considered in the top tier (the Argos did play Chestnut Hill at home). Adams lone trip was slightly better, featuring St. Leo and Florida Southern, but the overall slate was pretty lean.

I'm extremely leery of criticizing any WILA team. They are at the tip of the spear in terms of Western growth — something that will ultimately determine the long-term prospects of D-II — and face budgetary, travel and scheduling challenges that the Eastern teams couldn't fathom.

The WILA is still evolving, and will likely do so far the next couple of years. Ultimately, the WILA's success will be predicated on how they are treated by the establishment, so I would encourage any D-II program with a couple of extra bucks to make the trip out west, or at least open up the schedule if a WILA team comes calling for a game. It might be considered an inconvenience in the short-term, but it would be for the greater good.

- St. Michael's senior Marty Vanzo moved into seventh place in points (134) in the program's history after scoring four goals and dishing out two assists in the Purple Knights' 10-6 victory over AIC. St. Mike's remains unbeaten in NE-10 play with Merrimack and Le Moyne on the docket this week...in light of the first regional ranking, both Merrimack and Le Moyne will have to make up some serious ground over the next two weeks to make the tournament...Lindenwood's 25-5 victory over Ohio Valley was the largest margin of victory in the team's short NCAA history...Limestone beat Pfeiffer to win the Conference Carolinas championship once again.