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posted 04.23.2012 at 10.01 a.m. by Jac Coyne

Monday Notebook: MCLA Division I

Quick question. No peeking.

Who did Texas beat last year to get the LSA automatic qualifier?

Did you have it? Did you get Southern Methodist?

You might not have because the Lonestar Alliance has been considered the Longhorns exclusive club. Sure, there have been some other teams who have grabbed the LSA automatic qualifier along the way, but it has been Texas' league, and everyone knows it. As such, the second-place team was inconsequential.

With a roster stacked with top-tier teams from all over the country, the Mustangs just might turn that mindset upside down.

Why? Because SMU has already faced two of the best teams in the MCLA, so the LSA tournament will be manageable. On back-to-back days in late March, the Mustangs played No. 1 Cal Poly and No. 4 Colorado State at altitude, and while SMU took their lumps (they were outscored 34-3 in the two games), they got much-needed experience that isn't available in the LSA.

"We've been looking at it that way the whole season," said Karl Lynch, the SMU head coach. "We tried to set up our season so that we could have games where we'd be challenged, but have some recovery time and do some film study. We lost to Texas in the conference championship game last year, and we thought we could get back there again this year and see if we can't close the gap on them."

Lynch is an MCLA veteran. A long-time coach and the editor of "MCLA: The Lax Magazine," he understands that taking a beating at the hands of top-tier teams can serve a purpose.

"We have a pretty solid defense and we just didn't show it out there," Lynch said. "Part of the reason the defense wasn't able to play to their potential was the rest of the team didn't respect the ball. When we played those games, the players finally understood, 'Oh, yeah, that's what the coaches meant by possessing the ball at the college level and working for a shot.' Not just shooting in the first 10 seconds of a possession. That was an eye-opening experience for what it takes to win at that level. It takes a full-team effort, not just having a very good defense."

The Colorado trip is part of a culture change that Lynch hopes to bring to SMU. It's never easy when it happens and it's often painful.

"The top teams play more like a varsity team than a club team," said Lynch. "When I told the players that was why I was brought on – to get SMU over the hump of being right there but not being able to stick or inch up in the polls – they took me to my word. After the first couple of weeks of practice when some of the players saw that there was too much running, lifting and push-ups and other things, they decided to concentrate on their academics."

The most important player who stayed on was senior goalie Cary Nelson. A graduate of the Gilman School in Baltimore, Nelson has been a constant for the Mustangs, even when things aren't going great.

"Against Colorado State we got completely manhandled, but he managed to have 50 percent saves," Lynch said. "When you think about that, here's a guy who is eating a lot of rubber and is still getting 16 or 17 saves in that kind of a game. He also steals possession by the way he positions and scoops up ground balls and the way he controls his defense. That's one of the things I've been telling him: realize that every shot that is not taken is good defense. Some people think that good defense is if there is a save, but it can be good defense when you are telling people where to slide and the ball is not even getting to you. He has embraced that."

Nelson illustrates the kind of kids SMU is getting. There are only four Texas kids on the roster – led by leading scorer Matt Murphy (18g, 8a) – and the rest come from every corner of the country. Sophomore middie Cole Sisto (15g, 10a) is from Jersey while freshmen Alex Prince (14g, 8a) and LSM Chad Kehoe are from the Bolles (Fla.) School.

Lynch said the Mustangs will be getting an LSM from the Haverford School next year, along with kids from San Diego, Arizona, Florida and Minnesota.

Diversity doesn't win championships, and Texas certainly doesn't care how many states are represented on the SMU roster. But the Mustangs have confidence, as well as the knowledge that what they see in College Station next weekend won't come close to what they had to deal with in Colorado.

"Nothing is going to shock us," Lynch said. "We're going down to the LSA championship to win it."

- I talked to Arizona State head coach Chris Malone heading into the weekend and he thought that if the Sun Devils were able to beat Arizona in their rivalry game, they were heading to Greenville. I happen to agree with him. Along with ASU, two other teams from the SLC (Chapman and UCSB) are in, along with three teams from the RMLC (BYU, Colorado State and Colorado.)

What does that do to the math? Well, it means that there are only two of the six at-larges left for the remaining eight conferences. You can put UMLL, GRCL and LSA down as one-bid leagues. Barring an upset by Simon Fraser over Oregon (the Ducks are in regardless), the PNCLL is also a one-bidder. That leaves the CCLA, PCLL, SELC and WCLL grappling for a pair of bids.

Buffalo (PCLL) and Pittsburgh (CCLA) look like the frontrunners at this point, but both could win their respective conference tourneys, meaning that the two slots would remain open. If that happened, California (WCLL), UConn (PCLL), Virginia Tech, Clemson (both from the SELC) and Michigan State (CCLA) would be in the discussion.

- We're getting to the point in the season where we can formulate a short list of player of the year candidates. There are a lot of solid options out there, but these are my top four at this point.

* Ted Ferrin, Brigham Young: He's putting up monster numbers once again and always delivers against the top teams. Believe it or not, he's now eyeing his third national title in his college career.

* Scott Heberer, Cal Poly: He has been dinged up a couple of times this season, but he's the man for the Mustangs. He makes everyone around him better. Poly will have to get to at least the semis for his candidacy to really take shape.

* Matt Walrath, Chapman: The do-it-all LSM gives the Panthers an advantage at every level of the field. He has 120 ground balls along with six goals and two dimes.

* Dylan Westfall, Arizona State: The Sun Devils haven't had the season they had hoped, but it's no fault of Westfall and the ASU backline. Westfall has been a rock in goal and could wrap things up with a deep run.

- Chapman's 9-4 victory over UC Santa Barbara exposed the Gauchos. While UCSB has a strong midfield, it doesn't have enough athletic players to battle the likes of the Panthers for 60 minutes. While Mike Allan is the frontrunner for coach of the year, it's tough envisioning the Gauchos making the national semifinals...Casey Keenan made 18 saves for California in the 11-10 victory over Sonoma that kept the Bears in the Greenville discussion...Missouri handed Kansas, the last remaining undefeated team in MCLA-I, its first loss of the season, 13-11...Colorado State managed to come back to beat Colorado in overtime, but that contest was an affirmation that the Buffs are going to be a miserable draw for a pretty good team...the way the SELC tourney shapes up, Clemson and Virginia Tech meet in the semifinals. There's no way both of those teams can go to nationals now. It's an elimination game.