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February 23, 2011

CAA: Toughest Conference in Division I

by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Lambrecht Archive


Will Manny and UMass are in their second season since realigning with the CAA, which has become the deepest Division I men's lacrosse conference in the country.

Seth Tierney isn't joking, and he's not playing the homer by pumping up the league in which his Hofstra University men's lacrosse team competes.

Tierney means it when he looks at the quality of the Colonial Athletic Conference.

"From top to bottom, this conference could be the toughest in the country," said Tierney, Hofstra's fifth-year coach. "A lot of teams in this league are going to get you if you don't bring [your best]. It's going to be quite a battle just to be one of the top four teams that makes it to the league tournament. This conference has changed tenfold since I got here."

Among the seven conferences that produce automatic qualifiers for the NCAA tournament, the seven-team CAA is rivaled by the fast-improving Patriot League and the re-established Ivy League. But I give the edge right now to the CAA, which is in its second year of realignment and boasts a variety of schools that could make serious noise in May.

For the first time in its decade-long history, the CAA could send three teams to the NCAAs. No joke.

Take a look at this group. First, there is Hofstra, where Tierney has stocked a team that boasts numerous scorers and combines Canadian flair (attackmen Jamie Lincoln and Jay Card) with Long Island toughness and some well-placed transfers -- led by midfielder/graduate student Steve Serling, formerly a star at Lafayette.

The Pride is probably the most talented team, but that won't promise anything in a year shaping up this way. Look at Drexel, with proven, 40-point scorers in attackmen Robert Church and Scott Perri, an excellent, 270-pound junior goalie Mark Manos filling up the net and second-year coach Brian Voelker – Tierney's four-year roommate at Johns Hopkins long ago – calling the shots. Look at Delaware, which under 33-year coach Bob Shillinglaw keeps finding enough physical, talented midfielders and rough-and-tumble defenders to be a threat, not to mention another strong faceoff man in Dan Cooney.

Massachusetts and Penn State, which joined the CAA a year ago after Villanova, Sacred Heart and Robert Morris exited, bring more juice to the league.

UMass, five years removed from a trip to the NCAA title game, looks poised to rebound from last year's rebuilding season. The Minutemen, who already have upset Army, have a shutdown defender in junior Tom Celentani, a potent attack led by sophomore Will Manny, a solid, experienced midfield and a goalie on the verge of stardom in junior Tim McCormack. And it's only a matter of time before coach Jeff Tambroni squeezes the potential out of Penn State.

Then there's Towson, which regularly gets beaten up by its non-conference schedule, only to emerge as a CAA contender, after dominating the league in its early years. The Tigers have to find their offense in 2011, but they will scrap and defend. They have one of their better freshman classes under coach Tony Seaman, who always makes Towson a factor.

Only St. Joseph's is an easy out in the CAA, and that probably won't last long.

"We used to have two [automatic] wins [in Sacred Heart and Robert Morris]. Then you had to beat two of the other three teams and you were in the playoffs," Seaman said. "Now it's a lot tougher. Our early schedule doesn't help us with wins and losses overall, but we really need that kind of schedule to get us ready for our league."

The huge growth of lacrosse at the recreation and high school levels has made it possible for the "mid-majors" of Division I to attract strong, second-tier recruits, including some major impact players who did not develop until later in high school. And schools such as Hofstra, Towson and Penn State have committed more to the sport, as is reflected in upgraded facilities and recruiting budgets.

Big dividends have come at places such as Delaware, which rode faceoff specialist extraordinaire Alex Smith to the school's only final four in 2007, when the Blue Hens destroyed defending national champion Virginia in the first round. Hofstra, which went 17-2 in 2006, drove Johns Hopkins off its schedule after beating the Blue Jays for the third straight time on Long Island last spring. Drexel knocked off Virginia in its 2007 season opener, and nearly did it again on Saturday behind Manos' 19 saves.

Get used to it. The CAA continues to arrive on the lacrosse field. And it will not be going away anytime soon.


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