April 18, 2012

Lambrecht: Nobody is Safe in MD1 Landscape

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Try to make sense of this year's Division I men's season, where upsets abound and there's little consistency. "It's happening everywhere," Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "We look terrible against North Carolina, but Carolina loses to [2-8] Penn. Duke needed a last-second goal against Marist, then they come back and embarrass Virginia."
© Matt Riley

If you thought you had figured out the Division I men's lacrosse landscape with a hint of clarity about a week ago, it didn't take long for a couple of head-turning events to make you feel clueless. In the space of 24 hours last weekend, two tremors on the campuses of Virginia and Johns Hopkins illustrated what has become the new normal in the sport.

On Friday, there were the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers, on Senior Night, laying a rotten egg on national television against their Atlantic Coast Conference nemesis.

The Duke Blue Devils, who had just come from behind to earn an 11-10 victory against visiting Marist – the second-place team in the mighty Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference – swooped into Charlottesville and humiliated UVA, 13-5.

One night later, there was No. 3 Hopkins, sporting a 9-1 record and playing for the 108th time against Maryland, leading the Terrapins by three goals early in the second half in front of a sellout crowd at Homewood Field. And there went the Blue Jays into shutdown mode, as Maryland – which, by the way, lost earlier in the season to UMBC – outscored Hopkins, 6-0, over the game's final 29 minutes to grab a 9-6 victory.

On the surface, these developments were not total shocks. No. 7 Duke, which has won eight in a row after a 3-3 start, has now beaten Virginia in 12 of the past 13 meetings between the two schools, a streak that rates as one of the strangest in the game. No. 8 Maryland beat the Blue Jays for the 39th time overall and fourth time since 1996. The Terps had lost five, one-goal decisions to Hopkins, dating to 2002.

But it was the way the two games went down that drew double-takes.

Virginia, which at 10-1 was one goal away from being undefeated before Duke showed up, turned in an absolute stinker from the opening faceoff. Hopkins, which had been 102-5 under 12th-year coach Dave Pietramala when leading at halftime, froze like deer under the Homewood lights in crunch time with a core of third-year starters. Both losing teams were held to season-lows in scoring.

One would think that, by mid-April, these types of issues would be alleviated somewhat by the game's top-tier programs. But look again, and you see that, in 2012, the Division I field, with its ever-advancing parity, appears as unsettled as ever.

"It's happening everywhere," Pietramala said. "We look terrible against North Carolina, but Carolina loses to [2-8] Penn. Duke needed a last-second goal against Marist, then they come back and embarrass Virginia. Everybody is beating everybody's brains out.

"Our problem with Maryland wasn't physical. It was mental," he added. "But I think you're seeing the mental part of the game everywhere and how challenging it is, week in and week out, day in and day out, to answer the emotional bell. There are a lot of good lacrosse players out there."

"There's just not a whole lot of margin for error in the game right now," added Bucknell coach Frank Fedorjaka. "Whoever you are, if you show up and play just OK, there's a good chance you're going to get beat."

The examples abound. Bucknell, one of the younger teams in the Patriot League, overcame three straight close losses by reeling off eight wins in a row, only to lose one-goal heartbreakers to Army and upstart Lehigh (11-2) in the past 11 days to fall to 8-5. The Bison must win the Patriot League tournament to make it back to the NCAAs.

Same goes for No. 16 Penn State, which at 7-5 has risen from the brink of disaster – a skid that included a 9-8 overtime loss to No. 2 UMass – with a three-game winning streak and serious momentum entering the stretch. The Nittany Lions, led by superb sophomore goalie Austin Kaut, believe they can win the Colonial Athletic Association and slip into the NCAAs, even if they must beat unbeaten UMass in the CAA tournament to get there. They might be right.

No. 5 Notre Dame (9-1) lives by the close, low-scoring victory and is lucky to shoot 25 percent on a good day. That is a dangerous recipe in the playoffs. UMass is obviously strong at 11-0, but the Minutemen grind through a lot of one- and two-goal games. Even new no. 1 Loyola (11-0), which overwhelmed opponents for the first month of the season, struggled against Ohio State and pesky, 17th-ranked Fairfield (10-2) before running by Denver in the second half on Saturday.

We'll see how Loyola copes with that No. 1 sign hanging around its necks. We'll see who emerges in May among a top 20 that currently features 13 teams with three or fewer losses.

Duke and Maryland stepped up to center stage last week and simplified the moral of the story in 2012.

No one is safe.


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