April 8, 2014

Tuesdays with Corey: Good Times for Fairfield

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

"Colin has the potential, when he graduates, to be the best player who's ever played at Fairfield," Stags coach Andy Copelan said of Colin McLinden, who is playing his first full season on attack and the team's leading point-producer. (Fairfield Athletics)

It's reached this point for the Fairfield men's lacrosse program: Eighth-year coach Andy Copelan isn't shy to say the team believes it could beat any in the country. Nor that junior attackman Colin McLinden may go down as the best to ever play for the Stags.

It's good times in Fairfield, Conn. The program presently has its highest national rankings in history. They are 9-2 and on a seven-game winning streak that started March 8 with an overtime win against Yale. The latest win was closer than they would have liked, a 9-8 win over Michigan before the Wolverines' spring football game on Saturday, but they got the job done.

On Monday, the first phase of renovations began on Rafferty Stadium, which houses Fairfield's men's and women's lacrosse programs, a sign of the school's commitment to the sport.

"I feel like we've built this to the point where we can beat any team in the country. That's a big step to reach," said Copelan, who, in the summer of 2012 as the coaching carousel turned, signed a contract extension at Fairfield through the 2019 season. "There's a little bit of a confidence playing in some of those really big games. The point we haven't quite yet reached is the total consistency factor. There's still some really high-quality performances and then there are still head-scratcher moments. We're building it the right way."

Two years ago, Fairfield went a program-best 12-4 and won six one-goal games, four of them in overtime.

At the time, McLinden was a freshman midfielder but still found the ball in his stick often in crunch time and led the team with 19 assists. During Fairfield's 8-7 campaign last season, he again led the Stags with 19 assists out of the midfield. As a junior, he's shifted to attack and is one of the focal points of the offense with fellow junior attackman Tristan Sperry.

The pair is a two-headed, two-handed monster. Sperry has 19 goals and 16 assists and McLinden has already set a career-high with 24 assists and has 13 goals.

"It's been more seamless than any of us could have thought," Copelan said of the move to attack. "Colin has the potential, when he graduates, to be the best player who's ever played at Fairfield. He's very poised in very critical situations. He's an extraordinary talent. He can separate, he's two-handed and has great vision. He's smart and a competitor. It helps having him out on the field on every offensive possession rather than 60 percent [as a midfielder]. It really was a no-brainer from our end."

The Fairfield staff committed to its first midfield trio of senior Eric Warden, junior Drew Federico and freshman Jake Knostman in the fall and stuck with it.

Defense is the team's most experienced unit, where seniors Toby Armour and Greg Perraut and junior Max Buchanan start at close defense in front of senior goalie Jack Murphy, who has a 55 percent save percentage, 14th best in the country, for a unit that ranked ninth overall in goals allowed (8.18). If there's a weakness it could be faceoffs, where the Stags are winning 44 percent of draws on the season.

All in all, the team Fairfield faces on Saturday — with an eighth straight win on the line — looks a bit like them on paper. At 7-3, Air Force has won five straight games after a 2-3 start to the year and has a couple special players of its own like senior attackman Mike Crampton, who scored seven first-quarter goals last time out against Mercer and do-it-all midfielder Erik Smith.

In a unique year for the ECAC, with only five teams in its last season as a league, four teams — Fairfield (2-0), Air Force (2-0), Ohio State (4-6, 1-0) and Michigan (4-8, 1-2) — have already qualified for the four-team conference postseason tournament May 1 and 3 at Ohio State. Bellarmine, with an 0-4 record in league and 6-4 overall, won't play. The Buckeyes, who appear back on the right track after Jesse King's seven-assist performance in a 15-9 win over Delaware, are the Stags' final conference opponent in the regular-season finale April 26 in Fairfield.

It's unlikely for a team to show all its cards before possibly facing each other again in a couple weeks, but Fairfield knows who they are at this point. The definition started after back-to-back games against Hofstra and Providence, which dropped its early-season record to 2-2. Immediately after the Providence game — a 14-11 loss on a Tuesday — the players held a private meeting. The next day the coaching staff met with them for about 45 minutes, Copelan said, for an airing of grievances.

"We talked about circling the wagons and trying to refocus and regroup and dial in," he said. "We were very honest and very direct. We had to tighten some stuff up. Sometimes it's easy for coaches to hold their guys accountable. It's little more challenging for guys to hold each other accountable. That was a real healthy thing. It felt like a re-energized group the next couple games in practices. Everybody just had to step their game up a little bit."

Now, Fairfield sits behind only Patriot League leading Loyola, the ACC superpowers, Ivy League title contenders, and independent Johns Hopkins in the national pecking order, as it shapes up presently.

"From that point on, we've incrementally improved over the last seven games," Copelan said. "We've gotten better as the season has gone on, which is what I'm most proud of."

Three Stars

After two weeks off for Mid-Season Awards and a first round of Bracketology, three stars is back:

Gabe Mendola, Harvard Sr. FO
The Ithaca, N.Y. native came to play on Saturday in his hometown, winning 20 of 26 faceoffs to lift Harvard to a 14-9 win over the then-No. 1 Cornell. All the more impressive was he posted those numbers against the Big Red's Doug Resoriero, among the best in the country. "He's really the MVP of this game," Harvard coach Chris Wojcik said of Mendola.

Mike Crampton, Air Force, Sr. A
From the overlooked-for-much-of-the-season department, at least in this space. Crampton scored eight goals — seven of them in the first quarter — in a 19-6 win over Mercer on Saturday and on Monday was named ECAC Offensive Player of the Week for the third straight week and fourth time this year. He was efficient as well, taking only nine shots. He was the first Air Force player to score at least eight goals in a game since 1994.

Deemer Class, Duke, So. M
Class put in five goals on 10 shots and added two assists in Duke's 15-7 win over Notre Dame. The big question for Duke going into this season was the same as last: how would the Blue Devils' projected first midfield develop? They seem to be hitting their stride now, particularly Class. He's scored 12 goals in the last three games. That's "heating up" status.

Looking Ahead

It's rivalry week. Doesn't get much better:

1. Maryland at Johns Hopkins, 2 p.m. Saturday
It's the Blue Jays' homecoming game at Homewood Field. And with top-five foe and in-state rival Maryland on the opposite sideline, a sellout crowd is expected. This will be the last ACC vs. independent encounter in the series, as both teams head to the new Big Ten lacrosse league in 2015.

2. Syracuse at Cornell, 7 p.m. Tuesday
Cornell took its lumps Saturday against Harvard. They can either sink or swim at home against central New York rival Syracuse. The game could say something about both team's chances down the final stretch of the season.

3. Duke at Virginia, 6 p.m. Friday
Duke will put its high national ranking on the line at ACC rival Virginia. The Blue Devils have had the Cavaliers number under coach John Danowski, who is 12-1 against Virginia in seven seasons in Durham.

4. Ohio State at Michigan, 11 a.m. Saturday
The border rivals will meet for the third time as varsity programs in Ohio State's Horseshoe before the school's spring football game. Is this Michigan's best shot at the Buckeyes yet? Yes. The Wolverines have shown signs of improvement in Year Three with a 4-8 record, double the amount of wins the program has its first two seasons.

5. Navy at Army, Noon Saturday
When it comes to rivalry week, no games-to-watch list would be complete without this one. Navy just played No. 1-ranked Loyola into double-overtime while Army has been just on the bubble of the Top 20 most of the season.

Honorable mention: Notre Dame at Marquette, 5 p.m. Tuesday; Marist at Hofstra, 7 p.m. Tuesday; Lehigh at Princeton, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; Yale at Brown, 7 p.m. Friday; Cornell at Hofstra, 1 p.m. Saturday; UMass at Drexel, 1 p.m. Saturday; Harvard at Penn, 1 p.m. Saturday; St. John's at Denver, 2 p.m. Saturday; Fairfield at Air Force, 2 p.m. Saturday; Syracuse at North Carolina, 6 p.m. Saturday; Stony Brook at Albany, 7 p.m. Saturday; Villanova at Rutgers, 7 p.m. Saturday.

End Lines

It may have gotten lost in the shuffle of busy college lacrosse Saturday, but Team USA women's goalie Devon Wills held her own during training camp with Major League Lacrosse's New York Lizards. Wills is seeking to become the first woman to make an MLL roster and she did nothing to hurt her case in two practice sessions on Saturday, as described here.

The question I've been most asked from a variety of people since the story was posted was "Did she get hit?" I counted one time in the helmet. But, in any case, Wills isn't the type that is overtly concerned about that question. "To me, this is just about making a team," she said.

The general consensus was she impressed Saturday with her play, even if this idea perhaps started as a publicity event. Lizards coach Joe Spallina said he would consider keeping Wills on the team, at least on the practice squad. Behind incumbent starter and two-time MLL All-Star Drew Adams, two other goalies are in the mix. New York's first game is April 27 against the Rochester Rattlers so we'll know before then the outcome. Wills won't take part in the rest of the Lizards' training camp sessions before then because of commitments as assistant coach at USC.


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