May 3, 2012

Coyne v. Censer: The Beauty of Playoffs

by Jac Coyne and Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Hunter Sprole and the rest of the Colorado College attack had plenty of chances to advance to the NCAA tournament, but they ran into a hot goalie at the wrong time. Despite dominating the league for three months, the Tigers watched as Birmingham Southern headed to the dance.
© Charlie Lengal

Colorado College completed its second consecutive undefeated season in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference and was clearly the best team in the league over the course of three months. They won't be participating in the NCAA tournament when it begins next week, however.

Why?

Because the Tigers ran into Andrew Huffman. The Birmingham-Southern goalie made 15 saves, allowing the Panthers to upend Colorado College in the SCAC tournament championship game and grab the conference's automatic qualifier. The Tigers solved Huffman on March 30 when they won, 9-5, but when it was all on the line, Huffman flipped the script for the 8-5 win.

It seems somewhat counterproductive to allow a team that had sustained excellence over a three-month period to be replaced by a squad that delivered only over a three-to-10 day period (or however long the various conference tournaments run). Or, in the case of Birmingham-Southern, over a 60-minute span.

On Saturday, Geneseo – a team that started the season with an 0-7 mark and still boasts a sub-.500 record – will get a chance to participate in the NCAA tournament if it can find a way to solve Cortland. Yes, it's seems extremely unlikely that the Knights will be able to hang with the Red Dragons (Cortland won the regular season match-up, 15-8), but should they even get the chance?

Is it best for the division that Geneseo has the possibility to participate with, ostensibly, the 27 best teams in the country when it has proven via its regular season body of work that it should not be considered among that group?

The argument to award an automatic qualifier to the regular season champion is not without merits. It does seem rather silly that Dickinson picks up a win against Gettysburg last Saturday, but still needs to defeat the Bullets a week later in order to get a crack at winning the Centennial championship.

Frankly, I'm surprised that there isn't at least one Division III conference that utilizes this method. It seems right up the alley of the NESCAC presidents to go against the grain by adopting this paradigm (think of all the saved class time!).

If you look at the season in the same prism you would the academic calendar, however, the current conference tournament process makes perfect sense.

The regular season is a series of quizzes for the players, with a final exam waiting at the end with the conference tournaments. Just as students must show proficiency in both disciplines to move to the front of the academic hierarchy, so must student-athletes pass an athletic final to be considered among the best in class. They can't just work hard for most of the semester and then take the final off; they have to continue working all the way to the end.

And, just like in the classroom, sometimes coming up short isn't a result of faulty work ethic or lack of studying. Sometimes you were expecting a multiple choice test and got an essay exam (zone defense). Occasionally your pencil breaks (injuries). There's always the TA who grades harder than necessary (hot goalie/FOGO). But for those who have demonstrated their abilities during the regular season, there is still room to be recognized for the effort (at-large bid).

College athletics creates a lot of angst amongst the big brains in the faculty lounge, but in reality, sports are just a microcosm of the pursuit of excellence. That's why the conference tournament model must always be embraced.

Joel, I'm sure the metaphorical substance of my theory gets a little muddied when dealing with courses like "Comparative Bohemian Lit" and the rest of the Haverford curriculum, but you get what I'm saying, right?

CENSER: For the uninformed, when Jac isn't livestreaming some MCLA Division II game going on in Northwest Idaho, he's reading the Drudge Report and trolling Wisconsin recall websites.

So, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that he doesn't know that in the English Premier League, the regular season winners are league champions.

For a soccer league across the pond, this makes plenty of sense. England's small enough and the season is long enough where every team plays each other both home and away. By mid May, it's safe and fair to assume that the club with the best record (earned under the same conditions as the rest of the teams) deserves the spoils.

But Jac's right that in Division III lacrosse, the conference tournament is a necessity. Even if Middlebury had access to some third-line midfielder's yacht or private plane, it'd still be impossible to play a home-and-away against all of the NESCAC programs. Because teams have different schedules (remember Bowdoin's brutal four game stretch in nine days at the end of March?) and only play each other once, handing out championship banners/Nantucket bragging rights by regular results alone just doesn't seem meritocratic enough.

Moreover, the conference tournament is the right kind of primer and vetting process to know what teams are going to be like when all the poker chips are pushed to the center of the table. At some point, teams must perform under pressure. You try not to short-arm a cross-field pass with rabid fans at your back and weighted expectations.

Last weekend, we found out Amherst would take their pre-season awards and go quietly into the conference quarterfinal abyss. On Friday, We'll see if Washington College was more of a midseason story, or is actually ready to make the leap back into the Division III conversation.

For those wondering whether an NPR-listening East Coast liberal and a Dittohead from flyover country could agree on anything, well, you found something.

To the games (Coyne and Censer both went 3-2, so it's Jac at 43-17 and Joel posting a 40-20 mark)...

No. 19 Gettysburg (10-5) vs. No. 13 Dickinson (12-3) – Friday, 4 p.m. (Centennial Semifinals at WAC)

COYNE: This game seems vaguely familiar. Oh, yes, that's right, we picked it last week. Dickinson won the first affair, 12-7 in a game that wasn't really that close and conventional wisdom says the Red Devils should repeat the effort when the two meet in Chestertown on Friday afternoon. And while Bobby Kingsley's four goals might draw the headlines, it was really the work of Chip Murray (1g, 1a, 15-for-22 on faceoffs) that was the difference for Dickinson.

Is it that simple? Not with Gettysburg, which is entering the part of the season where they shine the brightest, although there are more question marks with the edition of the Bullets than perhaps in years past. There is also the uncomfortable knowledge that Gettysburg probably has to make the Centennial finals to remain in the at-large discussion.

I'm tempted to take the Bullets because they always burn me at this time of year, but the Red Devils' win last time was too complete. Dickinson, 9-7.

CENSER: Like Jac, I'm always hesitant to pick against the Bullets in May. But the past two years, Dickinson does seem to have Gettysburg's number, winning the last three matchups (which is no easy feat).

While Franklin & Marshall may have provided a neat little blueprint to take down the Red Devils (dominance at the face-off, smart offense, and a hot goaltender), Murray and Greg Hanley bounced back with huge games against les Boulets. Not to mention Gettysburg hasn't solved its own netminder issues, either.

Cherry (assuming he's good to go), Pallandino, Cannon and Hanley rumble here. 11-7, Devils.

No. 12 Bowdoin (12-4) vs. No. 17 Trinity (10-5) – Saturday, 3 p.m. (NESCAC Semifinals at Tufts)

COYNE: Much like the Gettysburg-Dickinson game above, this contest would appear to feature a team that is in good shape for at least an at-large to the NCAAs (Bowdoin) and one that probably needs to at least get to the conference finals (Trinity). The good news for the Bantams is they already have a win over Bowdoin. Trinity manhandled the Polar Bears, but thanks to a 22-save performance from Chris Williamson the Chickens only managed to post a 7-4 victory.

If Bowdoin wants an opportunity to flip this score, it'll have to value the ball more (24 turnovers in the first game) and not allow Trinity to create a shooting gallery on Williamson. They'll also have to find a way to solve Peter Johnson, who has given numerous teams problems, including Tufts. I think the PBears will still be in a good spot to make the NCAAs, but Trinity wins again, 11-7.

CENSER: C'mon Jac! This is THE NESCAC. The preeminent dog-eat-dog lacrosse conference. Looking back to some game that happened a month ago as an indicator? I thought you were one of them!

Despite a ho-hum performance from Johnson (for him at least), Trinity used a dominating fourth quarter to run past Hamilton in the quarterfinals. Bowdoin, meanwhile, poked and prodded the Wesleyan zone into submission (Williamson's 15 saves helped as well).

Failing to make the NCAA will certainly sting for a little while, but Colorado should be even better next year, especially with the likes of Nick Ahrens (above) returning for his sophomore season.
© Charlie Lengal

And I think if the Polar Bears make this game less about capitalizing on a couple of choreographed possessions and more about getting up and down, being opportunistic in transition and dominating the face-off stripe, they'll be just fine. Bowdoin scraps past the Bantams, 11-8.

Whittier (6-4) at Colorado College (11-3) – Saturday, 1 p.m. MT

COYNE: Oh, what might have been. Just over a month ago, this game had the look of a possible NCAA first round match-up preview (if the committee didn't want to fly both teams east). Now? Just a western bragging rights game and an example how fragile tournament bids can be.

Whittier had its postseason dreams dashed by the rise of Kenyon and a less-than-fruitful swing through Pennsylvania while Colorado College's hopes were crushed in Alabama this past weekend. Instead of being a pair of teams gearing up for the dance, we'll have a competition to see which team can show the greater will to end their season on a positive note.

This will be low-scoring and close, but I'll take the Tigers at altitude, 6-5.

CENSER: One thing I learned watching the Duke-Denver livestream is that the effects of altitude don't kick in until a good two days later. Luckily for me, Jac keeps Division I at an arm's length, so he doesn't have these little tidbits of ESPNU-inspired knowledge.

Everything else about this game, however, makes me worry for Whittier. They have to travel 1,000-plus miles. Save a couple games against non-Division III teams, the Poets spent much of the past month on ice (after getting unceremoniously roughed up in the Keystone state). Not to mention Colorado College is very adept in and around the face-off circle; an area where Whittier has struggled all year (38%!).

But I do think Whittier has done a better job scheduling competitive opponents (part of this is CC being in the SCAC), and can still recapture some late-season, 2003-like mojo. Poets win, 5-4.

Coyne's Pick

No. 18 St. Lawrence (12-2) at No. 11 Union (10-3) – Friday, 4 p.m. (Liberty Semifinals)

COYNE: Another pivotal conference semifinal game with teams holding NCAA aspirations. In the first match-up of these two, St. Lawrence fell a goal short as Union's Rob Santangelo struck with 3:19 remaining in the contest to give the Dutchmen the 7-6 win. It's pretty impressive that SLU was able to stay that close considering they turned the ball over nearly twice as often as Union.

Now the Saints are left with the daunting prospect of heading to scenic Schenectady for a rematch against Sean Aaron and the Dutchmen. Is it plausible to expect anything to change? I think there is, but that's not necessarily a good thing for St. Lawrence. Aaron was just OK in the first game (six saves, six goals against) and Jeff Goeke stood on his head for SLU in the first half to keep the game closer than it probably should have been.

It'll be the Dutchmen in a much more comfortable result, 10-5.

CENSER: Two goal starved teams battling it out? Yawn.

I'm not too high on Union. I have all the respect in the world for Aaron and head coach Paul Wehrum. It's just that in May, you have to be able to score goals in bunches. You have to be able to go on runs and tilt the possession war at times. I just don't see Union being able to do that against elite teams.

That said, Aaron and the rest of the Dutchmen will hold the fort against SLU and Dave Hovey in this defensive browbeater. Union, 8-5.

Censer's Pick

Washington & Lee (10-8) at No. 3 Lynchburg (16-1) – Sunday, 1 p.m. (ODAC Finals)

COYNE: If you asked a W&L fan after the Generals got doubled up by Virginia Wesleyan, 10-5 to drop them to 6-8 and told them their team would have to win just one game to get an NCAA bid, do you think they'd take it? Even the diehards probably would have laughed at you because the Generals looked listless.

What a difference two weeks make.

The Gennies are now on a four-game winning streak, capped this past weekend by a most improbable victory over Roanoke in the ODAC semifinals, 13-8. Behind a freshman attackman from Michigan (Cameron Dabir: 2g, 2a) and a rookie goalie from Florida (Warren Berenis: 20 saves), W&L overwhelmed the Maroons and never let the hosts put together one of their patented runs.

Now the Generals must take the ride over the mountain to face third-ranked and top-seeded Lynchburg on Sunday with a bid on the line. There is some basis for W&L making a spirited run to an unlikely AQ. The Generals did it in 2009 when they upended both Lynchburg and No. 1 (and undefeated) 'Noke to grab the auto bid. Alas, I think the run ends on Sunday, although it'll set the table for 2013. Bugs, 12-10.

CENSER: Ever since getting put through the Salisbury buzzsaw in mid-February, Lynchburg has quietly gone about their business, going 16-1 and taking care of Stevenson, Noke, Cabrini and everyone else on their schedule. Whether it's Andrew Wilfong's splitting from up top, Franc Cook making saves, Dylan Hoff finishing down low, or Joe Lisicky going coast-to-coast, there's no question the Hornets have talent over the field.

The questions for the resurgent Gennies will be whether they can clear the ball (without the injured Joe LaSala) against Lynchburg's hellacious ride, score enough goals against Cook and Co., and keep getting big performances from a couple of rooks? Maybe. But I wouldn't bet on it. Lunchbag, 14-8.

Coyne v. Censer Archive

Week Eleven: Choosing a School, Not a Coach
Week Ten: Player of the Year Qualifications
Week Nine: The Death of a Rivalry?
Week Eight: Defining "Institutional Advantage"
Week Seven: Making a Case for the NCAC
Week Six: Whittier Still California Dreaming
Week Five: Finding the ODAC's Blueprint
Week Four: NESCAC's Degree of Difficulty
Week Three: Using Scheduling to Recruit
Week Two: The State of the Shoremen
Week One: Starting with a Must-Game


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