March 20, 2012

Schooling Schooler: Will the Dawgs Break Through?

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter


Senior attackman Kevin Gaydos (above) is Minnesota-Duluth's top gun (17 goals). Whether he, and the rest of the Bulldogs, can negotiate their way past the quarterfinals of the MCLA championships is the program's next test.
© Cecil Copeland

By most standards, Minnesota-Duluth would have to be considered among the traditional elites of the MCLA. They play as tough a schedule as any program in the country, and there are only six other teams that have more than the Bulldogs nine appearances in the national tournament – BYU, Colorado, Colorado State, Simon Fraser, Sonoma State and UC Santa Barbara.

If it's not elite, Duluth sure is running in elite company, anyway.

The only knock on the Dawgs is they have never had a breakthrough season along the way. Five of the six aforementioned teams have a national championship to their credit, and Simon Fraser made it to the national championship game in 1999. Duluth, on the other hand, has never advanced past the quarterfinal round, and exited in the first round in five of the nine years. They came close to the semis in both 2007 (losing to Oregon) and 2008 (ASU), but the Bulldogs have never made it to the big stage.

Sometimes you can pinpoint deficiencies with some programs and easily pick up on why they aren't having success, but Duluth doesn't outwardly exhibit any of them. They are clearly a serious team, as their schedule displays on an annual basis, and they have had coaching continuity. While Rob Graff, the architect of the team, stepped down two years ago, he was replaced by his acolyte, Frank Clark, who made only cursory changes to the way the program was run. And there's definitely talent – every year the All-American teams are littered with UMD players

So what is holding the Dawgs back?

I would argue that they are being leashed by their conference. The Upper Midwest Lacrosse League is currently a six-team entity that rarely has a team other than Duluth make an impact on the national scene. Mankato State received a bid back in 2000 and Minnesota snagged the UMLL auto-qualifier in 2005, but forays to other regions by those two teams this season have not been pretty (combined 2-5). And just two years ago, the conference actually had to contract as both Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wisconsin-Stevens Point folded.

With a weak conference comes weak seeds, and Duluth has lived and died with its match-ups at nationals. The Dawgs have been a 14-seed or worse four times and they were wiped out in the first round each time. Four times they were a sixth seed or better, and each one of those resulted in a trip to the quarterfinals.

To their credit, UMD has always played a grueling non-conference schedule to make up for its conference shortcomings, but that means the margin of error is very small. If you can't pick up a signature win along the way, you're not going to make up for it in conference play like schools in the SLC and RMLC have the ability to do.

This season has played out to form, with four comfortable wins against UMLL teams followed by consecutive losses to the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 teams in the country. Barring a sweep this weekend in the desert against Arizona State and Colorado, the Dawgs will once again be flirting with the No. 16 seed.

Nick, you've seen Duluth over the years and you watched them play Santa Barbara this spring. Is there something I'm missing, or is the conference just not strong enough to give the Dawgs what they need right now?

SCHOOLER: For the 12 years that I have been following this league, Minnesota-Duluth has been one of the most charismatic teams out there.

In high school, I remember talking to my dad, an MCLA fanatic, on the phone when he was watching the national championships in St. Louis. He was telling me about this team from Minnesota that only had 17 or so players. He said they tried so hard, but were just run down by the other teams. He also said that they looked pretty good, but seemed to have a lot of box lacrosse influence in their game. That was their first year in the tournament.

The Bulldogs have come a long way since that time, consistently fielding teams with 30-plus players, including a handful of goalies. They continue to take on the top teams in order to make a better run at the national championship title. In recent years, they have put together some of the toughest in the league. They participate in at least one top-tier round-robin type trip every year and have a grueling travel schedule.

I remember one such round-robin trip back in 2004 at the University of Michigan. There were four teams: Michigan, Colorado State, UCSB, and Minnesota-Duluth. The 'Dawgs were trounced by all three teams while Michigan delivered UCSB's only loss of the season, CSU beat Michigan, and UCSB beat CSU. Duluth was like a younger brother playing with his older brother and his friends; they were outmatched.

This is not the case anymore. The little brother grows up; he gets bigger and stronger and the playing field levels out. What I saw out of Duluth in Santa Barbara last week was just that. They looked pretty good – definitely better than their No. 16 ranking. Their goalie was solid. The coaching was on point, locking off the UCSB middies with long-poles and shutting down the attack with shorties. While I still see a little box lacrosse influence in their game, all of their players can handle the ball and rip quality shots from outside. They just ran out of gas in the second half. That has been a theme for them early on this season - great first halves, poor second halves.

What I see lacking in their game are two things: endurance and facilities. These are not mutually exclusive. After the game, I heard some parents talking about the facilities that the Bulldogs use.

Because of the extreme weather in the Midwest, they have to practice in a fieldhouse. They only have access to a half-field for practice. That has to make conditioning an issue. How can you get used to running up and down a field if you only have half of one? You can't. It also limits the amount of time each player gets to see field time in practice. Many teams will focus on defense on one half of the field and offense on the other half. Duluth cannot do that.

Most importantly, the Bulldogs do not have many home games. Looking over their past schedules, I notice that they only have one to two home games per season at home in Griggs Stadium. Occasionally they will host a team in Minneapolis, but that is just like a road trip.

You gain a lot of confidence by winning at home. The support of your friends and family at games is important. When you know the cute girl from your writing or biology class is watching, you may put a little more effort into the game. You want to impress people in your social circles.

Goaltender Joey Slattery was one of three Duluth first-team All-Americans last year. He returns again to lead the Dawgs.
© Cecil Copeland 

So until Duluth can find a home field or raise the millions of dollars to build a field house, they will have trouble competing with the best and succeeding at nationals. But if they ever break past the quarterfinals, we will all be rooting for them because we know how tough it is for them.

To the games (where Nick is 19-11 and Jac is 16-14 after Coyne picked up a game)...

Uh, oh...it's a 10-game speed round...

No. 10 Buffalo (2-0) at No. 22 Pittsburgh (6-0-1) – Friday, 7 p.m.

COYNE: I'm intrigued by this Pitt team, and this weekend is the first chance to prove just how strong they are (the Panthers play CCLA rival Michigan State on Saturday). The Bulls' win over Clemson was good enough to sell me. Buffalo, 14-9.

SCHOOLER: No question about this one. Pitt has not done anything special this season. Buffalo set the bar high and has so far played to the level we expected. Bulls win, 10-7.

No. 4 Cal Poly (6-1) at No. 1 Colorado State (6-0) – Friday, 7 p.m. MT

COYNE: When I correspond with CSU head coach Alex Smith, he displays the same quiet cockiness that John Paul had in his last couple of (MCLA) years in Ann Arbor. It's easy to see why, as there aren't many holes in the lineup and Greyson Konkel hasn't played up to speed yet. If this game was in SLO, I actually might take a flyer on the 'Stangs just to see if I could make up some ground, but not at altitude. Rams, 7-4.

SCHOOLER: Colorado State has not lost a game in Fort Collins since the 2010 season and that was against the eventual national champs, Michigan. Until they play UCSB on March 29, I will pick the Rams to win at home, 9-7.

No. 16 Minnesota-Duluth (4-4) at No. 8 Arizona State (5-3) – Friday, 7 p.m. MT

COYNE: If the Bulldogs had shown just a slightly higher proficiency on the offensive end of the field, I'd go with Duluth. As it is, they are going to play a style of game that will accentuate all of the Sun Devils strengths. ASU, 5-4.

SCHOOLER: The Bulldogs do a lot of traveling due to their lack of full-field space. It has to hurt in the short-term, but will pay off during the national championships in May. Playing in Scottsdale will be no different for Duluth. They have struggled to put together a complete game, and this will be no different. The Sun Devils win this, 7-4.

No. 2 Dayton (6-0) at No. 5 Davenport (4-3) – Saturday, 3 p.m.

COYNE: This game lost a little bit of its punch after the defending champs picked up a pair of losses over the weekend, but there's still plenty on the line, especially in regards to the CCLA tournament seedings. The Panthers have their backs against the wall to some degree, which makes them even more dangerous, but I'm going with the Flyers, 11-10.

SCHOOLER: Davenport struggled at the St. Louis Invitational, but I expect them to bounce back with a home win against a tough Dayton team. Panthers win 9-7. By the way, still getting first place votes after losing two in a row? What is going on in the D-II polls?

COYNE: I didn't think you cared about D-II, bro...

Wisconsin (1-4) at Indiana (2-2) – Saturday, 4 p.m. CT

COYNE: These two B1G teams appear to be going in different directions at this point. From the opening season loss to Iowa through this past weekend's wipeout at the hands of BYU, the Badgers are fading away quickly from their promising season last spring. The Hoosiers are on a two-game skid, but are playing high-end competition and have already matched their win total from last year. Things are looking up in Bloomington. It's a tough call, but I'll go with the hometown team. Mustelids, 8-7 (ot).

SCHOOLER: This is a typical speed-round game: we have no idea what to think of these two teams. Wisconsin may be suffering from some injuries and Indiana seems to be a more well-rounded team. Neither team is playing at home, so I will go with Hoosiers, 10-7.

No. 7 Oregon (6-2) at No. 3 BYU (9-1) – Saturday, 7 p.m. MT

COYNE: The Cougars have flipped a switch since their California trip, but this will be the first true test of their new approach. The Ducks will make them work, but it'll be BYU at the end. Cougs, 12-10.

SCHOOLER: I think BYU is better than people think. They started their season with a bunch of away games and struggled a bit. Now they are back in Provo. Oregon is a great team, as well. I see them keeping the game close, but coming up short, 14-13.

No. 16 Minnesota-Duluth (4-4) vs. No. 17 Colorado (3-3) – Sunday, 12 p.m. MT (at Tempe, Ariz.)

COYNE: In addition to all of the things we've written about Duluth, Frank Clark is not afraid of the "double-down." While they get a down day on Saturday, the Dawgs will be facing a fully rested Buffs squad on Sunday. CU is off to a slow start in John Galvin's resurrection year, but they Buffaloes look like the pieces might be starting to come together. I'll take Colorado in a grinder, 4-3.

SCHOOLER: These two teams seem to have the same problems. They cannot finish games. Colorado is a young team and they will figure this out in time, but until they get more experience, I am going with the scrappy Bulldogs, 8-6.

No. 10 Buffalo (2-0) vs. No. 13 Michigan State (2-1) – Sunday, 1 p.m. (at Pittsburgh, Pa.)

COYNE: The Bulls have looked great and Sparty has looked a little shaky so far, so our boy Nick will be riding Buffalo. Is he right? I don't think so. After a couple of weeks to work out the kinks, State will be ready. Sparty, 12-10.

SCHOOLER: The Spartans are another team that has been hanging on to their success from last season. Buffalo, on the other hand, has gone out and beat a quality team in Clemson, just like they said they would. They were also beating an improving Florida State team before the game was called off and canceled due to thunderstorms. I'm taking the Bulls, 8-6.

Simon Fraser (3-5) vs. No. 19 Loyola Marymount (6-3) – Sunday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: I think this game will play out much like Illinois' game with the Clan last weekend. It'll be lower scoring than expected and the Lions will be lulled into a false sense of security by Fraser's pedestrian record, only to watch Team Canada find the goals it needs. Clansmen, 10-6.

SCHOOLER: My SLC love leaves me inclined to go with the Lions. So I will go ahead and do that. LMU wins, 10-5.

Santa Clara (7-4) at No. 23 Florida State (8-4), 7 p.m., Monday

COYNE: Just can't see the Broncos making that trip and beating a cornered Seminoles squad. FSU, 13-7.

SCHOOLER: The Seminoles are having a crazy season. I am not sure what to think of them. Santa Clara has not done anything to show me that they can win this game either. So I am taking the home team here. 'Noles win 9-6.

Schooling Schooler Archive
Week Six: The MCLA's Internecine Snobbery
Week Five: Finally, the Buffaloes Stampede
Week Four: Spartans Make Their Stand
Week Three: Wither the Sun Devils?
Week Two: Nick's Bittersweet Weekend
Week One: Time to Feed the Ego


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