May 16, 2012

Break's Over: Rollins Heads to National Tournament

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com | Championships Set in Louisville

Erica Pagliarulo (45 goals, five assists) and the Rollins Tars have played just two games since April 11. On Thursday they play their biggest game of the season in the NCAA Division II semifinals against West Chester in Louisville, Ky.
© Jim Hogue

It's an unfortunate fact of life when you're a top independent in the state of Florida: teams love to visit in February, not so much in May.

Rollins, which is gearing up for Thursday's NCAA Division II women's lacrosse semifinals, has played just two games since April 11.

All that rest worked out this year for the Tars (15-1), who entered the tournament as the South region's No. 1 seed and will face third-seeded West Chester (15-3) on Thursday in at 11 a.m. in Louisville, Ky. The Tars were hurting physically by the end of their season, the most successful in program history, and coach Dennis Short said the rest has the group playing its best lacrosse of the year.

"I don't like it necessarily, but it worked out well this week," Short said in a phone interview. "It's kind of been a good mental break, knowing we were in. They can relax and focus on academics. They actually had the best practice of the year this past week. It's nice to have no other focus but lacrosse."

An extended break came in handy for Rollins, which last played on April 29, a 14-13 loss at Regis, but that doesn't mean the Tars won't try to add some late-season games in the coming years.

Rollins is certain to become a perennial playoff team, and not just because Division II plans to go to an eight-team format next season. The Tars had won 17 in a row dating back to last year before falling to Regis. They're in their fifth year as a program and the current seniors are the first recruited players to go all the way through the program. This season Rollins ranks first in Division II in goals per game (18.38) and fourth in goals against (7.94) and has wins over Limestone, Lock Haven and Stonehill.

That trend is sure to continue as the Tars graduate just five seniors. So while stars like Cat Kelley (38 goals, team-high 16 assists), Tori Snow (20 goals, three assists) and Courtney Bianculli (team-high 65 ground balls) will move on, tons of talent returns. That includes leading scorer Erica Pagliarulo (45 goals, five assists) and goalie Elyse De Lisle.

Still, while Rollins should prepare to perennially play games in mid-May, scheduling opponents for late-April and early-May will continue to prove difficult.

As an independent, Rollins does not have the benefit of a conference tournament offering built in tune-ups before the NCAAs. Two of Division II's remaining four teams, West Chester and Le Moyne, played in conference tournaments in the regular season's last weekend. C.W. Post had no conference tournament, but met Dowling in a de facto ECC championship game on the second-to-last day of the regular season.

West Chester, which plays in the PSAC, has played three games against tough competition since Rollins' last game and the Rams have played 10 games since April 11.

"We're probably the first independent to reach the tournament," Short said. "It's tough to get games after April 15. With Conference Carolina and PSAC and Northeast-10 tournaments, 75-80 percent of teams want to focus on that. They don't want to throw a team like Rollins on its schedule."

The obvious fix would be the Sunshine State Athletic Conference adding women's lacrosse. Currently Rollins, Florida Southern and Saint Leo are the only league schools to offer the sport. It would take the addition of at least two more Sunshine State teams to make that a reality.

Another fix could be playing the other Florida teams more than once. The Tars took on first-year program Saint Leo twice this season, but Short said he's been unable to secure Florida Southern for a late-season rematch.

Playing twice could benefit Florida Southern as much as Rollins. Despite going 12-5 with a win over Mercyhurst, Florida Southern did not crack the top 5 of the NCAA's South Region rankings, mostly due to the superior strength of schedule possessed by PSAC teams. Next year, in its second year as a program, Florida Southern should be a contender for the South's final playoff spot. Even losing twice to a team like Rollins would help Florida Southern's case.

"I don't guarantee that they would have two losses against us," Short said. "They're doing a great job."

So is Rollins. Now the Tars have to kick back in gear after not playing for more than two weeks. So what's the approach?

Even with all the rest, Short did not head up to South Carolina to watch Saturday's first round game between Limestone and West Chester. Short said he doesn't scout opponents anymore.

"People think I'm lying about that," he said.

Rollins instead focuses on itself, deploying its high-intensity double-team defense regardless of opponent. By focusing on their own strategy instead of their opponents, the Tars dictate most games by not allowing teams to set up and deploy their own offensive strategies. It has worked on both ends as Rollins' fourth-ranked defense helps set up its top-ranked offense.

"We pride ourselves on doing a lot of things differently," Short said. "We pressure out everywhere. I hear all the time, 'You can't do that, you can't leave someone open in the middle of the eight.' We do get burned sometimes. If we lose they'll say that's a stupid strategy... We had our most successful year and we pretty much said 'this is who we are.'"

Rollins faced West Chester last season and lost and 15-11. The Tars wouldn't lose again for another 372 days. Needless to say they're a different team today.

"It's a completely different defense," Short said. "We used to kind of sit back and kind of protect the eight. That never worked against West Chester."

Mark Macyk has covered Division II and III women’s lacrosse for Lacrosse Magazine since 2011. He can be contacted at markmacyk@gmail.com.


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