posted 02.05.2013 at 2.01 p.m. by Jac Coyne

NCAA Division III Notebook

They set the bar for first-year programs last spring, but now Jake Plunket and his Albright squad are entering their sophomore year. It's likely to be a little rockier than the inaugural campaign that produced a 16-3 record and a trip to the MAC Commonwealth title game.

With Cortland and Stevenson — the two top teams in the country — on the docket and opponents no longer looking past the upstart program, a new reality has set in.

"The players know last year was unlike any year," Plunket said. "We've had a lot of success against some good teams, but they also know that the schedule needs to be amped up a little bit. They need to be challenged because it doesn't get any easier down the road. We've got No. 1 [Cortland] in the first game of the season and then down the road we've got No. 2 [Stevenson]. Not bad for a second-year program, I guess."

Plunket has no illusions about the difficulty of this season's journey, but he has been buoyed by the addition of another recruiting class. The rookies are not only adding depth, but they are also eliminating any lingering thoughts of entitlement from the returners.

"Last year, we only had one class of guys to push each other," Plunket said. "Now we have this new class coming in and we have so much more depth at the defensive position. We have two guys who are knocking at the door to come in and play. We have a bunch of good middies and a couple of transfers who have been tearing it up. So the guys have to constantly step up every day as sophomores. If they take a practice off, there are a bunch of freshmen who are hungry and they smell the blood because they know that the opportunity is there to play. It's good to create that competitive rivalry on the field and it pushes the practices. We didn't see that last year, so it's refreshing."

The returners are motivated by the way the '12 season ended. Despite the magical ride, Albright coughed up a 5-0 lead against Widener — a team the Lions defeated in the regular season — in the conference championship game, and it happened in front of packed house that had embraced their success.

"We had a stadium filled with 2,000 people. At the beginning of the season, we might have had 30 people," Plunket said. "The community didn't know much about the sport yet and we were getting our feet wet on campus, but then after all the success we got a lot of support. It did kind of leave a bad taste in our mouth.

"We went into the locker room after the game and nobodywas happy about it. We go into this season, and now we use that last game as motivation to get ready for this season. We know that it isn't going to get any easier. We grew up last year and we took our bumps and bruises, but now it's time to see what we're made of. We'll see what those freshmen learned over the last year and the experience they gained."

Plunket blends an odd combination of realism and optimism in his coaching style. He's been around lacrosse long enough to keep him on an even keel, but has an excitement about his school and program that allows him to enjoy the ride.

That ride starts on Feb. 23 when Cortland comes to town. Plunket was raised in Cortland before winning two national titles at Syracuse as a team captain, and was an assistant at Cortland after graduation, so he knows what he is getting into. Still, he sees the match-up with the Red Dragons as a win-win proposition.

"We'll get the college out here and the recruits out here. I grew up in Cortland, so a bunch of my friends and family are coming down and they'll probably root for Cortland," said Plunket with a laugh. "But it's all good. At the end of the day, we'll tailgate, have fun and it'll be a great event."

- Last month I posted a long story about the impact of the early recruiting efforts by Division I lacrosse coaches on Division III, using the feedback of many of the top coaches in the D-III ranks. After former Division III players Sam Bradman (Salisbury) and Mike Simon (Stevenson) stole the show at Champion Challenge for Team USA, Richie Meade summed up a key aspect of my story with his postgame quote in a story by LM's Corey McLaughlin.

"[Bradman] is a good player. Simon is another guy that came from Division III who we're all shaking our heads at, trying to figure out where we were several years ago when he was being recruited," Meade said. "There are a lot of good players. Guys develop at different times."

- RIT head coach Jake Coon confirmed that sophomore Brendan MacDonald will not be playing for the Tigers this spring after a spectacular rookie campaign in which he was second on the team in points with 33 goals and 17 assists. It's certainly a blow to RIT, which now will be without the services of four of the top five scorers from last year's team heading into one of the stiffest schedules in the country...Stevenson is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on its waiver application for another year of eligibility for midfielder Nick Rossi. Rossi had 20 goals and nine assists out of the midfield for the Mustangs in '12...the Division III season kicks off on Friday when Rhodes entertains Southwestern at 3 p.m. There are three games scheduled for Saturday.

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