Five Storylines of Division III Final Four
by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com
Cortland has won 19 straight games since a mid-March loss at TCNJ.
© Jim O'Connor
It's been five years and three "Fast and the Furious" sequels since TCNJ last won an NCAA championship, back in 2006. While much is different -- the championship has moved 30 miles east from Hoboken, N.J. to Garden City, N.Y. -- much remains the same.
Three of the final four teams from that 2006 run -- TCNJ, Cortland and Gettysburg -- return and the fourth team is a NESCAC squad. Bowdoin takes Middlebury's spot from '06 and is making its first trip to the NCAA tournament.
1. Can anyone beat TCNJ?
It looked like Franklin and Marshall might last Sunday. The host Diplomats led by five twice, the last time with 16:54 remaining, but TCNJ scored seven straight goals and ended up holding on for a 14-13 victory in the NCAA quarterfinals. The undefeated Lions have now won 20 in a row.
It was the biggest comeback of the year for TCNJ which, forget about trailing by five, had held opponents to fewer than five goals 12 times this year. TCNJ had already showed it could win close ones, outlasting Gettysburg 8-7 on April 1. Now it has shown it can erase a huge deficit.
No team has come close to putting up the dominating numbers TCNJ has this year. The Lions are first in the NCAA in goals against and 12th in goals. And with Leigh Mitchell (53 goals, 66 assists) and Ali Jaeger (63 goals, 45 assists) both ranking in NCAA's top 10 in scoring, you wonder if they could save the voters some trouble and just be named co-Players of the Year. Jaeger, a senior, graduates as TCNJ's all-time leader in points and goals. Mitchell, a junior, is already the program's assist leader.
TCNJ's offensive threats go beyond its big two. Kathleen Notos led the team with five goals against F&M, including three during that seven-goal run in the second half.
2. Bowdoin will try.
The Lions are two wins away from an undefeated season and an NCAA title. Standing in their way first are the giant killers from Bowdoin, which just handed Trinity its first loss of the season. Bowdoin also gave Wesleyan and NCAA tournament team Endicott their first losses back in March.
The Polar Bears stack up pretty well with TCNJ on defense. Bowdoin is ranked seventh in the NCAA in goals against, but has not scored as prolifically as TCNJ has.
The two schools are seven hours apart and thus draw from a different pool for non-league opponents. Stevens is their only common opponent. TCNJ beat the Ducks 17-5 on April 28; Bowdoin won 13-10 last Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Simply because it was in the NESCAC, Bowdoin faced a tougher schedule than TCNJ this season. The Polar Bears will be TCNJ's first opponent from the conference, which sent five teams to the NCAA tournament. TCNJ loaded up on non-league games against ranked opponents; Bowdoin got its ranked opponents in league play. Counting the NCAA tournament, Bowdoin faced 10 ranked opponents, TCNJ seven. TCNJ defeated the other two semifinalists. In addition to Gettysburg, the Lions defeated Cortland 12-5 on March 13.
3. Red Dragons are red hot.
TCNJ has Division III's longest winning streak, but Cortland is right behind. The Red Dragons crushed Colby 15-4 on Sunday for their 19th straight win. The last team to beat Cortland? TCNJ, which won 12-5 in the third game of the season.
Cortland beat Washington and Lee by one three days after losing to TCNJ, beat Hamilton by three two games later and hasn't won by fewer than five since. The Red Dragons are playing their best lacrosse of the season in May. They rolled over Geneseo by 15 in the SUNYAC semifinals, beat NCAA tournament qualifier Brockport by eight in the SUNYAC championship and routed Keene State 21-3 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Then they focused on conquering the NESCAC, beating Tufts 13-7 on Saturday before knocking off Colby the next day.
Cortland entered the NCAA tournament as one of Division III's most balanced teams, ranking in the top 20 for both goals and goals against. Junior midfielder Lindsay Abbott broke the school's all-time scoring record during a seven-point effort against Tufts and kept it up scoring nine points against Colby. Abbott ranks third in Division III in points with 133 and is first among NCAA tournament participants.
4. Gettysburg gets revenge
Gettysburg didn't win in as dominant a fashion as Cortland did, but did so more dramatically. The Bullets withstood a late run from defending NCAA champion Salisbury and held on for a 14-13 victory. (See highlights and interviews here.) Salisbury had eliminated Gettysburg from the previous two NCAA tournaments.
Junior Hannah Church kept her hot hand going. Her sixth goal of the night put Gettysburg up 14-10 and proved to be the game winner. Church scored six goals in the Bullets' 25-10 first round victory over Adrian and five goals in the second-round win over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
The recent offensive explosions have shown another side of Gettysberg, which ranks fifth in Division III in goals against. Junior Maddie Coleman is fifth in Division III with a .532 save percentage.
It took five years, but we'll finally see the sequel of the 2006 semifinals. Cortland and Gettysburg last met that year in Hoboken. Both teams came in undefeated and Gettysburg won 11-7. Gettysburg fell in the championship the next day to TCNJ.
This year they had two common opponents. Both lost to TCNJ. Cortland beat Hamilton by three goals; Gettysburg fell to Hamilton by four.
5. Defense won't rest.
Who knows? The 2006 championship had a twist ending. Gettysburg and Cortland each came in unbeaten and had both defeated TCNJ in the regular season. The Lions came in ranked fourth but ended up winning the whole thing. Last season, Hamilton entered undefeated but lost to one-loss Salisbury. The last undefeated national champion was Franklin and Marshall in 2007.
What can we say for sure? Defense will rule. Not only are these four of the best defenses in the country, but even when they're beat, they're backed by four of Division III's best goalies. Gettysburg's Coleman has the best save percentage of the quartet, but TCNJ's Mary Waller (.529, fifth in Division III), Bowdoin's Tara Connolly (.518, 12th ) and Cortland's Ally Levy (.517, 14th) can all change a game.