Will The AQ Wreak Havoc Or Reap Parity?

By Nelson Coffin

Getting into the men's Division I NCAA postseason this spring as a non-aligned school is going to be about as easy as shoehorning Rosie O'Donnell into a pair of Britney Spears' capri hotpants. Yep, the squeeze is on big-time due to the newly implemented, and highly controversial, automatic qualification rule. The new law of D-I land is putting pressure on the best programs to avert a worst-case scenario of being shutout from an invitation to a playoff party that used to be a birthright. Now, it will be a mad scramble for the league-less to fill six of the dozen slots not already glommed by the respective winners of the America East, Ivy League, ECAC, Patriot League, MAAC and Great Western.

Think about it. That means Johns Hopkins, Virginia, Maryland, Syracuse, Loyola, Towson, Hofstra, and Duke will play musical chairs for spots in the big dance with potential league second-place finishers, Cornell, Navy or UMass, while Stony Brook or Quinnipiac secures a bid as the Northeast Conference kingpin. "I don't believe in the automatic qualifier," Johns Hopkins Coach Dave Pietramala said in no uncertain terms. "It makes March like May. If you don't win games early, you're in a lot of trouble." Pietramala's pronouncement rang true even more after the weekend dust settled, since it appears that two of last year's Final Four combatants are in big trouble. Towson's 15-7 loss to Loyola and Yale's 15-13 shocker at Princeton have shaken both programs to their core and put a damper on postseason expectations.

That emphasis on early showdowns does have some advantages. Fans are treated to opening contests with more than bragging rights at stake. Every game is meaningful for the independents. On the other hand, putting too much stock in the stick version of March Madness could come back to haunt a team. "It puts a sense of urgency on everything you do," said Syracuse Coach John Desko, whose Orangemen needed OT to turn away Brown on Saturday. "Any little mistake can cost you. You want to get off to a good start, but you don't want to peak too early, either."

The situation is worse at D-III, or at least it was last year when Washington & Lee went 14-1 and was denied a postseason bid. That lone loss came to Hampden-Sydney, giving the Tigers the ODAC title in a huge upset. There was no playoff format in the ODAC. There is this year. That particular lesson was learned, but conference is king in D-III. "I'm all for the automatic qualifier if it doesn't come at the expense of a quality team," said then-W&L Coach Jim Stagnitta, now trying to turn around Rutgers in Division I after going 136-42 for the Generals. "The problem is it that it creates a scenario where you're not allowed to have a bad day. You don't really get an opportunity to learn from your mistakes that way."

The entire issue might have been avoided had bracket expansion been included in the AQ. This year the men's D-III did just that by unfurling to a 16-team format format, up from 14. At-large hopefuls will have only four openings, although two of them could come from power conferences like the ODAC to avoid another W&L nightmare. Division I could follow suit as early as 2003.

Virginia Coach Dom Starsia was on the committee that drew up the D-I plan, with less than gentle urging from the NCAA. Coercion might be too strong of a word. It also might be accurate. "A directive came down from the NCAA," said Starsia, whose team escaped with an 11-10 victory over Maryland Saturday. "Our NCAA rep told us it was going to be imposed on us. We felt that AQ and bracket expansion would be a best-case scenario." The latter never happened, however, leaving the big schools with big problems. "As a coach at the University of Virginia, this was not going to be a good thing for us," noted Starsia. "But there was a bigger picture here that we had to deal with, and that is that it would be better for the bottom 30 teams." Starsia elaborated on the issue. "The Patriot League, the new America East and the MAAC members were all in favor of the AQ," the coach continued. "In the long run it can be good for us, too, because it may stop a program from folding. Some of those schools now have something [an NCAA bid] to look forward to. And it's a plum for schools like Hobart and Army." And, in Starsia's view, anything that will keep, say, a New Hampshire or Vermont afloat is good for the sport.

It makes sense. Even though this old Indian game is rapidly expanding at the youth and prep levels and women's programs are proliferating (Northwestern, Stanford, Vanderbilt are the most recent major college additions), casualties like North Carolina State and Michigan State on the men's side still hurt.

As far as tournament expansion in D-I goes, or D-II or D-III for that matter, the more the merrier. Yet there's nothing merry about what's ahead for some teams this season. Just consider Towson's loss to unbeaten Loyola Saturday after dropping its other "big" games to Maryland and Virginia. A third setback to a top-10 opponent could probably means Coach Tony Seaman's Tigers will be watching others play in May. "Every game is a big game," said Seaman. "But the Loyola game for us now is about as big as they'll come. We can't lose another game."

Last year Towson captured the America East title, a trick it can't repeat because of its new affiliation with the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA has not been sanctioned for AQ status this spring. "I think it would have been fine if we had 16 teams," said Seaman about the playoff prospects. "Maybe we should have those [weaker] conferences play-in for the 12th spot this year. That way, three or four deserving teams won't get left out."

They're sporting the new REBEL/STX Uniforms!

Even Division III's Villa Julie Coach Skeet Chadwick, whose team can prosper because it has yet to lose a PAC contest, doesn't buy all the way in to the plan. "I have mixed emotions," said the former W&L All-America goalie. "I understand what they're trying to do, but it should be the best 16 teams in the playoffs and I don't think you'll have that." In D-I, supply and demand are all out of whack for the at-large squads. "You talk to any D-I at-large coach and they're all looking at their schedules wondering where the W's are going to come from," said Starsia. "I can see how Tony [Seaman] feel likes he's under a lot of pressure.

The rule is not limited to the men's game. The women are in the same boat. The AQ is good for some and not so good for others. For instance, Towson Coach Linda Ohrin is thrilled to be in the hunt for a CAA playoff tourney bid. Her Tigers (4-3, 2-2) only have to finish among the top six of the nine league members in order to make the CAA tourney. The winner gets the AQ and one of 16 NCAA slots, half of which go to at-large squads. "It creates a situation where an underdog program can make it in," said Ohrin, trying to hold on to fifth place in the CAA. "This is our only shot and we have nothing to lose."

Hopkins Coach Janine Tucker is on the other side of the fence, at least this year. The Jays' request for an AQ as a member of the American Lacrosse Conference was denied by the NCAA, despite the governing body allowing Georgetown to qualify last year under similar circumstances. The ALC will be AQ-challenged in its first year of operation. Nevertheless, Tucker thinks the rule is good. "I'd rather have two shots at the NCAA [playoffs] than one," she noted. The system will still yield uncertainty for fans and many deserving teams, whose postseason dreams plummet every time a conference favorite is knocked off and forced into the at-large sweepstakes.

Regardless, the AQ is A-OK with the NCAA. It's here to stay. "What may be good for the game in the long run may not be good from a competitive standpoint right now," said Jody Martin, US Lacrosse Men's Division Director. "There's a trend to lend credence to conference championships. But that should go hand-in-hand with expansion."