Unfamiliar Terrain: NCAA Royalty on the Tournament Bubble

By Nelson Coffin

The mightiest Division I programs have fallen and are struggling to get up. Both 1990's dynasties that have continued to wreak havoc in the new millennium are in jeopardy of not even sniffing the postseason in 2002, unless, of course, they catch fire, and some good bounces, down the stretch. Nevertheless, that will be a tall order for the seven-time defending national champion Maryland women and the Princeton men, who have walked off the field clutching a trophy after six out of the last 10 campaigns. Who woulda thunk it?

The Tigers came into the season with a number-one ranking, serious depth at every position and the cool countenance of a riverboat gambler who just drew an inside straight. Princeton is stacked better than Pamela Anderson, owing to an attack that features U.S. World Teamer Ryan Boyle picking between standouts B.J. Prager and Sean Hartofilis as recipients of crisp passes for easy layups. The midfield isn't exactly a dufus parade, with the likes of Owen Daly, Kyle Baugher, Dan Clark, Matt Trevenen, Brad Dumont and Josh White more than capable scorers in their own right. Nor are the Tigers a defensively-challenged bunch. Damien Davis, Joe Rosenbaum, Ricky Schultz, Scott Farrell and Brian Lieberman can put a collective collar on almost any opposing offense when things are going right.

Okay, goalie Julian Gould doesn't remind anybody of Scott Bacigalupo, Pat Cairns, Trevor Tierney - or Pancho Gutstein, for that matter. Still, he's not the only culprit in Princeton's anemic 5-4 start. "If people want to think that, that's fine," said Princeton Coach Bill Tierney. "We're happy with Julian. He has the fourth-best save percentage in Division I. He had a bad day against Yale but he's doing great." There are reasons why the Tigers have been unable to beat any of the current Big Three, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins or Virginia, and why Saturday's Ivy League showdown against the red-hot Big Red of Cornell is so critical. "We have a choice to either play those three teams (Virginia, Hopkins, Syracuse) or not play them and we'd be 7-2. Everybody would still say we were all right," said Tierney. "But we feel if you're going to play on Memorial Day, you'd better have a strong schedule. I don't want to make excuses but the games were early. And Yale beat us fair and square. But we feel we'll be better at the end of the year."

The 2002 team was not the favorite. They were, however, the champions.

Tierney also knows there is parity at the top. If Princeton has not slipped back to the pack, surely the pack has engulfed the Tigers to the point where their rivals are as talented as they are. That hasn't always been the case. Syracuse is the only other squad on a consistent basis that had the same quality up and down the roster of the perennial Ivy League kings. Oh sure, there were years when others were as well stocked as Tierney's troops. Virginia's 1999 NCAA champs come to mind. Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Loyola and Towson have had great squads, here and there, but haven't touched the level of consistency reached by the Pinceton-Syracuse axis of excellence. Cornell is an example of a team that has been out of the loop and has come roaring back into elite status. Yale, which ended the Tigers' 37-game winning streak in the Ivy, and Brown are better as well, making Princeton's job that much tougher. "We've made some bad coaching decisions and we haven't played well at times," Tierney added. "But we have put ourselves in a position to win the Ivy League." Should Princeton and Cornell tie for the Ivy League crown, the winner of this weekend's Big Red-Tigers match-up would get the nod as league champs by virtue of head-to-head competition. Brown, with one Ivy loss is still in the mix, as well with a 13-9 loss to Cornell and a potentially huge season finale at Princeton on April 28.

Maryland's women have pretty been in the same boat as Princeton's men, in terms of talent. The Terps owned the game's most feared performers, weaving a tapestry of Players of the Year from Kelly Amonte to Jen Adams through their unprecedented streak of capturing seven banners in succession. The caliber of those one-of-a-kind athletes put Maryland well above the rabble it dispersed every May. They don't have them now. They have fine players, yes. But, up to the Amonte-Adams gold standard? No way. Or at least, not yet. Sonia Judd, Courtney Hobbs, Kelly Coppedge, Acacia Walker, Kristie Leggio and Meredith Egan can all compete at a high level. They might just not be all-time top Terps.

There are other issues concerning Maryland, including the lack of a super stopper on defense, like last year's hammer, Courtney Martinez, to play in front of keeper Alex Venechanos, whose cardinal sin is not being 2000 National Goalkeeper of the Year and four-time champ Alex Kahoe. Even with all of its riches from bygone years, Coach Cindy Timchal has had some hurdles to cross during Maryland's monster run. There were two narrow victories in the 1997 and 2001 title games that hinted that the Terps were human. Their other five titles, on the other hand, were decided by an average of more than seven goals.

Adams and Wellington - On the sideline now

Each season that Timchal's classes added another trophy or undefeated season to the legend, the distance the next "average" Terps team would invariably appear to plummet has increased. This season has been a reality check for the Terps, who have fallen back to earth with a thud. They are a shocking 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and have also been humbled at home by Ohio State. A loss at James Madison is another scar on Maryland's 8-6 record. The Terps have shown sign of life lately, pummeling William & Mary 21-11 before Saturday's 13-8 must-win over John Hopkins. Still, there is work to be done. Key contests in this weekend's ACC Tournament, at Princeton (April 24) and at Loyola (April 27) beckon. One more loss could knock Maryland from the tightrope it must walk to reach the playoff portal.

They're sporting the new REBEL/STX Uniforms!

"We don't really talk about it," said Timchal, an incredible 200-18 in 12 years in College Park with nine championships. "Because we don't want to put too much pressure on ourselves. We're just really believing in ourselves, even not knowing what it's going to take [to make the NCAA tourney]. We're moving along and getting ready to play our next game."

A Gatorade soaked Timchal with Hobbs and Eagan in 2001

Sophomore Coppedge, who helped ground the Blue Jays with four assists, professed to not even understand the selection process for lacrosse's May Madness. "I don't really know what it takes," said Coppedge, adhering to Maryland's one-game-at-a-time mantra. "We just know that 6-6 wasn't good enough." Timchal hasn't really had much experience envisioning bubble scenarios. She seems as perplexed about the criteria as anybody. "We don't know how the committee will pick," said Timchal. "We don't know yet about how the AQs (automatic qualifiers) will affect things." Of the 16 tourney bids, half will go to the conference winners. That leaves eight slots and not much wiggle room for the Terps. "We haven't even thought about the ACC's yet," said Hobbs in a marked Aussie accent. "Of course we feel the pressure. But we're not letting it get to us." Timchal and assistant Gary Gait feel the Terps have the elements to make it eight straight. "Gary keeps saying this is a great team," Timchal offered. "We have a lot of one-goal losses (5) and that should help us pull it together. But if our best isn't good enough, then we can walk off the field feeling very good about ourselves."