Division II Comes of Age
By Michael Spinner
In the sports world, an "upset" is a term of art often over-used to describe when an underdog topples a favorite. Was Ohio State's thrilling win over Miami in the Division I Football Championship Game in January an upset? Probably not. When you're dealing with the top-two teams in the country, it's hard to call the result an upset when both teams are considered the elite. While many people thought Miami was better, the reality is that there was not much of a difference between the two teams.
THE PURPLE KNIGHTS: Saint Michael's College (here against Bryant) is in Colchester, Vermont
Last weekend, the lacrosse world saw one of its biggest upsets, ever, when little-known St. Michael's College beat Adelphi 14-13 in overtime at King's Point, New York (story). For Division II lacrosse, this was not only an upset, but a sign of a monumental changing of the guard for a Division that has only recently begun to make a national presence. This was not the first time a Division II power fell victim to a lesser-known program. In 1999 Pace University trounced a New York Tech team that had never lost to a team ranked lower than #1 26-10; a year later Limestone stunned C.W. Post in the NCAA Championship Game; and in 2002 LeMoyne did beat Adelphi 18-9 to open the season.
However, all three of those "upsets" were by nationally ranked teams over a higher nationally ranked team. So while the favorite was expected to win, the success of the underdog was no surprise. St. Michael's over Adelphi is a completely different story. This was Douglas over Tyson or lowly Chaminade over Ralph Sampson's Virginia Cavaliers.
Real Upsets: Chaminade over Sampson's Virignia and James "Buster" Douglas over Mike Tyson
Adelphi is the most storied program in the brief history of Division II lacrosse with six National Championships, dozens of All-Americans and a certain swagger that comes with such long term success. As much success as programs such as Limestone and NYIT have achieved, they are not Adelphi yet. On the other hand, St. Michael's has spent much of its brief lacrosse history unranked and had achieved only very limited success against the elite programs in Division II. A year ago, St. Michael's lost 15-1 to LeMoyne, 19-4 to top-10 team Bryant, but did beat another top-10 team Pace 7-5.
Two weeks ago, one would have made a very safe bet that Adelphi was going to clear their bench early and often in what should have been a cakewalk against St. Michael's. This result is nothing short of shocking. In Division I terms, this is Colgate beating Syracuse or Lehigh beating Princeton. It doesn't happen. It's something that will be spoken about in Division II circles for years.And it is also one of the best things that could have happened to Division II lacrosse-a Division that has been an afterthought in the lacrosse world for all too long now.
D2 has made enormous strides in recent years as their National Championship game has evolved from a game between the top-two teams at the site of the #1 team, to a game between the top-two on a side field during Championship Weekend, to a Final Four format. In 2003, the biggest step will come for Division II as the National Championship Game will be played at Ravens Stadium as part of a doubleheader with the Division III Championship. D2 finally has its place at the table and the rising level of play across the board puts D2 in a position to take maximum advantage of the visibility.
Adelphi in 2001
St. Michael's stunning upset over Adelphi is only the latest example of a level of play that has improved and spread dramatically in an incredibly short period of time. Three years ago Division II was known as a three-team race and at the time it was thought that there was no sense in moving the National Championship Game off of Long Island since the "big three" (Adelphi, NYIT, and C.W. Post) seemed to monopolize the championship picture. While working as the Division II Editor of another lacrosse publication, my job was easy and convenient-when there was work to be done, I had to interview three coaches and that was all. Today, the picture has changed completely. For the first time teams outside of the top-10 are threats to make it to the top. DII enjoys a level of parity on par or greater than Division I and Division III.
Considering the way Division II lacrosse was treated only a few years ago-an outsider in its own sport-this development is nothing short of sensational. When the Division II Championship Game was played on a side field away from everybody else and as part of a ticket package separate from the rest of Championship Weekend, there was little doubt that the athletes and coaches from the Division II schools were slighted. As much as playing during Championship Weekend was and will always be an honor shared by few, being relegated to a side field was a slap in the face. Division II lacrosse's invitation to the 2003 center stage combined with the increased parity we are seeing makes it clear that the time has come for D2 to make a move into the lacrosse mainstream.
There is no reason why the development of Division II lacrosse should not only be accepted but embraced by the rest of the lacrosse community. After all, the lack of expansion in Division I stalled scholarship opportunities at that level while national participation in lacrosse has exploded. Division II programs offer athletes the opportunity to get a lacrosse scholarship and also see the field as freshmen. Just about every championship-caliber Division II team has a slew of freshmen making key contributions. This is an opportunity that only the nation's elite recruits sometimes enjoy at top Division I and III programs.
Limestone in 2000
Most importantly, the ascension of Division II lacrosse and the increased parity we are seeing is something, anything different in a sport where we see very little change at the top at any level. Despite Princeton's tough start in 2003 and Virginia, Maryland and Hopkins being strong, it is extremely likely that we will see yet another thrilling Princeton-Syracuse Division I final in May. Yawn. And Division III? It's been established that Middlebury is likely going to be in the Finals…will it be against Gettysburg or Salisbury? Either way, it's not too often that we see a true changing of the guard at the Division I or III levels.
RECENT HISTORY: Princeton and Syracuse trade titles (Virginia won in 1999)
Division II is a different story. While 2002 finalists Limestone and NYIT are strong enough to get back in '03, we have already seen LeMoyne topple Limestone and NYIT nearly fall victim to an upset by Wingate during the opening weeks. With St. Michael's beating Adelphi and teams such as Bryant and a loaded West Chester team still hunting, Division II in 2003 is a wide-open field. There are as many as 10 teams that could make the "Finally-Four". While it looks as if Adelphi and C.W. Post will struggle this season, I've come to know both Adelphi Head Coach Sandy Kapatos and C.W. Post Head Coach Tom Postel well enough to know that they are down but not out. Losing to St. Michaels could be exactly what Adelphi (and Long Island) needed.
Personally, I envision a LeMoyne-Limestone final, in what would be the first D2 Championship Game to not feature a Long Island team. But neither may make the post-season during what could be a crazy season in Division II lacrosse. This "unknown" in the lacrosse world is very refreshing and a lot of fun to see. Division II lacrosse is finally earning the respect it deserves with a "place at the table" in Baltimore's on Memorial Day weekend. What teams will be there? Who knows? And isn't that great!
The Photos above are from 1999-2002 and are by John Strohsacker, Lee Weissman, Brendan Chamberlain, Charles Berch and Joe Rogate.
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