California Dreamin'

By Michael Spinner

It would be more than just a huge story. It would be history in the making. A California team has a legitimate chance to do what was only thought possible of an east coast school. Whittier College is a serious National Championship contender. They are almost to the point of being deemed a favorite to go all the way. And it couldn't come at a better time.

It's hard to tell exactly how far the Poets will go in 2003. They are impressively perched atop the LaxPower Power rankings which include strength of schedule. Beating ranked teams Hampden-Sydney, Eastern Connecticut State, and Roanoke convincingly is proof that Whittier can play with the big boys and when combined with Whittier's near upset of Middlebury in the 2002 post-season, it is clear that a run to Baltimore is certainly in the cards. However, the upper echelon of Division III seems to be a very narrow field in 2003 and without Salisbury, Middlebury, or Gettysburg on the schedule, we may not be really sure how great team this team is until the post-season. However, in the meantime, we can dare to dream. We can hope that this story comes to fruition. We can root for the "outsiders" to make it to the top. We can envision what a Whittier National Champion would mean for our sport and its expansion.

Whittier HAS to bring a National Championship to the West Coast. In this era of lacrosse predictability, a title for the Whittier Poets could give tremendous energy to what already looks like a burgeoning new age for the sport on the west coast. When you think about it, since 1998 only three Division III teams have advanced to the championship game-Middlebury, Salisbury, and Gettysburg. It's about time that we can look at a team that was a mere unknown only a few years ago and use our imagination a bit. Not since we first heard of Middlebury on the lacrosse scene more than seven years ago did we have a squad that brought more intrigue to the field that Whittier is bringing. This is exciting stuff and with each win the Poets pile up, they get one step closer to making history.

Here are five reasons why Whittier must go all the way:

1. Poetic Justice:
Very few mainstream media publications give more than nominal coverage to lacrosse with the exception being the "big story." A California team winning a lacrosse National Championship can certainly expect to bring some major attention-well, at least major attention in college sports terms. A few years ago Queens College in New York City advanced to the Division I Water Polo Final Four-a sport thoroughly dominated by West Coast teams. The presence of the sports media was just incredible with small articles in Sports Illustrated, a blurb in Time Magazine, and others. Whittier's presence in the NCAA Championship may bring about similar (or better) coverage. Can you see Chris Berman on ESPN taking about the "Poets"? That's positive publicity for the sport as a whole.

2. The West Coast Offense:
Dave Schaller was the offensive coordinator for the Poets in 2002 and they were ranked second in scoring offense nationally. This year he took over the program when Doug Locker (credited for Whittier's rise) became the Director of Athletics at nearby Notre Dame de Namur University and the Poets are averaging 20.6 goals a game. This is a fun team to watch and an endorsement for run and gun lacrosse. The top of the Division III rankings has a split between the up-tempo (Salisbury, Middlebury) and the slow-down (Gettysburg, W&L). A run-and-gun final would be fantastic and a Whittier victory can be a message that an up-tempo style is the way to build a program.

3. Go West, Young Man:
Having an NCAA Tournament game on the West Coast a year ago generated a ton of excitement in California. Imagine what an NCAA title would do? While women's lacrosse at the College level is thriving in California, the men's game is in its infancy with Whittier and next year's program at Notre Dame de Namur. We may never see men's programs at college such as Stanford and UCLA, but there are many small schools on the left coast seeking higher enrollment while local lacrosse booms at the youth and High School levels. Beyond that, all those kids would have a local team to look up to as an ultimate success story and less mileage to travel in thier lax daydreams.

Dave Schaller's Poets are 10-0 and average 20.6 goals per game

4. Best Nickname in Division III:
There's just something very intriguing about having a team named "The Poets" winning the National Championship in a sport as rough and physical as lacrosse. Panthers and Bullets invoke certain images of a rugged lacrosse team. "Poets" has a certain "renaissance man" quality to it, especially if they win it all.

Doug Locker retired, leaving Whittier in great shape for the future

5. Something new, Something different:
Let's face it, nobody wants to see the same teams over and over and over again in the hunt. New is always exciting. Remember all the intrigue when Towson and Notre Dame made the Division I semifinals two years ago? There was a certain stir caused by having "new" teams in the mix. Last year, the fact that a team west of the Mississippi hosted a playoff game was one of the biggest stories of the year in all of lacrosse. A National Championship out west would be even bigger. When Middlebury first advanced to the Finals in 1998, the prevailing sentiment was that it was a good thing. Middlebury was new while the team they eliminated in the semifinals (Nazareth) had been in the Championship game several times. Well, Middlebury is not so new anymore. It's time for another new face to enter - stage left.

We will not know until playoff time if Whittier is truly the contender they seem to be, but with every passing week, it appears the Poets have a better shot. For the sake of our sport and its expansion and for the excitement of what should be an amazing Championship Weekend - let's hope so. Whittier is the one team out there that can make the 2003 season something truly special. A lot can be gained if this upstart marches victorious from Baltimore…more so than other Division III contenders. If a Washington College or W&L wins Division III, it's another traditional powerhouse taking a turn at the top. But Whittier College is, for now, a new kid on the block-a bona fide outsider-and their presence at the top of the heap can prove beneficial to the future of lacrosse at every level.

UPDATE: The weekend we published this story Whittier beat Pfeiffer 24 - 2 and St. Andrew's 24 - 10. The Whittier cummulative score for the 2003 season thus far is 206 - 69 in 10 games - all wins.

The LaxPower Power Rankings for DIII (March 28, 2003)

Photos by John Strohsacker.

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