College Lacrosse: Regular Season Wrap-Up
By Michael Spinner
I haven't had a chance to sit down and do this for a while, but on the eve of lacrosse's "May Madness", I wanted to take an opportunity to reflect on what has been more than a memorable season. At all levels of the sport we have been awed, we have been entertained, and for the most part we have been surprised by many of the results that have come in on a weekly basis. We have been thrilled by some of the closest competition in history and we have been amazed by several upsets-particularly in men's Division I lacrosse.
We have also been touched by personal tragedy at several places and we have been inspired by the plight of the Loyola College Women's Lacrosse team as the heroic efforts of their Head Coach has been covered across the country and around the world.
All and all, 2003 has been everything we expect (and in many cases what we failed to expect) and with the Men's Championships set to be decided at perhaps the greatest lacrosse venue imaginable, we still have much to look forward to. It's been a great season, it should be a better post-season, and when all is said and done, expect to hear about 2003 for many years to come.
But is there a college lacrosse "Story of the Year"? Is there one event, athlete, or team that has so compelled us all that will allow it to stand out as what captured our imagination above all else? The short answer is "no." To even think about one single story to rise above the rest would fail to do justice to everybody else who has made the headlines. There have been too many headlines to select just one and maybe even too many to list here. But, as usual, I'll do my best. To kick off the post-season, here is a look at some of the biggest headlines that made the regular season memorable and will allow us to look forward to the post-season:
· A season nearly lost: Although the story itself found a way to be erased from the headlines, I think the lacrosse community needs to take a moment to congratulate Yale Interim Men's Lacrosse Coach Darryl Delia on a job very well done during the 2003 season. Just days before Spring practice was set to begin, the lacrosse community was stunned by the sudden resignation of long-time Head Coach Mike Waldvogel. Just days later, Yale took another hit when Goalie Eric Wenzel was involved in a tragic car accident that killed several young men from Yale. Losing the leadership provided by a Head Coach with the longevity of Waldvogel and a goalie like Wenzel could basically end the season for most teams. But the Yale squad rose above it all and finished the season at 9-5, including a win over a much improved NCAA bound Penn State team and Patriot winner Army, and very close losses to UMass and Ivy League Champ Dartmouth.
To finish 9-5, provide a stiff challenge to some of the best competition in the country, and produce some argument for a post-season bid in the face of the adversity the Yale program has endured is a testimony to the young men and leadership of this program. I have known Darryl Delia for a few years now and I consider him one of the finest people I have ever met in this sport. This summer, the Yale Head Coaching position will open and the assumption is that there will be a search for a new Coach. As far as I am concerned, Delia has more than proven that Yale already has its Head Coach and Delia deserves to have his title made permanent.
Terrible Tragedies: I know I am going to miss at least one headline in this list, and apologies for not being thorough, but it is important to remember the several tragedies that the lacrosse world suffered this season. Before the season, Manhattanville College Team Captain Jason Massett was killed in a car accident. During the season, Wesley College Head Coach David Reynolds was killed in a surfing accident. Christopher Jenkins, the Minnesota Goalie and team leader went missing last fall and despite the efforts of thousands in Minneapolis, no substantial clues were found until February when his body was pulled from the Mississippi River. We have also heard of several alumni of the Army Lacrosse program who were wounded in action while serving our country in Iraq and many others who played high school lacrosse before making the ultimate sacrifice in uniform. For many in our community, the competition on the field was secondary to the pain felt this season in the face of tragedy. Wesley College responded in fine fashion by advancing to the PAC Finals while Manhattanville finished .500 for the second straight season. Both teams honored the memories of those lost in fine fashion with their efforts. As a volunteer Assistant at Manhattanville this season, I can not begin to tell you how proud I am of those young men for honoring Jason with the season they had.
Dianne Aikens on the Loyola Sideline
Uplifting Motivation: I had the opportunity to meet Loyola College Women's Head Coach Diane Geppi-Aikens a year and a half ago while recruiting at what was considered a minor Fall HS Tournament in Pennsylvania. The very fact that Aikens was there to scout the talent was amazing in itself as no program that even approached the level that Loyola has reached was represented there. But Aikens was there and even more impressive than her presence was the way she handled herself and represented her program. She was a true professional that day and certainly made many fans of Loyola Lacrosse. Since then, those who have followed the plight of Aikens have learned that she has been a true professional every day and a great friend to many. Early in the Winter, it was revealed that Aikens is suffering from a brain tumor that can not be operated on. Since then Aikens has amazed us all with her courage and strength and she has inspired her team to enjoy one of its finest seasons, ever, including a #1 ranking. Loyola has been to several Final Fours during Aikens's tenure, but never has taken the next step and all indications are that the Greyhounds are meant to be this season. Despite her condition, Aikens has been there for nearly every practice and game and remains the driving force behind her team's success. She has also maintained a positive attitude that is an inspiration in itself as documented in every publication from the Baltimore Sun to Sports Illustrated. Aikens' legacy will be one of strength, courage, and inspiration as her fight has motivated what must be a terrific group of young ladies to such heights. I know who I'm rooting for in the post-season in Women's Division I lacrosse.
Changing of the Guard: For fans of Division II Lacrosse, the 2003 season has been a whirlwind as the old guard seems to be crumbling to dust. There was a time when the nation's top Division II teams depended on how the Long Island based NYCAC Conference was seeded. C.W. Post, New York Institute of Technology, and Adelphi were the "big three" and everybody else did not matter. Only a few years later, some new faces have not only risen, but also surpassed the mighty threesome as the Northeast-10 seems to be the cream of the 2003 crop. Undefeated LeMoyne is the nation's #1 team as they beat defending Champs Limestone and upended C.W. Post this season. NE-10 runner-up #3 Pace took LeMoyne to overtime in April and #4 Bryant did the same to Pace in March. Pace also took #2 NYIT to overtime to start their season for first year Head Coach John Jez. St. Michael's is unranked and did not even qualify for the NE-10 tournament, but they did topple Adelphi in March in what had to be one of the biggest upsets in D2 history. As the season ends, NYIT is still a power and Adelphi is still strong, but neither are anything as powerful as they used to be. C.W. Post has seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth and are unranked for the first time in team history. The face of D2 lacrosse has changed and change is good. The parity among the top-10 is fantastic right now and fun to watch. Having played for Jez at Pace having become friends with LeMoyne Coach Dan Sheehan and many of the top Division II Coaches over the years, it is simply incredible to see what has happened in Division II this season. D2 is finally getting the respect it deserves (including its Championship Game in the Big Stadium in May) and it is about time.
Army's Jack Emmer
All Time Winner: It is almost too appropriate that Army Head Coach Jack Emmer would become the all-time Division I wins leader this season. After all, when was the last time we played a lacrosse season in the midst of war? As Sports Illustrated recently documented, there are several Army lacrosse grads leading the charge in Iraq and it seemed like perfect timing that Emmer earned his honor during this time. Jack Emmer's spot at the top of the wins list is not just a testimony to his skill as a Coach but more so the integrity with which he coaches. Emmer is as much a fiery warrior as ever before on the field, but off the field he stands for everything that the United States Military Academy embodies. He is one of the classiest individuals in the sport and has remained one of the most approachable and likable head coaches in the country. As much as Army has all of the advantages and facilities in the world, coaching at a military academy can not be easy because of the limited number of athletes to recruit. Yet, Emmer remains devoted to the Academy through thick and thin and he is still one of those people who represent everything great about lacrosse. Last summer, Emmer led a young and inexperienced Team USA to the World Championship. This season he earned perhaps the most coveted coaching honor in the sport. And, he will top it all off by taking Army to the NCAA Tournament. Just goes to show you that good things do come to those who deserve it.
Rutgers' Jim Stagnitta
Speaking of good people…: There are two people who should share the Division I Coach of the Year honors in Men's Lacrosse for 2003. Although Rutgers Head Coach Jim Stagnitta is a shoo-in, Hofstra Coach John Danowski should be a very close second. Both Stagnitta's and Danowski's efforts deserve some of the biggest headlines for the 2003 season. Stagnitta needs little mention for what he has done at Rutgers. 2-12 a year ago, Stagnitta's squad finished 2003 10-4, including shocking upsets over Navy, Syracuse, and UMass. 2003 was clearly an "up" year for the ECAC, so the season Rutgers enjoyed was that much more remarkable. If this team can get into the NCAA Tournament, they have a shot to be a sleeper.
Like Stagnitta, Danowski also succeeded in the face of what were low expectations. We all remember a year ago when the NCAA Selection Committee should have been arrested for stealing the season away from Hofstra and not allowing them into the post-season. The real tragedy of Hofstra getting screwed last season was that we'll never know how good that team was since nearly every starter graduated. Danowski himself was upbeat but not particularly optimistic about his teams chances entering the season. What did Hofstra do? How does 11-5 sound, a trip to the CAA Finals, and wins over Notre Dame, Duke, and Syracuse? With a team of new faces and many freshmen in the starting line-up, Hofstra's success was simply incredible. And Danowski continues to be without a doubt the most up-standing member of the Division I Coaching fraternity. He has never bad mouthed those who made it that a potential National Championship run never happened in '02. He never even complained. He continued to be the educator and motivator that he is and has built one of the best young teams in the country.
Hofstra's John Danowski
Danowski is a man who has it tough. He coaches at a school in a lacrosse hotbed, but a lacrosse hotbed where the best talent goes away from home. His own son, Matt, a top prospect, will attend Duke next season. Danowski has had to develop talent on his own and the results have been beyond impressive. He has been beaten to the recruiting punch left and right but continues to beat those who take the best talent from Long Island. And he also does so with incredible class and integrity-he is truly one of lacrosse's good guys.
Duke's Mike Pressler
Will Pressler Produce?: If this were basketball, or perhaps even football, Duke University would probably be looking for a new Head Coach right now. Despite having all of the academic and athletic advantages in the world and despite holding one of the best recruiting classes in the country on an annual basis, Duke continues to struggle to find wins and for the second straight year barely broke .500. Duke should not have made the post-season in 2002 and could not sneak into the NCAA Tournament in 2003, but considering the talent this team possesses, its current plight raises some major questions. The 2003 team has everything it takes to win it all and may still do so, but if the Blue Devils are not a bona fide National Championship contender in the next couple of years, we're going to have to take a major look at what is going on at Duke. Head Coach Mike Pressler is an incredible recruiter and for next year has another incredible group coming in, including perhaps the nation's best attackman (Matt Danowski) and goalie (Danny Loftus). If Pressler does not find some wins to go with his blue chippers during the next few years, he may be forced to find a job.
20 May Be a Hard Number: I never thought I would live to see the day when there was a question concerning Syracuse's post-season prospects, but here we are. With a 12-10 win over Georgetown to end the season, the Orange pretty much clinch a bid, but a five-loss season (including a three-game losing streak) has to have the 'Cuse faithful scratching their heads. Syracuse is seeking a 21st consecutive appearance in the NCAA semifinals and despite their problems this season, they have everything it takes to make it and still win the National Championship and still had to be considered a favorite until the seeding were announced. The Orange face a quarter final match-up with Princeton, if they get by a home game against Dartmouth. More than any time in the last two decades we may see the end of a run that has to be considered among the best periods of success in the history of all NCAA sports.
California Dreaming: Lacrosse on the West Coast is enjoying its finest season ever as the men's team at Whittier College and the women's team at Stanford are enjoying their finest seasons, ever. Whitter is the Nation's top-ranked team entering the post-season and was barely challenged during the regular season. This is a high-tempo, fun team to watch and seems to hold all of the mystery and intrigue in the world. They did not play any of the D3 elite in 2003, but they did play at an awfully high level. What happens in the next few weeks will be exciting to watch. The Cardinal, a relative newcomer to women's Division I lacrosse, earned their first National Ranking in 2003 and ran with many of the nation's top teams. Both have hopefully opened many doors on the West Coast for lacrosse and will continue to help the sport grow into new markets.
Obviously there are more tales from 2003 to be told, but this seems to be the group of headlines that compelled us the most this season. It's been a fun season, it's been great to watch, and I think more than any lacrosse season I can remember-it's made us stop and think. The best part about 2003 is that it is not over by a long-shot as we have the entire post-season to look forward to. Hopefully the tremendous stories we have seen this season will only be magnified to a memorable series of games during the playoffs.
May 6, 2003
Photos by John Strohsacker.
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