Bergey for Tewaaraton & Final-Four Observations
By Michael Spinner
It's hard to believe that the college lacrosse season is already over. It seems like fall ball was only a few weeks ago, preseason predictions and discussions about the great early match-ups only yesterday. How quickly everything's passed by. Perhaps because much of the early season was rained (and snowed) out, the regular season seemed condensed. But Memorial Day has passed. Virginia owns the Division I crown, and it is time to move on to post season arguments and gripes, summer ball, and talk of 2004.
Memorial Day Weekend did not disappoint. In fact, such success, even in the rain, made it clear that the choice of Baltimore for our championship weekend was a good one and should become a permanent institution. 2003's Championships were an experiment of sorts…a test to pass. And close to 40,000 people watching lacrosse in one of the best stadiums in the country can only be viewed as an overwhelming success, even on a sunny day.
Monday's crowd was the most heavily attended outdoor championship in NCAA championship history - for all sports. The previous best was 32,106 for Division I-AA football in 1995 between Marshall and Montana at Marshall. There is no DI Football Championship. It was a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend for lacrosse as a whole. Between the success of the Men's Championship Weekend and the Women's National Tournament at Lehigh University, the sport is on a high right now. Everybody in lacrosse should feel pretty good about what was accomplished in the last 72 hours.
Bergey for Tewaaraton:
It is called the "Heisman Trophy" for lacrosse. It is presented to annually to the "top female and male varsity collegiate lacrosse player in the United States." It simply rewards the "best of the best." In 2003 the Tewaaraton Trophy may go to one of the finest lacrosse players in the land, but it may not in fact be awarded to the best lacrosse player in the country.
Anybody who watched the games this weekend can not disagree that as great as the list of finalists may be, without Salisbury Attackman Josh Bergey at least among the finalists, it is not a list of the best in Men's Lacrosse. Of course, this will spark the debate over whether an award such as the Heisman or Tewaaraton could legitimately go to somebody who does not play at the Division I level because of the disparity between levels of play. In College Football, it seems as if there is a Division I-AA athlete every season in the running for the Heisman. Often, the mention of a candidate from a lower division will raise questions as to how that athlete would fare at the Division I level.
In most cases, such an argument is perfectly legitimate because if a Division I-AA running back runs for 2,000 yards without having played against Big-10 or ACC competition, how can he be measured against the best. The mention of Bergey as a Tewaaraton candidate brings the same questions-would Bergey have 120 points if Salisbury played against Johns Hopkins or Virginia? DI and DIII teams never play anymore so we will never know. Are they waiting for a more dominant DIII performance?
My answer is that in 2003, such an argument does not exist and Bergey deserves to at least be among the finalists for the Tewaaraton and may even deserve the prize as well. This is an attackman who scored 120 points this season in 20 games and still led his team to the Division III National Championship. When is the last time we saw a member of a National Championship team with triple-digit scoring? Add to the mix that it was not as if Bergey was a ball-hog-there were six lacrosse players at Salisbury with 25 goals or more and four with at least 50 points-and Bergey was as close to unstoppable as any lacrosse player in the country this season.
120 points, eight points in the NCAA Final where his team won in overtime, and not one game where he was shut down…Josh Bergey was the best lacrosse player in the nation in 2003 and deserves such recognition. And to those who argue about Division I vs. Division III, did you see the Division III final? I would be the first to argue that the level of play on display was every bit as good on Sunday afternoon as it was on Monday afternoon. Both Salisbury and Middlebury could run with Duke in 2003 and they have a finalist for the award. Clearly the lines between the Divisions is far more blurred than any other sport.
If Bergey played at Johns Hopkins, he wins the Tewaaraton hands-down. But since the award has not been restricted to the top Division I player, how could he not be nominated at Salisbury? And, even more compelling, how could the leading scorer in lacrosse not at least be a candidate or a "Player to Watch"? Not one list released by the Tewaaraton committee included Josh Bergey this season despite the year he was having-not even as a player to watch. Why not? Gettysburg goalie Tim McGinnis was a candidate despite having a season that was by all accounts disappointing and earning Third Team All-American honors while Bergey was a first-teamer. Of course, McGinnis appeared during the pre-season and after the last two seasons, he proved he belonged at the time. But the committee released an updated list a few weeks ago that included McGinnis, but not Bergey…a fact that borders on insanity. Perhaps having a pre-season list is not the way to go. It also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that will always be open for criticism. The All-American committee should consider suspending their pre-season team for the same reason. Why reward players for what they might do. Why lay the pressure of such expectation on some while attaching the stigma of non-inclusion on others before a single game is played, just for the sake of ego satisfying prognostication.
Josh Bergey not being a Tewaaraton candidate has to bring into question not only what this award stands for but who are the people choosing? Argue with me that he is not the best lacrosse player in the country, that is fine…but at a minimum you can not tell me that he is not a candidate. 120 points for the National Champion is almost unheard of these days. If the Tewaaraton Committee could not see this happening, they either failed to watch the games and read the stat sheets, or the door has been closed completely to a non-Division I winner. In that case, the Tewaaraton Trophy is not the Heisman of Lacrosse…it is the Division I Player of the Year with a glorified name.
And where's Virginia keeper Tillman Johnson? The 5 final nominees for the award scored a total of 5 goals in 5 games against Johnson. Are we to believe that the best player in the country has a one goal per game average against a non-nominee? Duke's Kevin Cassese scored one goal on Johnson in two losing outings. Hopkins also played the Cavs twice, including the Championship and a Hopkins win at Homewood. Kyle Harrison scored once in the first game while Johnson blanked Doneger. Doneger scored two in the losing championship effort and Harrison was stopped cold. Powell at Syracuse was scoreless against Tillman in a one goal loss to the Cavaliers while Ryan Boyle from Princeton missed his team's loss to Tillman's Virginia team. Tillman was the tournament MVP and may be the USILA Player of the Year when that award is announced. Perhaps the Tewaaraton award is really for DI Offensive Player of the Year.
Division III Shines:
For Division III lacrosse fans, Sunday was unforgettable as the Division III Final stole the show for the five-game weekend. During 72 hours of relative blow-outs, the Salisbury-Middlebury game had the look of a blow-out for a while but turned out to be extremely entertaining. It was run-and-gun, it was fun to watch, and it was a very well played lacrosse game. And the best part is that this rivalry is probably just in its infancy.
In 2004, it is almost a given that these two teams will meet once again for the National Championship as neither loses a whole lot to graduation. Salisbury loses Bergey, but there is more than enough there for the Sea Gulls to return to Baltimore-particularly with the insane amount of depth that this team displayed this season. Their defense is intact. Their face-off man is back, and two All-American attackers return. Add to the mix that perhaps the best all-around player on the Salisbury roster, midfielder Scott Simmons, will be healthy. That is a scary thought. With Simmons felled by a hamstring most of the season, Salisbury was the nation's best and deepest team. Bergey is gone, likely to the anxious Philadelphia Wings, but with a healthy Simmons back, this team may not be losing much.
Junior Charley Howe will lead the Panthers in 2004
Middlebury is in a similar position as they graduate only a handful of players and return an incredible goalie that played out of his mind on Sunday. Add to the mix that 2003 was, by all accounts, a Middlebury rebuilding year. They graduated most of their top players from the 2002 National Champions and still were a goal away from the '03 Championship. The Panthers will return.
Junior Scott Simmons returns for the Gulls
While Gettysburg should be much improved next season and Whittier and Washington College and Cortland all return some major talent, barring a huge semi-final upset, it will be Salisbury v. Middlebury once again in '04.
A Little D1 Breakdown:
It is amazing how Division I has developed to the point where Johns Hopkins has become the sentimental favorite to win a National Championship as if they are an underdog. But alas, it has developed this way. Although I was personally pulling for UMass to win it all this season, when the Final Four developed, it was JHU who became the team to root for. What better way to write the storybook than end a 16-year drought by winning the National Championship on lacrosse's biggest stage in downtown Baltimore? Everything was in place for the Blue Jays but it wasn't meant to be.
For the JHU faithful, there should not be too much sorrow since the Championship Game was Hopkins's to win but they simply did not execute. When you think about it, Virginia played only a decent game and had one of the most spectacular performances by a goalie our sport has ever seen. Tillman Johnson's play on Monday reminded many people of Brian Dougherty's near single-handed defeat of JHU by Maryland several years ago. Johnson was that good on Monday.
Besides Johnson, what did UVa do to beat Johns Hopkins? Very little. After an early Cavalier run, Johns Hopkins went into a zone defense and Virginia had all kinds of problems scoring the rest of the way. Virginia did absolutely nothing to effectively attack the Hopkins zone and they did allow more than their fair share of quality scoring opportunities to JHU. The fact that UVa struggled against the Hopkins zone is surprising since JHU ran a zone most of the game during their regular season meeting. One might suggest that if Hopkins had played zone for 60 minutes on Sunday, Virginia could have been in deep trouble. Hopkins simply missed the goal on too many occasions and when they did find the cage, Johnson was simply awesome. Hopkins had the right game-plan and for the most part played Virginia very evenly…Tillman Johnson was the difference on Monday.
Tillman "Stonewall" Johnson
Despite the sadness on the Hopkins side, do not fret because we'll probably see another shot next season for the Jays. Hopkins has an incredible young group on their team and should be just as strong in '04. Combined with the probable end of the Princeton run near the top and some major hits to Syracuse and Maryland to graduation, and Hopkins is a top-three team heading into 2004. The Jays will have another shot and the JHU drought could be closer to ending than ever before.
Field of Dreams:
The Stadium itself in Baltimore was incredible…not much can be said for the field. By the time Monday's game rolled around, the surface was so muddy that the Division I Final resembled a hockey match at times with anybody running at full speed struggling to keep their feet. After a week of rain, it was muddy, it was slippery, and it was tough to play quality lacrosse.
A couple of observations about the field conditions-first, it seemed to me as if the Hopkins players struggled to stay upright far more than the Virginia players-leaving a question as to what Virginia's players had on their feet that Hopkins did not. Perhaps this was not the case and maybe the Blue Jays slips came at only the worst possible times, but from my perch it seemed that Hopkins slipped and sled while Virginia held their ground fairly well.
Even after such a great weekend, I am willing to bet that several Division I Coaches are, by the time this is published, making phone calls and writing letters to get the Division II Championship Game yanked from Championship Weekend. Five years ago at the National Convention in Philadelphia, an ultra-prominent Division I Head Coach told me that the day the Division I Championship Game is in the Main Stadium is the "last day we have a Championship Weekend" and made it clear that if Division II was played in the Main Stadium, there would be a fight to make the Division I Championships separate. After it was announced in January that the Division II Final would be in the Main Stadium, that same Division I Coach told me that there would be a big fight by the Division I Coaches-particularly if field conditions became a factor this season. After Monday's mess, could a battle be ensuing?
The good news is that there will be an artificial surface in Baltimore in time for 2004, so even a week of rain that we saw in 2003 should not be a factor next Spring. But, I only wonder if there is going to be a fight to get Division II out. Five lacrosse games on any surface that is not Astroturf in a three day span in constant rain can be a strain, even on Field Grass-the surface set to be installed in Baltimore. There is a certain degree of maintenance necessary on such a surface…albeit a minimal amount of maintenance. Will this factor cause a battle to make Championship Weekend less inclusive? We hope not. More to come on that one.
U-19 Needs You:
If a major International Lacrosse competition happens and nobody pays attention, is there really a major International Lacrosse competition? The US team had a hard time recruiting players for the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships played in Ontario last weekend. The question this summer is: Will Baltimore and mid-Atlantic lax fans turn out in just a few weeks when the Under-19 World Lacrosse Championships are played at Towson University. The U-19's were a topic in both Baltimore and Lehigh this weekend, and Team USA had several scrimmages at the women's competition and looked beyond impressive.
But there are two issues beginning to affect the 2003 U-19 competition and both are becoming a fairly hot topic. First, according to several major sources, the financial burden incurred by the participating is becoming a major issue that can affect future U-19 Championships as a month before the games, not every country has raised enough money to play. While there have been no suggestions that some teams will pull out, at the Women's National Tournament the struggle of several nations to raise the necessary funds to travel to Towson was a hot topic of conversation.
In other words, while Team USA is practicing, scrimmaging, and preparing for battle, most of the competition is working to simply raise the money to get to the tournament. Is it any wonder why USA and Canada are so dominant in International play? After this Tournament with a couple of years to prepare for the next International competition, some sort of central fund-raiser seems to be in order to make sure both the U-19 and the World Championships continue to be such a prominent event. After this Spring, it is very possible that some nations will not field teams at the next U-19 in 2007-apparently, it is just too expensive.
The other issue is a relative lack of fan excitement surrounding this event. In Baltimore, there were pamphlets handed out for ticket information and at Lehigh, there was a lot of advertising, but with the thousands of people in attendance, the crowds to watch Team USA play were sparse to say the least. Of course, Team USA was steam-rolling through the competition, as they may in July, but nonetheless, the fan excitement over U-19 is questionable. Perhaps between the Baltimore-area colleges playing so well, the incredible High School competition in the Baltimore area, and the recent NCAA Championships in Baltimore, another major lacrosse event in Maryland is just too much to handle right now. Hopefully as we approach the event there will be more buzz in the lax community about the U-19 event which should be great fun to watch. If the U-19 event in the lacrosse capital of the world can not draw attention, we may struggle to see future U-19 events. Are you listening, all you promising players at younger levels? If you don't give respect, you may not get respect when it is your time. I know you understand that.
That's all from Baltimore and Lehigh after a wonderful weekend of lacrosse. Over the next few weeks, I will attempt to look ahead into the future as "The Latest Spin" will focus on upcoming lacrosse events such as MLL year three and questions heading into the next college season. I have lots on my mind, some of which will infuriate more than a few. Tune in to find out! On a personal note, congratulations to those involved with the programs at Virginia, NYIT, Salisbury, Princeton Women, Stonehill Women, and Amherst Women on winning the 2003 National Championships. We give Special kudos to Stonehill Head Coach Mike Daly. He's the first male to lead a Women's Team to the National Championship. Women and men should celebrate this milestone. Mike is one of the kindest, most professional coaches in the sport as a whole and is more than deserving of this honor.
May 26, 2003
Photos by Bob Ogrudek, John Strohsacker and E-Lax Staff.
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