By Chris Ely
To use a horse racing term as Marylanders sometimes do, the DI and DIII men have just wound their way around the back stretch and are making the final turn for the home stretch. Some observations:
Old Line State Rules: To lacrosse old-timers, it must have seemed like the late 60's and early 70's when this week's USILA Coach's poll came out and Hopkins, Navy and Maryland were at the top of Division I. Years ago, before the NCAA established it's annual tournament to determine the real national champion on Memorial Weekend, the Blue Jays, Terrapins and Midshipmen engaged in what amounted to a round robin mini-tournament which ultimately determined the "mythical" national champion. Most of those battles were considered classics in the history of the sport.
Johns Hopkins, the pre-season number one, climbed back on top of the heap with last weekend's close encounter with Duke. Maryland's ascension to the top was short-lived. The Terps were upended by what has to be the surprise team of 2004, the Naval Academy. Richie Meade's midshipmen are playing their typical scrappy type of lacrosse but there is a major difference this year. This season, he has a group of veteran players who have been through the tough, one-goal losses of the past, have gained positive experience through those trying times and have become winners.
With only a couple of weeks to go in the regular season it's tough to separate Hopkins, Maryland and Navy; each have only one loss on their records.
The Jays probably have the most talent up and down their roster and got their wake up call at Virginia where the defending champion Cavaliers, clearly not playing like champions up until the night they met Hopkins, sent the Jays down to defeat. One would not likely be able to persuade any member of the Hopkins staff or squad to admit this, but the loss to Virginia could have been the best thing to happen to Hopkins. They lose to a team they have had problems with in the past (see 2003 National Championship game for example) which serves up a little humility to a squad that may have been getting too high on itself. At the same time, the loss to Virginia was not costly to the Jays quest for a top seed in the tournament and, with the kind of season Virginia has had, it will take an ACC Tournament Championship to get the Wahoos safely into the NCAA's.
Navy suffered its only loss to Ohio State, their second game of the season. Since then the Middies have learned how to win, rattling off a 7 game win streak with victories over the likes of North Carolina, Army and Georgetown and capped off by their huge win over Maryland at College Park. By the time Navy and Hopkins meet on April 24th, the Midshipmen will have disposed of Lehigh and Holy Cross and will stand at a gaudy 10-1.
The Terps' loss to Navy, their first in a dozen seasons, was surprising to some, but one has to wonder of Dave Cottle and his staff saw it coming. Maryland is still trying to find the scoring punch it lost through graduation last season and narrow victories over UMBC (9-4) and Towson (8-6) may have set the stage for the upset at the hands of Navy. The Terps are likely in the tournament, but the 100th meeting between Hopkins and Maryland at Homewood Field will probably serve as a barometer as to either how far the Terrapins have come this season, or how far they have to go to extend their season through the tournament.
Elsewhere in DI, Syracuse and Princeton are positioned right where they probably want to be; a little back in the pack and waiting until May when the games really count.
Meanwhile in Division III:
Defending champion Salisbury has become the 2000's version of the old Hobart teams that ran off 16 Division III National Championships in the 70's and 80's before moving up to Division I and losing their head coach, Dave Urich, to Georgetown. The 2004 season has seen the Seagulls romp to a perfect 13-0 record by scoring an average of 15 goals per game and giving up a stingy 4.6 goals per contest. Salisbury is off until April 20th when they will likely rip through the CAC Tournament and remain unbeaten to face arch-rival Washington College at home on May 1st. Salisbury should be the odds-on favorite to repeat as Division III titlists but head coach Jim Berkman faces some long odds in accomplishing a three-peat in 2005. Salisbury graduates 15 seniors in May, most of which are the stars from the 2003 and 2004 teams. Berkman will have to re-load quickly if he hopes to keep the ball rolling in Salisbury.
Washington College, also undefeated at 11-0, will have a tougher time remaining unbeaten. This weekend, the Shoremen will have to get by Franklin and Marshall. Coach Bill Morrow has his 7-2 Diplomats playing confident lacrosse and F&M could be primed for an upset in Chestertown on Saturday. If WC can defeat F&M, they have a relatively easy time of it with games against Haverford, Muhlenberg and Lehigh before meeting the Gulls in the "War on the Shore" May 1st.
The Gulls have home field advantage over the Shoremen on May Day and hope to win their 2nd straight W.O.T.S. Just based on comparative scores, the Gulls appear to have the superior firepower to overcome Washington's rugged defense. Washington defeated Ohio Wesleyan 10-6; Salisbury walloped the Bishops 19-5. Washington over Gettysburg 9-4; Salisbury buried Gettysburg 12-6. The Shoremen barely escaped McDaniel College with an 8-7 victory. The Gulls beat McDaniel 14-7 in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated and may have been Salisbury's "bad game of the season. Still, anything can, and often does happen when these two teams get together. One thing is for sure- either Salisbury or Washington is coming out of the War with likely their only loss of the year.
High School Goes Big:
My overall observation on the high school season raises the question: "What are they putting in the water?" In all my years of officiating lacrosse, I have never seen bigger and stronger lacrosse players before this year. The notable exception may have been the 1999 McDonogh School team that won the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association title. They were the most athletic team I have ever seen. But this year I have walked onto fields and felt I was about to see at the very most, lacrosse players built like football players and, at the very least, high school players the size and speed of Division I college players. An early season scrimmage at Loyola High School had the Dons facing off with a team from New Jersey. The visiting crease defenseman was roughly 6'4" and about 220lbs, another defenseman was about 6' and 230 and the other ran about 5'11" and 235 lbs. Not only that, but there kids were fast, strong and "laid the wood" on Loyola throughout the scrimmage.
At another pre-season game I watched Mt. St. Joseph's throw their considerable size and strength up against what I thought at the time was the best high school team I had seen in many years, Georgetown Prep. The little Hoyas had a 6'3" midfielder that cranked about 6 shots from inside the restraining line at about 100 MPH! Lucky for St. Joe's this guy was only getting ready for the season. His accuracy was a little off as he only scored twice. But I can only imagine what the Gaels' goalie must have been thinking with shots like that whizzing past his helmeted head.
The good thing to report, however; in lacrosse, the little guys still have a major part to play in the outcomes of games. Loyola High School, for example, easily defeated the bigger and stronger team from New Jersey and countless times this season I have seen physically smaller squads stick it to their bigger opponents. What are most important are stick skills, teamwork and a sense or a feel for the game. Teams with those three traits, along with a strong presence in goal, will more often than not proceed to championship games, no matter the size of their opponents. The difference now is, those teams with stick skills, teamwork, lacrosse sense and a strong goalkeeper will absorb a lot of bruises on their way to a league title.
Photos by E-Lax Staff
April 15, 2003
More by Chris Ely
First Scrimmage Woes and Irate Coaches Gallery February 21, 2004
Refs & Coaches Unite to Save Season February 14, 2004
Missing Link: An Adventure in Lacrosse Product History December 16, 2003
Hopkins Tricked, A Treat for Philly November 6, 2003
NCAA Should Look To MLL To Speed Up Game October 6, 2003
Ely on Team USA's Bob Shriver August 1, 2003
ESPN Gets Final Game Right June 26, 2003
Chris Ely Joins E-Lacrosse June, 2003