By Michael Spinner
It is so hard to believe that the first games of the "Spring" are right around the corner. Last year's winter that never seemed to end was balmy in comparison to what we in the northeast are dealing with this time around. It's cold out there! I began thinking of this column today while walking around the ice on the practice field where I will be coaching this season. All I could think to myself was, "Thank God for big tennis courts!" Of course, if the temperature stays near zero much longer, those courts may also be a pipe dream to begin "Spring" practice. I only wonder what the schools already practicing are doing … I can only imagine a lot of broken sticks!
Anyway, my first prediction for 2004 is that we are going to hear the terms, "Postponed" and "Neutral Site" in record numbers. It's not as if we're seeing a situation where conditions are good for practice for a while, but then a freak snowstorm ruins things for everybody. I never minded practicing or coaching in the cold before, but if things remain the same, 2004 may be a different story. I wonder how long it will be before northeastern coaches start claiming that teams in the south have a weather advantage and therefore are the favorites to win it all (as if Virginia needed another advantage!). Stay tuned!
My first prediction for 2004 has to do with a topic I have written about several times over the years, professional lacrosse. Now, I know that based on my history writing this column, my opinion on whether or not Pro Lax is beneficial to our sport is clear, but I do want to write about a bit of optimism on the subject. I still feel that in a sense, both leagues are living a pipe dream if they expect to make it in a sports saturated market … but at the same time, they may have found the golden ticket to success.
"Go West Young Fan" is a term I began to use when the MLL made the bold move to play the 2002 championship game about 10 hours west of its nearest franchise. At the time, the move seemed well, stupid. But, as I wrote in a later column, was Jake Steinfeld on to something? If the results of the NLL move west are a sign of things to come, perhaps professional lacrosse has found its market. And, it is quite possible that moving west could be the key for both Professional Leagues to survive.
My first prediction for 2004 is that we're going to see two bold moves involving professional lacrosse. First, Jake is actually going to admit that his league is struggling. The sugarcoating will end, the smile will briefly go away, and Jake will finally say, "you know, there really are not that many fans showing up. We've been inflating the attendance figures for years." The statement will be prompted by the second move - an initiative to move MLL out west as the rumors have suggested for some time. I foresee at least two of the current franchises packing it up and moving west for the 2005 season. I also predict that this move will ultimately work because the sport is booming in most western states but there is very little top level lacrosse to see during the college season - unlike the east Coast.
My other prediction involving professional lacrosse is that Ryan Powell - formerly of the Buffalo Bandits - will not play for the NLL ever again just out of spite. I truly believe that one of the most classless moves in recent professional sport memory was the recent statement by Bandits GM Kurt Silcott when Powell elected to end his NLL season to accept a coaching position at Syracuse and to focus on his outdoor career. Silcott used a team press release to trash Powell saying, "He let this team down, he let his fans down and I think he lost sight of that," among other nasty things.
In any other professional sport, if a GM or any other member of the front office trashes an athlete like that, one of two things happen - that person is fired, or a public apology is released days later. Since the NLL is not exactly on the level of the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL, MLS, or pretty much any other professional sports league, there was not the mainstream press coverage to point out what an utterly bonehead statement Kurt Silcott made. Hey Kurt, how about this: "Obviously we are disappointed with Ryan's decision as we valued his presence on our line-up. But we wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors and hope to see him back in a Bandits uniform one day." That would have conveyed both his frustration and a sense of professionalism that is expected of somebody in an executive position. It also would have left things on good terms with the Bandits and Powell, so perhaps they could have a professional relationship one day.
Ryan Powell is in demand
The question is, who needed who more? Did the Bandits need Powell, or did Powell need the Bandits? Granted, the name Ryan Powell among NLL circles is not as prominent as it is among MLL circles, but the name Powell in the lacrosse world is universally important. For a league that has struggled to attract fans overall despite its recent spike out west, to basically trash one of the few recognizable names in the NLL to fans of lacrosse in America is to alienate much of the American lacrosse world. The top college players are not flocking to the NLL like they used to, so fans of the American college game are growing less and less likely to attend an NLL game -- thus franchises such as the NY Saints are floundering like a fish out of water. Now, to the lacrosse fan who is a very casual NLL fan, when they now think of the Buffalo Bandits they think, "that's the place where they bashed Ryan Powell without consideration for his side of the story. We like Ryan Powell. We don't like the Bandits." Good job, Kurt.
And since Ryan Powell had the class not to make a public statement in reaction to Silcott, I will make one for him. Ryan Powell was not completely innocent here as leaving a team mid-season after making a commitment to the team is inherently wrong. Silcott's frustration was understandable - you make a commitment, you should live up to it. However, the living up to your commitments line of ethics only goes so far in the modern professional world. Powell has to earn a living, think of his future, and put food on the table. Although we all hope he has many years of lacrosse ahead of him on the field, Powell has not been healthy in recent years and it has to be thought that coaching at Syracuse is the fast-track to a career on the college sidelines. If Powell learns the recruiting ropes, develops an understanding of dealing with athletes as a coach, and learns the skills it takes to coach in-game situations, that - plus the name Powell - could land him a prime coaching position in a matter of years. And since John Desko does not call just anybody and say, "join us!" - how could he say no? On the flipside, staying with the Bandits means that Powell would probably make enough money to buy a roof rack for his G5 at the end of the season. You make the call!
OK, enough on the Pro stuff - let's get to the college season. My 2003 predictions had some (but not many) hits with picks such as Salisbury men and Princeton women … plus a whole slew of Division I Men's coaching vacancies. Let's see if I could do better for 2004:
2004 National Champions:
Men's Division I - Johns Hopkins. Yes, it's the year of the Blue Jay, and here's the reason why. 2003 ended on a down note for Hopkins by losing in the championship game, but in the big picture, it was JHU in the championship game. It had been 14 years and countless final Four frustrations for the Jays and I think losing the Championship only built the character of a fairly young team and put them over a hump. I like this Hopkins team, particularly with the addition of Duke transfer Matt Rewkowski to a team that can score goals in bunches. I think if Petro can turn his team's game a bit more up-tempo with the horses he has, Hopkins stuns Virginia in the finals. Detractors will say that Virginia returns almost as many guns as the Hopkins and a goalie who is unmatched, and that is true. I just think that Hopkins has one last shot (for now) to get it done in Baltimore and that there is a certain destiny to this team.
Men's Division II - NY Tech. I'm thinking that the Division II final this year could be the "game to watch" as Limestone and NY Tech will go at it for the third year in a row. Both teams return a ton all over the field and neither returns a starting goalie, so their losses wash each other out. As much as NYIT only won the '03 Championship because goalie Matt Hunter was insane between the pipes, their defense is strong enough to support a new goalie. I love Limestone's team, but I think that playing a tougher regular season schedule will help tech's goalie get more battle tested and he will be the better keeper in the finals.
Men's Division III - Salisbury. What parity in Division III? Salisbury will face Middlebury again in the finals. Although the Sea Gulls are without Josh Bergey, they win the crown again for three reasons -- Defense, Defense, and Defense. Eric Martin and Jeff Bigas are a toss-up for Defenseman of the Year, and "the other defenseman" Evan Howard would be the top D-Man on just about every other team in the country. Add Sean White with the pole and there are not many teams who will score goals on Salisbury consistently. I also think a healthy Scott Simmons will more than make up for Bergey's absence. Simmons, who was injured most of last season, could be the second best middie in the country … and the best is Salisbury's Andy Murray. Middlebury returns the best goalie in the country in Eric Kreiger and also boasts an incredible defense with John west leading the way. But I think Salisbury has it - another close national championship game … just much lower scoring!
Women's National Champs - Princeton. Without going into tremendous detail, I think that Princeton gets their third straight, but don't be surprised to see Maryland or Virginia in the winner's circle either. They all return a ton, with Maryland having one of the deepest teams in their illustrious history but Virginia returns a scary amount of firepower. Princeton was the 2003 Champion with tremendous defense, and although they lost some defensive firepower, they will not give up many goals. Defense wins Championships … So I also like west Chester in DII and Middlebury in DII on the Women's side.
D1 final Four: Hopkins, Virginia, Syracuse, north Carolina
D2 final Four: NY Tech, LeMoyne, Limestone, Mercyhurst
D3 final Four: Salisbury, Washington & Lee, Cortland, Middlebury
Men's Division I AQ's: UMBC (America east); Towson (Colonial), Notre Dame (GWLL), Princeton (Ivy), Army (Patriot) and Mount Saint Mary's (MAAC). Remember, the ECAC has no bid this season with the departure of Navy and UMBC. I think that UMBC and Navy are the clear-cut choices from their conferences and the rest are dog-fights. The GWLL is very intriguing because I see four teams with a legitimate shot, but Notre Dame is beginning to establish itself as a National Championship contender. And the Ivy League is going to be ridiculous with the amount of parity they have. The top three are about even, but I also foresee tremendous improvements from Harvard and UPenn.Men's Division I teams on the move: north Carolina has a legitimate shot at not only the NCAA Tournament, but the final Four. I really like this UNC team and I expect that they will play Virginia very close but also defeat Duke and Maryland. Loyola is full steam ahead in the right direction and is a year away from a final Four possibility. Fairfield needs to solve its goalie situation, but they have one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the NCAA and a heck of a team for '04, with a simply tremendous recruiting class coming in next year. I think they could shock the GWLL this season, but I also see huge things down the road for the Stags. But they aren't the only up and comer in the GWLL - Denver is about to make a move as well. I also think that UMBC will win the America east this season, but not be the dynasty that some people predict. Binghamton was 4-8 a year ago but lost to America east Champion Albany 9-6. That was with only one full recruiting class by Ed Stephenson. Just give him a couple of years … but I see a season above .500 for the Bearcats. Also, Albany from the AE is also going to give UMBC a run in 2004 and for years to come.
Teams that will be better than expected: I happen to think that Syracuse is much closer to a National Championship than most people expect. I also think that Princeton is going to be better than expected. 'Cuse will struggle on the defensive end, but I think that Jay Pfeifer is going to have a breakout year in goal and that the Orangemen will get back to their run-and-gun ways and score a ton of goals. I see Mike Powell as a man on a mission in 2004. Tierney's Tigers graduated a lot, but this is still Bill Tierney and he has had young teams before. They imploded a year ago at the end, but I think that their first low expectation in many years will make this team shine. I also think that UMass is a sleeper who can make the final Four.
Teams going the wrong way: Maryland - a rebuilding year, they'll be back. Duke - they are getting recruits left and right but doing nothing with them. I think there are some serious problems that need to be addressed at Duke because the fact that the Blue Devils have hovered around the .500 mark the last few years with the talent they have is simply embarrassing. Rutgers - before you begin screaming, I think a one-year drop-off now that the Knights enter 2004 as the National Team to Beat. Nobody is surprised by Rutgers anymore, and I think they will have a difficult 2004. But I also think they have one of the best head coaches in the country and there are very bright days ahead for this team.
Teams with a shot at the NCAA final in Division III besides Salisbury and Middlebury: None.
Division II Teams on the Rise: Pace (not just because I played there, but this team returns a ton from a team that lost to National Champion NY Tech in OT last season), Bentley (coach is one of the best people in the sport - has a great young team), Queens (will be exceptional for a first year program),
Division II Team falling off the face of the earth: C.W. Post. Just a few years ago, the school had zero facilities but their lacrosse team somehow was in the top-three every year and advanced to the national championship game on several occasions. Last season, the school unveiled a brand-new athletics building that has state-of-the-art facilities in every way, but Post finished 4-8 with all four wins against non-ranked teams (including a 25-1 win over New Haven. What happened here? All indications are that Post is not dramatically better in 2004.
Division III Teams on the Rise: Cortland will be in the 2005 championship game against Washington college. Gettysburg will be much improved in 2004 and the Centennial Conference is going to be just awesome for the next 3-4 years. Washington & Lee will be in the 2004 final Four and Nazareth is going to be back in the top-five. I think that Bowdoin, Tufts, and St, Mary's are a year or two away from causing some serious damage. western Connecticut will have an awful 2004 season, but I think they hired one of the best people you will ever meet in lacrosse, and with a new stadium on the way and Rick McCarthy's ability to recruit and build teams, in three years they will be in the NCAA Tournament
Division III Team on the down-turn: I loved Whittier last year because of the intrigue of a west Coast team in the winner's circle, but the novelty has worn off. The Poets will struggle in '04 big-time, and if the administration at Whittier does not make the decision to allow this team the opportunity to play more than 10 games a season, how long can they stay at the top?
Division I Player of the Year: Tillman Johnson, Virginia. Johnson will graduate as one of the best goalies to ever come out of the ACC and there is a strong possibility he will have helped lead UVa to two straight National Championships. Johnson is the Player of the Year, but I think that Michael Powell is going to be a very close second.
Division II Player of the Year: Tom Zummo, NY Tech. He won All-American each of his first two seasons and can do it all. I think that Tech has two defenders who can also win this award, but Zummo is going to have a monster 2004 season.
Division III Player of the Year: Andy Murray, Salisbury. Not a hard selection when he was the Player of the Year last season. To me, 211 ground balls is an absolutely insane figure, that when combined with his 41 points and obscene face-off numbers makes you truly appreciate what this kid does. Murray will be challenged for this honor by two of his Salisbury teammates in Eric Martin and Jeff Bigas, but he brings something to the table that nobody else in Division III brings and deserves the award.
Andy Murray at the Lacrosse Convention
January 27, 2003
The latest Spin on E-Lacrosse: Past Columns
Spinner on 360 and Joining E-Lacrosse
Title IX After 30 Years
Are Camps Out Of Control?
Go west, Young Fan.
Promoting the Pros: A Major League Circus
Grades and Sports: Powell's Not The Problem.
Thoughts on September 11, 2002
Women's Lacrosse: Farewell to the Stall
2002 Yale Fall Tournament
A Good Year For "Timmy Mac"
Is Petro Gambling With the 2003 Schedule
The Landon Cheating Scandal
Red Storm Rising
2002 Review & 2003 Punditries and Predictions
Is Football the New Enemy?
Fear and Loathing in Lacrosse Retail
Division II Comes of Age
California Dreamin': Whittier Has To Win The Title
college Lacrosse: What's The Big Story of 2003?
Bergey for Tewaaraton & final-Four Observations
The Goggles Are Coming!
What In The World Is Going On At Duke?
A New Conference?
Pro Lax at Lacrosse Roads.
The DIII Debacle.
Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?
Philly Gets The Nod.
National Development Program
2004 Punditry & Predictions