By Michael Spinner
There are still a lot of questions to be answered about the 2004 season, even with only days left before the 2004 National Champions are determined. Then, with months to go before any meaningful lacrosse debate, we will be left with one major question concerning the 2004 season what was the story of the year? The answer thus far lies less in the season as a whole and more across Divisional lines. Of course, there are still some big games to play so perhaps the great story from 2004 has yet to be told:
Division I: Parity, Parity, and more Parity
The season opened with a shocker when defending National Champion, Virginia, traveled west to Big Country to see their hopes for a repeat brought into major question by Air Force and Denver. In hindsight, the 0-2 Colorado trip for Virginia and subsequent impact on the Cavaliers' National Championship defense was the story of 2004 when you consider that neither Colorado team appears in the post-season. Air Force finished the season 4-8 against a strong schedule, but also managed to lose to lowly Sacred Heart to finish the season. Denver enjoyed an 8-6 season and missed the NCAA Tournament thanks to two very close losses in conference games (an aside prediction #1 for 2005: Denver wins the GWLL and goes to the Dance).
VIRGINIA: From First To Burst
Indeed, not seeing Virginia in the post-season was a tough pill to swallow for some, but it also shows you the state of affairs in Division I Lacrosse. With an incredible expansion of the talent base at the High School level, but very little expansion within Division I, it has come to the point where Division I is beginning to even out top-to-bottom, and Virginia's 2004 season is a prime example of this phenomenon. Some will point out that Virginia graduated some big guns from the 2003 team, thus their "rebuilding year," but I am not going to buy that excuse. Virginia has gobbled up some of the finest High School talent in the country for several years now and it seems that they have a top-five recruiting class year in and year out. Their missing the NCAA Tournament is amazing considering the talent they have recruited, but not as amazing when you consider how many great players are out there. Sure, Dom Starsia is getting the cream of the crop but the rest of the crop is pretty darn good.
All of which is why I pay very little attention to where the "top" High School seniors are going every year. If we were going to pick the best teams based solely on recruiting, Virginia, Duke and North Carolina would have only lost to each other and Johns Hopkins this season. Those four schools have had an absolute feeding frenzy during recruiting in recent years, and while one of them (Hopkins) is my favorite to win it all, neither Virginia nor Duke broke .500 this season. On the other hand, how many "top" High School seniors are going to Navy and Towson? And didn't I read somewhere that Princeton and Syracuse have had "off" recruiting years the last few years? I guess their combined 22-5 record this season suggests otherwise.
It is called parity and its ugly (or very nice looking) head is going to continue to rear itself until Division I finally enjoys legitimate expansion. Sure, the ACC schools and the Hopkins of the world are going to continue to guzzle up the elite of the High School seniors, but with a talent base that is huge across the country, we're going to continue to see more upsets like what we saw with Virginia in 2004.
The most exciting part about all of this is that we're going to begin to see who the best coaches really are. As more and more teams stock up on recruits who can play among the best, we're going to see that many more major upsets. While I would tend to think that the Final Four will continue to feature Syracuse, Hopkins, Princeton and the other usual suspects for a few years to come, with the progress of programs such as Ohio State and Rutgers, the games are going to continue to get closer and the number of teams making their first trip to the Final Four are going to increase. Any way you look at it, the games were as close in 2004 as they ever were before, and I think they're only going to get closer.
Division II and III yawn
OK, folks, let's play a game called "guess who's going to Baltimore in Division II and III." I will bet that 75% of you pick a NYIT-Limestone match-up in D2 while you also pick a Salisbury-Middlebury match-up in D3. And, you will in all likelihood be correct. But you also will lack creativity in a major way. While Division I seems to be evening up top-to-bottom, Division II and III remain as top-heavy as (insert clichι for top-heaviness here). We're on track to see yet another repeat of the Division II and III Finals. Middlebury seems poised for their annual trip to the Finals, while Salisbury gave somebody else a chance in 2001 and '02, but when nobody else got the job done, they turned it up a notch during the last two seasons and have lost a combined one game.
Will somebody else please stand up and get noticed? While there are many middle-ground programs taking enormous strides in Division II and III, the fact is that Division II and III are still largely two-team races. Even if somebody else breaks through in one of those Divisions, you would think that by now somebody else would get it right. It looked like Gettysburg was about to make it to the top in Division III only a couple of years ago, but now they are a step behind the top, same story with Gettysburg and W&L and Whittier. It also seems as if Division III outside of the top eight or so has either regressed considerably, or the parity within this group has become such that numbers 9-30 are pretty much even. Springfield was a top-10 team until they lost to unranked Stevens Tech in the NCAA Tournament and Stevens was no match whatsoever for Middlebury, who was ranked only four places ahead of Springfield in the final poll.
Parity in Division III? #1 Salisbury 21, #2 Washington 7. Let's just hope that round two of the '04 War on the Shore is something within a touchdown and a field goal.
In Division II, there are many who are longing for the day when the "Big Three" (NYIT, CW Post and Adelphi) were the dominant force in the division because at least back then there were three teams competing. It's been the NYIT vs. Limestone show or at least it is heading in that direction. CW Post has fallen off the face of the earth and Adelphi lost twice to Post this season. I have been a huge LeMoyne fan for some time now as I consider their Head Coach, Dan Sheehan, to be one of the best people and coaches in the sport. But, they have to step up and win the big one to make it a three-team race.
The Division II "South" continues to be as big of a yawn as there is in all of lacrosse. Many people point to the Salisbury dominance of the CAC as being perhaps the biggest waste of time in lacrosse. The D2 South gets my vote the CAC is one Conference, the D2 South is an entire region, an entire region made up of one or two teams. Limestone has such a stranglehold on their region that their only 2004 loss thus far came at the hands of North Carolina - the ACC Division I North Carolina. During 11 2004 games against "Southern" teams, the Saints scored 20 goals or more in a game nine times this season, and 30 or more twice. If it were not for the fact that Mercyhurst is a D2 South team (hmmmmm, Pennsylvania is in the South?) this effort to gain the Southern bid to the NCAA Finals would be a joke. Many people said that breaking up Division II into two regions would help the Southern schools grow and get better. If the idea was to see Limestone during Championship Weekend on an annual basis, this break-up would be considered an overwhelming success. In the meantime, it might be time for Division II to come up with a new post-season formula.
The best remain the best
I think one of the great stories in 2004 was that Michael Powell and Bill Tierney continued their run of success. There are probably more people who want to see Powell and Tierney fail than succeed out there, but I think one of the bigger stories of 2004 is how two of the game's most prominent names continued to stay at the top.
Powell is the all-time scoring leader at Syracuse University, a mark that is absolutely incredible and should be considered one of the greatest feats in lacrosse history. Any way you shake it, Syracuse University is the most dominant lacrosse program in NCAA (since 1970) history. It's not about only National Championships, either. It's about the fact that the only things guaranteed in life seem to be death, taxes, and the Orange in the Final Four.
And when you look at the incredible talent that has played in the Dome over the years, you list some of the greatest names to ever pick up a stick. Two Gaits, three Powells, and a whole host of some of the all-time greats have played for Syracuse, and Powell is at the top, all by himself. In itself, Powell's feat should be remembered as a legendary effort. But also consider the enormous microscope Powell has been under since his first day on campus. He was expected to dominate. He has the most famous last name in the sport, a name that has become synonymous with success. He entered Syracuse not just "Casey's brother" like Ryan had to endure, he was "Casey and Ryan's brother." And he not only broke the scoring record he made it look easy, and fun.
I have not always enjoyed everything Michael Powell has brought to the sport. I think "the move" was a bit over the top and somewhat extraneous to the play of the game. His persona as a guy who's sensitive because he has a dog and plays guitar is just boring and IL proved it with a recent cover depicting just that. But I respect the fact that this young man has handled an awful lot of pressure on and off the field with an attitude and work ethic that has reflected very positively on our sport. He has tried to live up to enormous expectation by entertaining his legions of young fans who will one day say, "I saw Michael Powell play" the same way guys like me say, "I saw Paul & Gary Gait play." In most other sports, hype is a bad thing that can produce pressure enough to make anyone crack and fold. In lacrosse's example, we may never see a lacrosse player with as much hype as Powell had, and look how he handled it. He could very well be the best that ever played for the Orange and that statement speaks volumes.
For Tierney, he continued to do something that seems very simple - win. And while winning has become very easy for a man who will forever be remembered as one of the best lacrosse coaches in the history of the sport, 2004 was not supposed to be this easy. Sure, the Tigers looked outclassed in an early season loss to Johns Hopkins, and a win over Virginia in 2004 was really nothing to write home about, but 10-3, a share of the Ivy League Championship, and a spot in the NCAA Quarterfinals is pretty darn good for a "program in decline." It was said that not only did Tierney graduate "everybody," but he also has not been recruiting like he used to. Somebody tell that to everybody in the Ivy League except Cornell. And keep in mind, Princeton is 10-3, and three of their top five scorers are freshmen, their goalie is a sophomore, and there are a ton of other good young players in this Princeton line-up. The Tigers aren't going anywhere so quickly.
I also think that for Bill Tierney, his best coaching has not happened yet. Let's keep in mind that the Ivy League just got a jump-start of new energy. Dartmouth and Yale had two of the best young coaches in the sport take over this past summer. Brian Voelker was in year two of his rebuilding effort at Penn and his squad finished .500 in the Conference and overall. I also think that Harvard (switching to an endowment aid program similar to Princeton) and Brown are about to be heard from. Overall, the Ivy League is going to continue to be a dogfight on the field and in the recruiting battles. Tierney is a legend right now, but if he can continue to steer Princeton to the top despite the parity that exists in his conference and at the top of Division I, he could entrench himself as perhaps the best to ever walk the sidelines.
In Loving Memory
No matter what the story of the year for 2004 will be, we will always remember 2004 as a year of tragedy in our lacrosse family. I have only had the chance to meet Joe Breschi on a select few occasions, but during those occasions I came to know the Ohio State Head Coach as one of the nicest, most honorable men in the entire sport. He lost a young son at the very beginning of the season and still found the courage and strength to continue to devote himself to the young men who play for him. And he led the Buckeyes to a tremendous season. In sports you often hear terms of art such as, "Heart of a Champion," and Joe Breschi at Ohio State defined just that in 2004. And while his grief is still unimaginable, nobody would have questioned him had he opted to sit 2004 out to be with his family. But, he did not do that and I think he deserves nothing but the utmost respect from our sport for that. Who wouldn't want to play for him?
Landon and Cornell's George Boiardi
And if courage and strength are the ultimate sign of character, I am very happy to know that our world will have young men such as the ones who play lacrosse at Cornell and Binghamton, and the coaches who lead those men, in the "real world" one day. On March 17, the unimaginable happened when Cornell senior George Boiardi died tragically on the field after blocking a shot during a game with Binghamton. Both teams not only continued their seasons, but Cornell has advanced to the Quarterfinals while Binghamton opened a lot of eyes as perhaps the best young team in the NCAA. In the face of tragedy, both teams not only honored Boiardi with class and dignity, but they also made sure to let everybody know what a wonderful young man Boiardi was by continuing his work on the field and enjoying incredible success. If that is not the ultimate sign of character in these young men and the programs they represent, I do not know what is.
As the games come to a close in 2004, let's all remember that these are still games and meant to be fun. While there is a lot to get excited about and rightfully so, we also have some people in our lacrosse world who are truly hurting as Memorial Day approaches not only the Breschis and Boiardis and their loved ones, but there are many former laxers from our Service Academies who are currently putting their lives on the line to keep our nation safe. As the games approach and happen, let's keep all of them in our prayers for a safe return home.
May 20, 2004
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
CCNY Drops Lacrosse