By Michael Spinner
Considering that Nazareth College has now advanced to the NCAA Championship Game five times in its 19-year history, one would think that this trip is all too familiar for the Golden Flyers. However, a closer look at the state of affairs for the Rochester school will reveal that this coming weekend is anything but familiar. Unlike their previous four visits to the biggest stage in NCAA lacrosse, this time around, Nazareth is the neophyte, the young upstart, and - most notably - the underdog.
The last time Nazareth had a game during Memorial Day Weekend, they were defeated by Washington College, 16-10, in what was considered an upset at the time. Since then, both Head Coaches from that game have moved on as John Haus left after winning the Championship to take over at Johns Hopkins, and is now the Head Coach at North Carolina. Nazareth's Head Coach that day, Scott Nelson - the man who founded the program and led them to three NCAA Championships and 12 appearances in the NCAA Tournament during his 15-year tenure - is now patrolling the sidelines at Brown.
This Nazareth team has a completely new look as fourth year Head Coach Rob Randall will lead the Golden Flyers as they attempt to bring Nazareth lacrosse back to the level they reached during the mid-1990's. Such a task is a challenge for Randall, considering that he has had enormous success at Nazareth, just not the same success enjoyed under Nelson. In fact, Randall's four-year record is 52-12, and Nazareth's only NCAA Tournament losses have been to powerhouse Middlebury. However, according to Randall, the task is a lofty one considering the Nazareth teams he is being compared to.
"I think there was a perception that Nazareth lacrosse was down the last few years, but I would say we have been among the top teams in Division III for the most part. It's just that we have not been in the Finals and we are being compared to teams here that reached the Finals and won National Championships," said Randall, a 1988 graduate of Nazareth who began his coaching career as a Golden Flyer and was an Assistant for the 1992 National Championship team. Randall was formerly the Head Coach at Sacred Heart and SUNY Geneseo, and also an Assistant Coach at Army. "A lot of people didn't understand where we were. In 2001, we were undefeated until we lost to Middlebury in the NCAA semifinals. We've been right on the doorstep for the most part, but we've been held to the enormous standards this program created."
Some of the difficulty Randall faced was his 2002 team that finished 9-5 and did not reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years. Randall called that experience, "difficult" but said that the program was still in transition from the guidance of Scott Nelson to the type of program he runs. Seemingly, the team's disappointing finish in 2002 set the stage for this season's run to the NCAA Finals.
In 2003, Nazareth was back in the NCAA Tournament but was once again victimized in the Quarterfinals by Middlebury, who lost in overtime to Salisbury in the NCAA Finals. This season, Nazareth was not considered a favorite to make it to Baltimore out of the North as both Middlebury and SUNY Cortland seemed to be the favorites, and Nazareth lost twice during the regular season - to Cortland and Ithaca.
However, not only did Nazareth beat both Ithaca (Empire 8 Finals) and Cortland (NCAA Quarterfinals), but last week they defeated Middlebury 12-8 at Middlebury, ending the Panthers' 45-game home winning streak and run of five straight trips to the NCAA Finals. With three of the biggest victories of his coaching tenure accomplished on the road during this post-season, Randall said his team has gained a sense of toughness that could be key for the NCAA Championship Game.
"At the beginning of the year, I didn't think it was out of the question for us to make it to Baltimore. We had a great group back and I told them the first day of fall ball that the bar has risen after making it to the Quarterfinals last season. I think we have gained a lot of confidence the last few weeks, beating teams on the road who beat us during the season, and then beating Middlebury at Middlebury," Randall said. "The difference this season was that we instilled the concept that we needed to be confident that we could beat Middlebury. Last season, we were not confident going into that game and it showed. This time around, the kids did a good job of walking on the field with the confidence that we could win,"
However, as strong as Middlebury was, beating Salisbury is another story. The Sea Gulls are considered the heavy favorite going into the NCAA Finals, having won the National Championship in 2003 and going undefeated in 2004. Salisbury has lost one game during the last two seasons and Randall said the challenge is a tough one, but he thinks his team will be ready.
"Obviously, they've been in this atmosphere before and we have not, so they do have the experience edge. I'm concerned a bit that this team has not reached the Finals while Salisbury has, but I also think this is a different type of group. This team seems to like when its back is against the wall," Randall said.
"Salisbury is an athletic team. We have to contain their attack and we need some big saves from our goalie. We also have to take care of the ball against their defense," Randall added. "We're going to try to run with them a bit, and if we can run with them but also pull it back at the right times, I think we'll be ok. (Salisbury face-off specialist and 2003 Division III Player of the Year) Andy Murray is probably the best face-off guy in the country and will be a big factor, but he struggled in the Semifinals against Washington. Hopefully, we can exploit what they did a little bit,"
"Overall, not many people expect a great game this Sunday. We do," Randall added.
And with a young team overall that will only graduate six seniors, Randall said he hopes this is just the beginning for his program and that with continued good recruiting and hard work, Nazareth could be back as an annual contender for the National Championship.
"We've done a great job recruiting, we have some really great young kids here and I feel very good about the future of our program. We're riding a great wave after beating Middlebury, and I hope that we can ride it into Baltimore and then beyond for next season and set the tone for the future. It won't be easy," Randall admits. "Lacrosse is growing so quickly at the Division III level. There are a lot of teams out there who were not playoff teams a few years ago that are now challenging for the top-10. I feel good about the direction of this team, but there is going to be a lot of competition out there."
May 28, 2004
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