2006 Year in Review

By Michael Spinner

The English translation of an ancient Chinese proverb and curse reads, "may you live in interesting times." It's safe to say the 2006 lacrosse season represented very interesting times for anybody who has ever been around the sport. 2006 featured an undefeated championship season that was never truly celebrated, a scandal that thrust our sport into the national spotlight, the end of a dynasty and the continuation of another, a legendary coach who sought out new challenges, a stunning upset in the lacrosse World Championships, and the end of an era for perhaps the greatest individual talent we have ever seen. So, if you were a lacrosse fan in 2006, you just experienced one of the most exciting years that any sport has experienced, whether it feels that way or not. For 2006 was a banner year, despite the scandals and controversies and everything else that could have been a black eye on this sport, lacrosse remains one of the most popular and fastest-growing sports in the world, and all indications suggest it will remain that way for a long time to come. 2007 promises to be another exciting year, but before we move to the business of the season that is to come, let's take one more look at the year that was as we present the Latest Spin top-10 lacrosse stories of 2006.

#10 - Dowling College advances to Division II Championship Game

Anybody who has ever been around Division II lacrosse circles can certainly appreciate this one. During the mid-1990's when Division II Men's Lacrosse first entered the lacrosse landscape, there were three teams who thoroughly dominated the country as Long Island's Adelphi, C.W. Post, and New York Institute of Technology combined to win national championships in 1993, 1995-99, and 2001, 2003, and 2005. For a while, only the emergence of Limestone College as a power in the South threatened the Long Island school's role as the "Big Three" in Division II Men's lacrosse, but LeMoyne's ascension to Division II Champions in 2004 truly opened things up.

In 2006, Dowling College advanced to the Division II Championship, losing to LeMoyne in the Final, but in the process they proved that the right mix of leadership at the top and resources can result in a top-notch program anywhere. When I was a Division II lacrosse player from 1995-99, Dowling College was by no means a joke in D2 circles, but at the same time they were never a serious threat to the top of the Division. After all, at the time, you simply could not compare a school like Dowling to a school like an Adelphi. Dowling did not have a reputation as a destination for undergraduate students, did not have much in the way of dorm facilities, and only seemed to draw student-athletes who were unable to get into other schools but times have seriously changed. Despite not (yet) having a true home field (Dowling currently plays its home games at Stony Brook), Head Coach Tim Boyle and company have found their niche and built a program that seems poised to be a major player in Division II for years to come.

There has been a lot of talk over the years about lacrosse's expansion at the college level, and while many are resigned to the fact that Division I Men's Lacrosse is not going to expand much, Division II seems primed for further expansion, and Dowling College's 2006 campaign is living proof that Men's Lacrosse is a worthwhile investment for any institution looking to add a new and exciting varsity sport.

#9 - Cindy Timchal Joins The Navy

Perhaps the relative stability achieved by Division I men's lacrosse coaches in terms of turnover has spoiled us all as every year it seems like there is more and more turnover in the women's lacrosse coaching world - and every year the turnover seems more and more surprising. The summer of 2006 saw the trend continue as 16 of the 82 Division I programs saw changes at the top, including 10 of LaxPower.com's top-30 teams. The most high profile of the coaching changes was undoubtedly Maryland's Cindy Timchal - the all-time winningest coach in women's lacrosse history with 309 career wins - who left Maryland to start the program from scratch at Navy. After eight national championships and a 233-34 record in College Park, Timchal now has the challenge of a lifetime as she faces the task of building a program from scratch at a place where recruiting top-notch female athletes is going to be a challenge to say the least. Let's call it straight, Navy is not nearly as big of a draw as Maryland or most of the top Division I schools, particularly for female athletes as the federal service academies are predominantly male. But if anybody is capable of building a top program at Navy, it is Timchal, who not only built one of the greatest dynasties in NCAA history at Maryland, but also produced some of the best coaches in Division I lacrosse today.

But Timchal was not the only high-profile coach to change homes this summer, openings developed at Boston University, James Madison, Hofstra, Denver, William & Mary, Virginia Tech, Temple, UConn, and several others. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Boston University's Liza Kelly, who left a BU program she had on the brink of competing for a national championship to take over at the University of Denver.

For my money's worth, the coaching change that could have the biggest impact was Bonnie Rosen's move from UConn to Temple. I've written and said many times that Rosen is perhaps the most knowledgeable and likeable Head Coach in Division I women's lacrosse, and her move to Temple is going to make things very interesting in the mid-Atlantic lacrosse hotbed. At UConn, Rosen was at a fine institution that has made an unparalleled commitment to women's sports, and Rosen built one of the best teams in the country. But UConn in many ways was limited in the recruiting scheme of things by location, but Rosen will not face that problem at Temple. She now has access to the talent-rich areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, and coaching in a women's lacrosse hotbed, combined with her name as one of the best players in the history of the sport, and a rich lacrosse tradition at Temple puts Rosen and the Owls in prime position to be a national championship contender before long.

And the revolving door in Division I women's lacrosse circles will not end soon, either. With Florida and South Carolina adding varsity women's lacrosse, the summer of 2007 could yield some surprise coaching announcements as well.

#8 - TCNJ continues dominance of Division III Women's Lacrosse

There have been 22 national champions in the history of Division III Women's Lacrosse. 13 of them have been the College of New Jersey. There are dynasty programs and then there are programs like TCNJ, who has participated in the NCAA Championship Game an incredible 17 times in 22 years. 2006 did not seem like it was going to be TCNJ's year during the early going as the Lions found themselves at .500 nearly a month into the season after losing consecutive 9-8 games to SUNY Cortland and Gettysburg College on March 26 and 30 to even out their record at 2-2. However, from that point, TCNJ and legendary Head Coach Sharon Pfluger were virtually unstoppable, winning their final 13 games, including a 13-9 win over Middlebury in the NCAA Semifinals, and a 10-4 defeat of Gettysburg in the Championship Game. During her 20 years at the TCNJ helm, Pfluger has amassed an incredible 306-23-1 record, winning 94 percent of her games to go on top of her slew of national championships. While Division III lacrosse will probably never get the fanfare and publicity that Division I gets, Pfluger and TCNJ's accomplishments for more than two decades marks perhaps the most incredible team and coaching accomplishment in lacrosse history at any level and despite graduating several key players, the Lions expect to be in the hunt once again in 2007.

#7 - John Danowski takes over as Head Coach at Duke University; Pressler to Bryant; Tierney to Hofstra

Before I continue, let me make it straight that the Duke University lacrosse situation will not enter the top-10 lacrosse stories of 2006, although it will get significant mention in this column. While there was no bigger story this year in the lacrosse world, the Duke situation was not a lacrosse story. My contention is that it was an unfortunate situation for a group of lacrosse players, but only a scandal because an ambitious and misguided District Attorney failed to follow legal protocol and - in turn - let this situation spiral out of control when perhaps due process and legal diligence would have ended the drama before it started. However, I'm not going to dignify Mike Nifong's actions by allowing the saga he created to enter my top-10 stories of the year. Instead, I choose to focus on some of the fallout that resulted from the situation.

The coaching changes that took place as a result of the Duke situation certainly warrant a top-10 spot as Mike Pressler's departure from Duke (and subsequent hiring at Division II Bryant University), John Danowski's hiring at Duke, and Seth Tierney's hiring at Hofstra represent three of the most high-profile coaching moves we have seen in recent years. Amazingly, none of them would have ever happened had the Duke situation never spiraled out of control.

Danowski's move to Duke is the headline here, mainly because he had something very special going as the Head Coach at Hofstra University. In 2006, the Pride were mere minutes from their first Final Four after their most successful season, ever, before an incredible comeback by UMass broke the collective hearts of the Hofstra lacrosse faithful. With several trips to the NCAA Tournament in recent years, Hofstra has proven to be a school of choice for many of the nation's top lacrosse players, and Danowski spent nearly two decades as the face of lacrosse on Long Island - not only because of his success at the Hofstra helm, but because of the classy and professional manner in which he led the program. While Danowski moving to Duke was not a shock by any means, it certainly was a risk after all of the negative publicity the program had received during the Spring of 2006.

But for Danowski and company, the move was the right one, not just for the man, but for the sport. Even after a scandal, the Duke program is one of the most attractive coaching positions in the country, but Duke did not need a great coach as much as it needed a great leader, and they got just that in Danowski. Whether or not Duke will rebound to capture the elusive national championship remains to be seen, but what is a definite is that they have a Head Coach who stands for respect, integrity, and professionalism and brings nothing less then pure credibility to a program that will be under the microscope for years to come. In short, Danowski was one of only a few people who on presence alone could allow the program to move forward and he has already done just that.

For his part, Mike Pressler was little more than a patsy in the whole Duke mess, finding himself unemployed, but nobody really knows why. He was not at the party, never tried to cover anything up, and handled the whole ordeal in a very professional and mature way. When he resigned from Duke University, he could have easily slammed Mike Nifong, Duke University, or the forces that led to his resignation, but he chose not to do so. Instead, he remained in the background until Bryant University came calling, and now he has the opportunity to become the first coach in the history of the sport to win the USILA Division III Coach of the Year in all three divisions as he earned the award at Ohio Wesleyan in 1987 and Duke in 1995. And anybody who has ever seen Bryant University or knows of their commitment to athletics knows that building a national championship caliber program at Bryant is certainly in the realm of possibility.

This column has been particularly critical of Mike Pressler over the years and once devoted an entire column to raise some issues concerning Pressler and Duke several years ago. And while I'll probably never appear on Pressler's Christmas Card list, I do have to say that Pressler's handling of the entire mess at Duke probably allowed both the program and the lacrosse community to move on a lot faster and smoother than would have happened had he done what most of us would have done and brought down everybody else with him as his personal ship sunk. Pressler's ability to see beyond the crisis and look after the best interests of the sport and Duke University as an institution were one of the few positive notes from this whole mess, and he is truly deserving of any honors or accolades he will seek at Bryant, including the national championship.

For Tierney, who seemed perfectly content to remain at Johns Hopkins as Dave Pietramala's right hand man, the rise to Head Coach at Hofstra could represent a major change in the Division I Men's Lacrosse power structure. While Hofstra has been on the national championship doorstep for several years, they never did break through to a final four. In fact, beyond Syracuse, Hopkins, Duke, Virginia, Princeton, Maryland, and Georgetown, very few have advanced that far, and none on a consistent basis. With new blood at the top at Hofstra in the form of a man who has a national championship ring from his work on the sidelines, and all of the inherent advantages the University has to offer (location, tradition, facilities), Seth Tierney and Hofstra has a golden opportunity to become the next consistent participant in the NCAA Final Four, and perhaps even win the program's first national championship.

#6 - UMass advances to Division I Championship Game

I have to admit that this entry comes with a bit of bias since I have been a huge UMass supporter for some time now. I have no formal connection to the University, but since I began working as a lacrosse journalist, I have come to truly like UMass Head Coach Greg Cannella and consider him one of the best people you will meet in the lacrosse world. Cannella has long been one of the few Division I Head Coaches willing to speak his mind freely and has represented a major breath of fresh air among his peers. In 2001, while writing one of my first articles on the recruiting scene, Cannella spoke openly about the negative recruiting that exists in the lacrosse world and how he changed his style from a conservative, slow approach to an up-tempo style merely because of the recruiting scene and his desire to avoid the negative stigma of running a slower game. In 2002, when UMass was completely hosed out of a trip to the NCAA Tournament, Cannella offered very open and heartfelt criticism of the selection committee and process and probably got some heat for his comments, but it was the right thing to do.

Greg Cannella runs a great program, but more importantly, he is one of the good guys you can't help but root for once you have a chance to meet him. UMass had been on the brink of the Final Four for several years, but 2006 was special as they had a less than stellar regular season after losses to Albany, Penn State, Georgetown, and Syracuse, but turned things on when the post-season arrived and went all the way to the Finals where they lost to eventual champion, Virginia. They became a rare "outsider" to make it all the way to the Memorial Day and provided incredible excitement for the lacrosse world. Hopefully, Cannella and UMass will stay at the top for a long time to come.

#5 - Canada downs USA for Men's Lacrosse World Championship did anybody notice?

When Australia beat USA for the Women's Lacrosse World Championship two years ago, the story earned an entire column on e-lacrosse.com. Apparently, USA losing a World Championship is not as big of a deal anymore, because all Canada's Men's Lacrosse Gold Medal gets is a section in the year's top-10. This summer's World Championships had an eerily similar feel to the Women's Championships a year earlier as a seasoned and experienced Team USA lost to an athletic and talented Team Canada who was led by the inspired play of one of the best individuals to ever pick up a stick. Like Australia's win over Team USA on the Women's side, if you were to compare the top-100 Men's Lacrosse players in Canada to the top-100 in the USA, the USA probably owns 80% of the better talent, but when it came to the "best of the best," Canada had the better team. Led by Gary Gait, Canada was a team on a mission this time around and was simply a step ahead of the Americans in 2006, and won the championship on their home turf in Gait's final game. It would have been the story of the year in the lacrosse world if anybody took notice.

The "real" story of the 2006 World Championships was that it was an event of underwhelming notice as the championships failed short of many expectations, particularly financial ones. The crowds were lower than expected, there was no television coverage, and recently it was disclosed that organizers of the event have declared bankruptcy and creditors are owed thousands of dollars for every facet of the event. While Canada's win in the finals drew the headlines, a prominent subheader is that the future of what should be the premiere event in our sport has to be in question as if the nation that is home to the World Champion cannot adequately support this event, who can? Lacrosse has seen an incredible increase in mainstream media coverage over the last few years, and participation and attendance rates are on the rise, but the World Championships don't seem to inspire the masses. While sports such as Swimming, Ice Hockey, Track & Field, Soccer and Basketball get incredible publicity every time their events are held and even turn a profit, lacrosse continues to struggle. Kind of makes you wonder how easy it will be to find a host for the 2010 event.

#4 - Northwestern wins Women's Division I Championship again

I'm not ready to call Northwestern University a Women's Lacrosse dynasty yet after all, prior to Northwestern's repeat, Princeton accomplished the same feat in 2002 and 2003, and - of course - Maryland won seven straight championships from 1995-2001. But, at the same time, the fact that a program located half-way across the country from the sport's recruiting bases can win two straight championships and boast enough talent to make it a three-peat is quite a story. Add too the mix that Northwestern has only had a program for five years and what Kelly Amonte-Hiller and company has accomplished is one of the biggest stories Women's Lacrosse has ever seen. But will they be underestimated and slighted again in 2007? Probably.

Northwestern's 2006 championship was particularly noteworthy because everybody was ready for the Wildcats this time around. In 2005, they were the proverbial new kid on the block with a dynamic offensive firepower, and defense that nobody could seem to figure out. A year later, everybody knew what was coming from Northwestern, but - aside from an early-season loss to Duke that was avenged in the NCAA Semifinals - Amonte-Hiller and company were still impossible to figure out. Northwestern's dominance is not necessarily because they're recruiting the best players in the country, although they do have their fair share of top-notch talent, Northwestern has remained at the top because of a system that has been perfected, and when combined with a team loaded with incredible athleticism has proven to be near impossible to beat. Not bad for an institution that has had only a handful of national champions in its history and is not considered an elite athletics institution.

Perhaps the true story of the year when it came to Northwestern University lacrosse was that Amonte-Hiller is still a Wildcat. When Cindy Timchal departed Maryland for Navy earlier in the summer, it seemed as if Amonte-Hiller was destined to return to her alma matter to be the Head Coach, and perhaps build another Maryland dynasty. After all, if she could win two National Championships in a row at a place without much athletics tradition located nowhere near a lacrosse recruiting hotbed, imagine what she could do at Maryland? Ultimately, she spurred a big-money contract and the opportunity to return home to remain at Northwestern and seek further glory there.

#3 - Cortland snaps Salisbury's 69-game winning streak and National Championship three-peat

Is it me, or is the highlight of Memorial Day weekend quickly becoming Sunday instead of Saturday or Monday? After all, during the last 10 years, four times the Division III Championship Game has gone to overtime, including the 2006 title tilt that will go down as one of the best national championship games in the history of the sport. Not many people gave Cortland a shot to beat Salisbury as the Sea Gulls entered Memorial Day Weekend having won 69 straight games - a Men's Lacrosse record for any Division - and three straight national championships. But after four incredible quarters of lacrosse that saw 11 different ties, the game remained tied and the two teams went into overtime knotted up 12-12.

Cortland's Mike Felice ended things with 2.2 seconds left in the first extra session when he dove and scored the game-winning goal, and Salisbury's run was over. The game was simply unreal and an instant classic so much so that I have spent more than seven months unsuccessfully trying to get a copy of the tape. It also represented one of the best stories in lacrosse for the year as it was undoubtedly the most exciting game during a weekend of good games.

Cortland's story centered around a first-year, part-time Head Coach who many thought was out of his element until Rich Barnes did something that no other Cortland Coach was able to do since the Red Dragons became a Division III institution. And the fact that 2006 would be Barnes's only season as the Cortland Head Coach makes his story even more amazing. Cortland was an unlikely champion as Head Coach Lelan Rogers left to join the staff at Syracuse University shortly before the season began. Barnes was seen as a stop-gap of sorts as his full-time teaching position made the jump to full-time coach next to impossible. When the season began, Cortland was viewed as a strong team but not a championship contender in fact, they weren't even the best team in their Conference. But as the team came together, the Red Dragons went on a run and easily downed Stevens and Middlebury before defeating Wesleyan in overtime in the Semifinals. While they were beating Wesleyan, Salisbury beat Roanoke 13-12 in overtime of the other Semifinal - a game that was seen as the "real" National Championship since very few gave a northern team a shred of hope to win the championship. That is, until they proved everybody wrong.

Cortland's win also ended perhaps the most successful run this sport has ever seen as Salisbury's winning streak under Head Coach Jim Berkman was the type of run that legends are made of. The Sea Gulls spent nearly four years winning big in the games they were supposed to win big, and beating the best of the best as well. This was as close to a dynasty we're ever going to see in a parity-laden division that is only going to get closer and closer as more schools devote resources to their programs and push for national prominence. Both programs should be celebrated for their fine accomplishments this season and for an incredible championship game.

#2 - Gary Gait retires after the greatest playing career in lacrosse history

We can now say that there is absolutely nothing that Gary Gait failed to accomplish during the greatest playing career in the history of the sport. After scoring countless goals, assisting on countless others, and leading teams to championships as a player and coach, in 2006 Gait led the Colorado Mammoth to the NLL Championship as Head Coach during the Spring, and then led Team Canada to the World Championship as a player to end his playing career and virtually cement his place as the greatest we have ever seen. When you think about it, Gait's greatness was not only because of his goals, talent, and presence that brought thousands to the stands to see him play, but because of his impact on the teams he joined. At Syracuse University, during several stops at different franchises in the NLL, on the sidelines at the University of Maryland, on the field for the Long Island Lizards, and on the field and sidelines for the Baltimore Bayhawks, on the field for Team Canada, and as Head Coach of the Colorado Mammoth, Gait's teams won championships. In professional sports we often see the best players compete for subpar teams because the effort becomes more about the great individual and less about the team. For Gary Gait, he was truly the best talent we have ever seen, but his greatness emerged in wins as his teams always seemed to win the championship or be in the championship hunt. For that, there may never be a lacrosse player - or professional athlete for that matter - like Gary Gait.

In my opinion - and I have written about this before - Gait's greatness truly shone through during the tail end of his career as during several occasions he could have easily hung it up or moved on to something else. When the University of Maryland reportedly promised Gait the position of Head Men's Lacrosse Coach upon Dick Edell's retirement, and then reneged on that promise, Gait simply moved on to the next opportunity. When Gait - and his brother Paul - were not allowed to participate in the MLL Summer Showcase and were called "dinosaurs" by several members of the league brass when defending the lack of a Gait presence in the showcase, both Gait brothers still participated in the league and worked to help it grow, with Gary contributing the most as Player/Coach in Baltimore. No matter what the situation, no matter how big the challenge, Gary Gait has quietly and humbly been a leader in our sport and nearly 20 years after first emerging as one of the best players in the game, he still remains our biggest name. While we will not have the honor of seeing him play anymore, we'll get to see him coach for a long time and continue to help our sport grow.

#1 - Virginia completes undefeated season to win Men's Division I National Championship

Not only did Virginia finish the 2006 season 17-0 after a 15-7 win over UMass in the National Championship Game, but their 17 wins included only one "real" game - a 7-6 win over Princeton on March 12. Nothing else was even close. The second-closest game for the Cavaliers was a 14-10 win over Notre Dame on May 13. That is the sign of a truly incredible team that had a truly remarkable year, yet, when anybody asks about the 2006 lacrosse season, the response is going to be something to do with Duke University.

Let's take Duke out of the picture. Virginia would have, in short order. The fact of the matter is that the 2006 Virginia University Men's Lacrosse team was one of the greatest teams to ever take the field and Duke was a typical contender. The Cavs didn't just win. They dominated, and at times made it look way too easy. The fact that Duke University chose not to field a team, regardless of the reason, should in no way cast a shadow on the accomplishments of Head Coach Dom Starsia and his team. This Virginia squad belongs at the very top of the list of the best teams in the history of the sport, and nothing should take that away.

When the day comes and the Duke University players are fully exonerated and this whole mess is over, there will be a question as to what was the true impact of the Duke situation. Of course the three young men involved were impacted and the team as a whole. Mike Pressler was impacted. The sport of lacrosse was impacted. But, one of the truly negative impacts of the Duke situation was that Virginia's accomplishments were overshadowed by a situation that never really existed. At halftime on Memorial Day, the lead story was not Virginia's pursuit of an undefeated season and lacrosse immortality, but instead on the Duke saga and its impact on the sport. Such is the biggest lacrosse story of 2006. At the end of the day, the story we will remember is not what happened off the field at Duke, but instead of what happened on the field at Virginia and how this team never truly received the credit that was due. Virginia's 2006 season was one of the greatest accomplishments we have ever seen in this sport and the Cavaliers may have been the best team that ever played. And nothing, not even the Duke saga, can take that away.

January 1, 2007

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