Of all of the weeks during a lacrosse season, the one with the least amount of competition is the week I have grown to love the most in this sport. The days and hours leading to the US Lacrosse Convention to me have always been one of the most exciting times of the year as the annual trip to Philadelphia is a lacrosse enthusiasts' dream. Between the vendor area that gets better and better every year, the presentations, and the lacrosse atmosphere, no lacrosse season is complete without Martin Luther King Day Weekend, and I can't wait to be in Philly!
My favorite part of the Convention is not a specific event or area, but instead it's the opportunity to speculate about the coming college season. Who will be playing on Memorial Day Weekend? Who's going to face Salisbury in the Division III Championship Game? Can anybody stop Northwestern on the Women's side? All questions I'll be asking this weekend, and all questions I'll have 100 different responses to.
Like any other sport, as a journalist, my favorite part of lacrosse season is predicting the future, and as we all get ready for Philly, I've whipped out the old crystal ball, and here is The Latest Spin Issues, Predictions, and Punditries column for 2007:
Will the shot-clock really come to fruition in 2007?
Don't get me wrong, we're not going to wake up in February and find out that we're going to a shot-clock in 2007, but my sources tell me that at some point this year, the shot-clock will be instituted, beginning a couple of years down the road - thereby allowing schools to budget this project and prepare. It's all just a rumor right now, but I haven't had anybody deny this rumor yet, either!
The shot-clock has been a hot debate in men's lacrosse for several years, and my only hope upon its institution is that all of the issues inherent with this change are addressed long before the clocks appear on the field. Between issues such as, length of time before a shot must be taken, "What is a shot?" to whether or not it is a shot-on goal or just a shot "attempt" that resets the shot-clock, to who is operating this clock all have to be administered to before such a change could be made. Also, my hope is that there will be some sort of "sportsmanship clause" drafted into the rule where if a team is ahead by - say - 12 or more goals, the shot-clocks will be turned off in the name of not running up the score.
Personally, this is not the answer in men's lacrosse, and I don't think this is going to be an increase in transition lacrosse or "run and gun" play. Depending on how the drafting of the rule plays out, if all a team has to do is shoot the ball wide on purpose to get a reset, that's what we're going to see. And if "shot on goal" is the definition of a shot, it's going to lead to a lot more sloppy play and wasted shots (depending on how long a team has to shoot).
It would seem to me that adding a shot-clock is a "last straw" decision by the Men's Lacrosse Rules Committee when all of the other straws have not been utilized. If the slow-down of the game is the issue, perhaps limiting or eliminating substituting on the fly, or forcing a team to always keep the ball in the box once it enters the box. There are better ways to speed the game up, and I think adding a shot-clock and artificially speeding up offenses will not be the magic bean that proponents of this change think it will be.
Can we please move past the Duke situation?
The "Story of the Year" for 2006 should not be allowed to linger into 2007 as what lacrosse needs this season is a return to the field. You couldn't have a 30-second conversation about lacrosse in 2006 (after the Duke situation first came about) without bringing up Duke, and most of the halftime show for the NCAA men's championship game was devoted to this situation … all for nothing. No rape took place, two of the accused are now allowed back to the University and on the team, and the DA's case has enough problems to make this one of the biggest travesties of jurisprudence in modern times. While Duke will have a tremendous spotlight on the program now that the Blue Devils will take the field in '07, the focus should be lacrosse and nothing else.
How can we get more people to the National Women's Championships?
If an NCAA Championship is held, and nobody is there to see it, did it actually happen? While more than 5,000 people attended the 2006 Division I Championship Game between Northwestern and Dartmouth in Boston, the event still did not receive the fanfare, attention, and support that it deserves. While 5,000 is a strong attendance figure for a Women's Lacrosse game, with all of the lacrosse in New England, the event should have drawn more. The 2007 Championships will be held at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, and with a slew of strong college programs in the area, one would hope that the support from the college lacrosse community alone should be strong, but you never know. New England has its fair share of strong college programs, and I would say that attendance at the 2006 Championships was a disappointment.
The IWLCA has for several years looked into why the numbers seem to lack at the women's championships, and how this can be approved, and hopefully 2007 will bring with it a surge of attendance and attention. After all, the last two years have brought with them compelling games and storylines. In 2005, all eyes were on Northwestern when they attempted to do what many thought was the impossible and capture a National Championship. Last year, the Duke-Northwestern Semifinal game was worth the trip to Boston alone. Nevertheless, the biggest story that has emerged from the Women's Division I Championships during the last two years was that the Northwestern team wore flip-flops to the White House in 2005. Not good enough!
I've said it before and I'll say it again, the "smoking gun" answer is holding the event in conjunction with the US Lacrosse National Tournament, which is held Memorial Day Weekend at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Lehigh has the facilities to make this happen, and the National Tournament event is - in my opinion - one of the greatest events we have in the sport. By bringing the championships to an event with thousands of Women's Lacrosse enthusiasts, both events benefit.
Where does professional lacrosse go from here?
While this column has been particularly tough on the professional lacrosse leagues over the years, one thing I will say in as positive a fashion as humanly possible is that the NLL and MLL have really gone above and beyond the call of duty over the last 18 months to make their products grow and succeed. Both leagues have expanded rapidly, both have done an incredible amount to promote themselves and make them a part of mainstream sports culture, and both have been legitimized by strong products on the field. While I have often criticized each league, I do believe they have promoted the growth of our great sport, and for that alone, they deserve our support as a community.
2007 is a huge year for both leagues. With the expansion projects for both leagues seeing positive results and mainstream media attention at an all-time high, the next 12 months are crucial to the long-term futures of both entities. Will the NLL franchises in New York and Chicago succeed? A tough question to answer. As a New York City native, I am genuinely excited to see an NLL franchise back in the area and playing some games at Madison Square Garden. I also think Chicago is one of the greatest sports cities in the world, and if the league can succeed in both areas, they have two major markets covered. However, let's keep in mind that the NLL already saw franchises fold on Long Island and New Jersey, so the product has been a tough sell in this region. As for Chicago, it is an unknown at best because the Chicago area is still an emerging market for lacrosse. I am keeping my fingers crossed for both franchises, and I intend to be at Madison Square Garden for some of the games, but it is a bit of an uphill battle for both franchises.
As for the MLL, seeing the league's premiere franchise relocate from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. has to be cause for concern. After all, keep in mind that the Baltimore Bayhawks moved from Johns Hopkins to Ravens Stadium to Towson during a very short period, and now this moves all but proves that the Baltimore area is not viable for professional lacrosse (remember the Baltimore Thunder?). That's a tough pill to swallow considering the hotbed that exists in the Baltimore area for lacrosse. Washington, D.C. has already been home to an NLL franchise that was nothing short of a colossal failure, and you have to wonder if this franchise did not succeed in the middle of a hotbed, how well will it do away from one?
And maybe it's not just the location. Despite rumors that the league would not be around long, they have survived over the years, and their Colorado franchise is flourishing. But, aside from Colorado, is there an MLL franchise that is actually succeeding? 2007 could finally be a make-or-break year for many of the league's franchises and perhaps the MLL as a whole.
Throwing a wrench into everything is the announcement that the NLL is considering an outdoor league to rival the MLL. Makes you wonder if either the NLL brass A) see flaws in the MLL operating structure that they could exploit and provide for a better league, B) know something the MLL people don't, C) cannot see the obvious, or D) have money from Reebok just to put a stop to the New Balance/Warrior MLL gravy train. Either way, with the difficulties the MLL has faced, it is clear that there is not enough room in this sport for two professional outdoor leagues to be successful. If indeed the NLL goes outside in 2007, success as a league would be a roll of the dice and may well kill the MLL or both outdoor leagues. It's ironic, as the MLL's founders needlessly positioned the league against the NLL from day one with an in-your-face "take it outside" theme. Live by the sword…
PREDICTIONS FOR 2007
Division I Men's teams going to the Final Four: Virginia, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton
Division I Women's teams going to the Final Four: Northwestern, Duke, Notre Dame, Princeton
2007 Division I National Champions: Johns Hopkins (Men), Duke (Women)
Division I Men's team that could sneak into the final four: Cornell
Division I Women's team that could shock the world and win the National Championship: Johns Hopkins
Division I Men's team that will show the most improvement: North Carolina
Division I Men's biggest candidate for a rebuilding year: Hofstra
Division I Women's program that will see the most improvement: Maryland
Division I Women's program that will go undefeated and lose in the NCAA Championship Game: Northwestern
Division I Women's Player of the Year: Kristen Kjellman, Northwestern
Division I Women's Coach of the Year: Janine Tucker, Johns Hopkins
Division I Men's Conference Champions:
Princeton (Ivy League)
Mount St. Mary (MAAC)
Navy (Patriot League)
Albany (America East)
Division I Men's Player of the Year: Matt Danowski, Duke
Division I Men's Coach of the Year: John Danowski, Duke
Number of Division I Men's teams that will finish the season undefeated: 0
Number of Division I Men's Head Coaches who will retire, resign, or be terminated: 3
Division II Men's National Champions: LeMoyne
Most improved in Men's Division II: C.W. Post, Limestone, Merrimack
Most intriguing Division Men's II team: Bryant
Division II Men's Player of the Year: CJ Leary, Dowling
Division II Men's Coach of the Year: Mike Pressler, Bryant
Division II Women's National Champions: C.W. Post
Division III Men's National Champions: Salisbury
Number of games Salisbury will lose in 2007: 0
Division III Men's Dark-horse team that could shock the world and face Salisbury in the NCAA Finals: Stevens Institute of Technology
Division III Men's Player of the Year: Chris Heier, Salisbury
Division III Men's Coach of the Year: Byron Collins, Stevens
Number of surprise Division Men's III teams that could crack the top-10: 0
Division III Women's National Champions: Middlebury
Person with ties close to the lacrosse world most likely to be unemployed: Mike Nifong
Men's Lacrosse Story of the Year in 2007: The shot-clock will be instituted for Men's Lacrosse by 2010 at the latest.
Women's Lacrosse Story of the Year in 2007: Continued turnover by Division I Head Coaches as Division I Women's Lacrosse continues to expand.
January 11, 2007