Delaware takes road back to respectability

Blue Hens to face UMBC in 1st tourney trip in 15 years

May 15, 1999|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

NEWARK, Del. -- It is no shame to lose to Vermont in skiing and maple syrup.

It's less palatable for a lacrosse program with serious aspirations. But that's the reality Delaware dealt with two years ago, when a 10-game losing streak bottomed out in an ignominious America East Conference loss to the Catamounts that left the Blue Hens clucking about their future.

"It seemed like everything that could go wrong that year [1997] did," midfielder Dennis DeBusschere said. "The hardest loss to take was the one at Vermont. We had lost a bunch of games, but at the very least, you think you'll win there. That was a long trip home. That was the all-around low point."

The ashes of a 3-12 record, the worst in Delaware history, have been transformed into its most accomplished team ever, as the No. 6 seed Blue Hens carry a 13-2 mark into today's NCAA tournament first-round game (2: 45 p.m.) against UMBC at Towson's Minnegan Stadium. Neither has ever won a game in the Division I tournament.

The Blue Hens were boosted last year by the addition of attackman John Grant, who could become Delaware's first first-team All-American. This year brought another junior college coup in long-stick middie John Ciliberto and a reliable practice site in the form of a $3.3 million stadium with an artificial turf field, but there are many survivors from the bad old days.

"That [1997] was a hard year, but the silver lining was that we used a lot of freshmen and sophomores," coach Bob Shillinglaw said. " At times, I wondered if the people in the stands questioned if I knew what the heck I was doing."

Shillinglaw, a 47-year-old native of Severna Park, is in his 21st season at Delaware, and he's seen lacrosse grow there in fits and starts.

When he started in 1979, the state had one high school team. Now it has close to 30. He took the Blue Hens to an NCAA bid in 1984, and thought it would be the first of many, but a program with fewer than four scholarships was eclipsed when the likes of Georgetown, Hofstra, Loyola and Hofstra upgraded their recruiting budgets.

Fact is, the 15 years between bids for Shillinglaw is the longest any Division I coach has toiled to get his school back into the tournament.

"There were years when there were some doubts," Shillinglaw said. "But you keep working, keep scheduling tough teams and accept the fact that it's going to take some kids a few years to grow."

That describes 1997, when this year's seniors were sophomores who had trouble seeing light at the end of the tunnel. A group that includes attackman Sean Carney; midfielders DeBusschere, Jim Bruder, Dennis Byrne and Kevin Lavey; defenseman Marc Traverso and goalkeeper Ron Jedlicka have reveled in the two-year turnaround.

Shillinglaw lauded their maturity, and here's an example: Lavey was the top goal-getter in each of the last three seasons, but he moved to midfield this season, to beef up that area and open a spot on attack for his brother Jason.

"It was a very hard transition," Lavey said. "The game is totally different from midfield. I was used to being on the field the whole game. There's a lot more running involved, and now I'm playing defense. If I had to do this when I was a sophomore, I would have protested. As a senior, I realized it would help the whole team."

Unselfishness has made Delaware the nation's second-highest scoring team, behind Johns Hopkins. Grant needs four points to become the sixth Division I player to reach the 100 plateau, and four other seniors have between 27 and 37 goals. The only losses were to top-seeded Loyola and Georgetown, but the Blue Hens count victories over Hofstra and Navy.

They also beat Vermont.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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