New era spreads wealth in lacrosse

April 18, 2001|By Mike Preston

ON THE SURFACE, the face of men's NCAA Division I lacrosse doesn't appear to have changed, because Princeton and Syracuse are still the top two teams.

But take a closer look and realize the sport's parity. The Tigers and Orangemen have been the dominant teams of the past decade, but neither is unbeatable, like some of the Syracuse teams with the Gaits (twins Paul and Gary) in the late 1980s and early '90s or the Princeton teams in the latter part of the '90s with John Hess, Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey.

Going into the final stretch before May Madness, the NCAA tournament already promises to be a wild, unpredictable ride.

"It's going to be interesting," said Loyola coach Dave Cottle. "A lot of the teams are even. This could be one of those times when the final four teams were underdogs in their first-round games of the tournament."

It's been that type of year.

The stock market has been more stable than the No. 1 ranking. Since March 17, the No. 1 team had been beaten four straight weeks until Princeton regained the top position two weeks ago.

Syracuse was No. 1 until the Orangemen lost to Johns Hopkins on March 17. Princeton then became No. 1, but fell a week later to Syracuse. Maryland jumped to No. 1, but that lasted about six days before the Terps were beaten by Virginia. That put the Orangemen back on top for a week, but then they were upset by Loyola.

The king is Princeton (8-1) again.

Long live the king, whose reign is closing in on three straight weeks.

It's great to have teams with tradition near the top, because the Syracuses and Princetons set the standards. But the rest of the field is closing the gap.

It's a positive sign that the sport has firmly established itself outside Maryland and New York.

How else can you explain Bucknell beating North Carolina, Carolina defeating Virginia, Virginia knocking off Hopkins, Hopkins beating Syracuse and Syracuse stopping Princeton?

Parity. Despite Title IX's slowing the growth of men's lacrosse as women's sports are added to meet the federal legislation's requirements, there are still more college scholarships than ever.

Traditionally strong programs such as those at Hopkins, Princeton, Maryland and Virginia will continue to get their fair share of the blue-chippers, but the rest now are going to such schools as Duke, Bucknell, Georgetown and Notre Dame.

Notre Dame (9-1), ranked No. 5, has to be one of the best stories in the past 10 years of lacrosse. Either the Fighting Irish or Michigan State used to be the Midwest team that received an automatic bid as the final tournament seed.

It was also an automatic loss for either of those teams, a tuneup for the higher seeds.

Not anymore.

The Fighting Irish upset Loyola and Virginia on the road during a one-week span this season. Because of a commitment from the administration, Notre Dame should be a force for years to come.

Hofstra has now become a contender. So has Massachussetts (9-0) again, along with Towson under third-year coach Tony Seaman. Last year at this time, Towson was 2-8. At the moment, the Tigers are 8-2, ranked No. 9.

This all makes for great fun down the stretch.

On any given day ...

"It's pretty obvious that Princeton is No. 1, should be No. 1 and deserves ownership of that ranking," said Hopkins first-year coach Dave Pietramala. "After Princeton, there is a big clutter of the rest of us fighting for 2, 3, 4 and all the way down to 12."

Cottle said: "The teams are so close that one unit, one player really does make a difference."

There is only one totally complete team, efficient from one end of the field to the other, in the top 10, and that's Princeton. But you have to like Hopkins, because it has a senior-oriented defense led by Shawn Nadelen, Brendan Shook, Brandon Testa and goalie Rob Scherr. The Blue Jays have not given up more than 10 goals in a game this year, the first time that's happened since 1984.

Maryland also plays great defense, anchored by the hottest goalie in the country, Pat McGinnis, who leads the nation in goals-against average at 5.93 and with a save percentage of .691.

Princeton is the total package. The Tigers have the game's best coach in Bill Tierney and the most overall talent.

Princeton hits you in waves with attackmen Ryan Boyle, B.J. Prager and Sean Hartofilis and midfielders Matt Striebel, Rob Torti and Matt Bailer. The Tigers' schedule is fairly soft for the rest of the season, which means they will be rested for the postseason.

But never bet against the Orangemen.

They usually have the best athletes, and currently have outstanding attackmen in Michael Powell, Liam Banks and Michael Springer and a solid midfielder in Josh Coffman. They also have the ultimate intangible: the John Wayne swagger in May.

Syracuse doesn't lose a lot in May. The Orangemen have been to 18 straight Final Fours. Everybody knows about the legacy. It goes back to the days of former head coach Roy Simmons Jr. He always said, "Cream rises to the top."

"When you look back at their past, they've lost one, maybe two games in May recently," said Pietramala. "I can't say that [a strong run] will happen again this year, but I assume it will."

"You can call it cockiness, arrogance or whatever," said Seaman, "but they believe May is their time of the year and that they can't be beat. It's like Duke in basketball."

Or a little like the old Boston Celtics. Or the New York Yankees.

But there is a difference. The Yankees and Celtics established dynasties. That isn't the course in lacrosse. Dynasties seem to be on the way out. Parity is in.

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