Turning hare into tortoise

Lacrosse: Conservative coaching has slowed the flow of a game that has long prided itself on its pace.

College Lacrosse

May 11, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Is the fastest game on two feet stuck in the mud?

College lacrosse, particularly at the Division I level, has evolved in the last decade from a furious tango into a deliberate minuet, with almost formalized steps.

A stoppage in play brings a horn and substitutions. Team A sends on additional offensive specialists. Team B counters with its long-pole and defensive midfielders. Team A inverts, stationing its midfielders behind the goal, where they attempt to isolate one of the opposition's midfielders. Team B counters by sagging to help out the short sticks, creating less space near the goal.

Openings in the half field dwindle, and transition opportunities are few when midfielders defend behind the goal. There's less full-field action and a larger role for coaches, for better or worse.

"The game was intended to flow up and down the field," Virginia's Dom Starsia said. "In most games, you don't see that. We've slowed ourselves down to a crawl. There seems to be more at stake, so coaches are more reluctant to give up control.

"Coaches are dominating the game, and it hasn't made it more fun to watch."

There's the rub. What was more exciting, the 1991 NCAA tournament final, when North Carolina outran Towson, 18-13, or last year's championship game, when Princeton beat Syracuse in overtime, 10-9?

In 1991, the scoring average per team in the NCAA tournament was 13.4 goals. That figure was 10.9 when Princeton claimed its sixth title in 10 seasons. Three games in the 1991 tournament were decided by one or two goals. Last season, seven of the 11 NCAA games were that close.

This year's Division I tournament opens this weekend, with automatic qualifiers Stony Brook and Manhattan expected to eliminate some first-round suspense. Parity and a close-to-the-vest mentality marked March and April, however, as teams that used to be at-large regulars scrambled under playoff-like tension.

"With only six at-large berths for 10 to 12 good teams, that's why you saw so many close games," said Duke's Mike Pressler, who gained the last at-large berth. "Coaches tightened the reins for that reason."

There wasn't a substantial difference between Johns Hopkins and Maryland, except in one-goal games, where the top-seeded Blue Jays went 5-0 and the Terrapins 1-4, the reason their season is done. For the fourth straight year, Maryland beat Navy by 6-5, a low-scoring affair that typified the mimicking of the game's ruling dynasty.

Syracuse claimed five of the eight NCAA titles between 1988 and '95, an up-tempo run stamped by the athleticism of Gary and Paul Gait, two of the best players ever. Over the last decade, Princeton coach Bill Tierney has towered over the Tigers and all of Division I.

"To play Syracuse's style, you need flamboyant, great athletes," Maryland's Dave Cottle said. "Princeton, meanwhile, plays solid defense and is efficient on offense. You saw a team win six of 10 [NCAA titles] playing more of a half-field game."

Coaches are swayed by results, not style.

"When we [Loyola] played Princeton last year, we were down to four midfielders," said Cottle, who switched jobs last September.

"We inverted and held the ball. You're seeing everyone invert now. Good defensive teams like to put pressure on the adjacent [offensive] players. When you put the [defensive] short sticks behind the goal, their teammates sag in order to help. That eliminates a lot of the defensive pressure."

Down 7-4 to Syracuse, Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala revved up his offense with inverts and caused double trouble for Syracuse, since coach John Desko said it eliminated his Orange's patented counter-attacks.

That tactic has contributed to an odd role reversal, which can be traced to 1987, when Hopkins won its last NCAA title. Pietramala was the stud defenseman and the goalie was Quint Kessenich, the Channel 2 analyst.

Tierney was in his last season as a Hopkins assistant, and when he took over at Princeton, he put his own spin on the tenets of the late Fred Smith, another Blue Jays aide.

"Tierney took the Hopkins blueprint and tweaked it a little. He perfected double and triple teams as weapons," Kessenich said. "Now, it's like the defense is the one doing the attacking. It seems like the offense waits for the defense to make a mistake."

In an effort to speed up play, the NCAA men's lacrosse committee added a 60-second shot clock in 2000, which was rejected by coaches under the guise that the change didn't provide for a visible clock. Bryan Matthews, the Washington College athletic director and former Navy coach who was on the committee at the time, has other peeves.

"The rules have evolved to allow coaches to determine the tempo and to have long, slow possessions," Matthews said. "Restricting timeouts to dead-ball situations is something I proposed every year.

"Timeouts ceased to be strategic long ago. Now, they're used to maintain possession. Heaven forbid you lose possession on one of the most exciting plays in lacrosse, the ride and chase. Is that going to cost a coach his job?"

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