New wrinkles in lacrosse's face of power

Shifts: Parity is doing a job on the traditional look of the men's game.

April 23, 2005|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

During the middle of March, when two high-profile teams suffered defeat at the hands of then-unranked opponents, the world of collegiate men's lacrosse felt the tremors.

In retrospect, the major upsets absorbed by Navy and Maryland against Bucknell and Dartmouth, respectively, don't look as monumental. Those events appear to be signs of a trend that could become an entrenched part of the game.

Remember the days when a select group of programs, led by Syracuse, Princeton and Johns Hopkins, formed the elite, which sailed through seasons without a serious threat from opponents located in the sport's larger, lower tiers?

Much of the pecking order isn't what it used to be. And although complete parity has yet to arrive, it is making a deeper mark than ever.

Take a glimpse at the reshuffling of power that symbolizes the 2005 season.

Princeton, which has not missed the NCAA tournament since 1989 and has won six national championships since then, is 3-6 and on the brink of elimination from postseason play.

No. 7 Syracuse, which has been to 22 consecutive national tournament semifinal games and had won 91 percent of its games at the Carrier Dome before the season, is 6-4, has lost three times at home this spring and could be ripe for the playoff picking before final four weekend.

Tenth-ranked Maryland is 5-5 for the first time in 11 years and will try to reverse a 1-4 slide and regain a grip on an NCAA tournament berth today at No. 16 Fairfield. Like so many examples in 2005, this game is far from the gimme it was a few years ago. The Stags are 9-2, have won seven straight, are fresh off an upset victory over No. 15 Notre Dame and are enjoying their highest ranking ever.

"There's only three teams I can see that are in their own class - Hopkins, Duke and Virginia," Towson coach Tony Seaman said. "From No. 4 on down to No. 30, anybody can beat anybody. It's nuts."

The Top 20 poll is littered with examples of a wacky season revealed. No. 6 Cornell (7-2), which could make its first final four in 17 years and today could end any playoff hopes for Ivy League rival Princeton, has lost to hugely disappointing North Carolina (5-7), which at one point was 2-7.

No. 12 Dartmouth has beaten Maryland, but somehow lost at home to unranked Sacred Heart (4-7), which has lost six consecutive games. No. 11 Bucknell knocked off Navy, but couldn't prevent unranked, 6-5 Penn State from winning its first road game.

At one point, Notre Dame was 5-1 and ranked as high as No. 6, with a one-goal loss to Cornell as its only blemish. But the Fighting Irish are now 6-4, having lost to Dartmouth, No. 17 Denver and Fairfield.

Only fourth-ranked Virginia, No. 2 Duke and top-ranked, undefeated Hopkins - which puts its 32-game home winning streak on the line against Navy today - have held form. Virginia has lost to Duke and Hopkins. Duke's only stumble came in overtime against the Blue Jays.

"I vote in the weekly coaches poll, and I try to do as thorough a job as I can. This year has been a real mess," said Georgetown coach Dave Urick, whose third-ranked Hoyas (8-2) have rebounded nicely after a 13-6 loss at Maryland two months ago. "I tend to think it's going to be the way of the lacrosse world for a while."

Coaches point to the changes in the talent and recruiting landscapes, combined with the unchanged growth of men's lacrosse at the collegiate level, as causes that have produced the onset of parity.

Over the past decade, lacrosse's popularity has exploded at the youth, club and high school levels in places such as Colorado, Utah, Texas, Ohio and California. Conversely, NCAA men's lacrosse has stagnated. This year, 56 schools play at the Division I level, merely five more than existed in 1990, according to NCAA records.

Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded schools, including athletic programs, has aided a huge expansion in the women's game while holding down growth on the men's side. In the meantime, players have to go somewhere to play college ball, and the college recruiting trail now extends well behind the corridor that connects Baltimore to Long Island and upstate New York.

And while Baltimore-area players are moving in packs to programs such as Ohio State, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Cornell, prospects from the West are coming to the Mid-Atlantic region. For example, Towson has two Utah natives in junior attackman Kyle Fiat and junior defenseman Matthew Mehrer. Georgetown has signed its first player from the state of Washington, defenseman Chris Taylor.

"We're jamming the air into a balloon, so to speak," said Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who in recent years began recruiting below the Virginia-North Carolina line for the first time and has signed defenseman Matt Kelly, his first prospect from Illinois.

"There are so many more candidates to consider. I just got a letter from a boy from Minnesota. A few years ago, I'm filing that. Now, I'm calling my assistants saying let's find out about this guy."

The creeping parity has made scheduling a dicey exercise. No longer are those midweek games automatic wins for so many schools.

"I need the phone number for Robert Morris [University]. I hear they haven't won a game," Starsia said jokingly. "Nothing has really played to form this year, up and down the line. I'm sure it's fun for the civilians, but it's been a confounding year for us."

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