Bring on the Big 5

Local teams strive to generate parity in top-heavy NCAA

State

Ncaa Men's Preview -- Lacrosse

February 16, 2007|By GAMY LAMBRECHT

Loyola College men's lacrosse coach Charley Toomey knows it can happen. As a senior goalie at Loyola in 1990, he played in the school's only NCAA title game, a loss to Syracuse. Then, while coaching at Severn School in 1998, he watched the Greyhounds return to the tournament's final four before losing to Maryland.

Towson coach Tony Seaman lived the dream in 2001, when he guided the underrated Tigers on a magical ride that ended in the national semifinals with a one-goal loss to Princeton.

At Navy, where the Midshipmen had struggled for years to make the NCAA tournament, coach Richie Meade struck pay dirt in 2004. He took the Mids all the way to the national title game at M&T Bank Stadium, where Navy fell by a goal to Syracuse.

As the 2007 season begins, the local Division I schools not named Johns Hopkins or Maryland think and hope it can happen again, for a change.

Schools such as Towson, Loyola and UMBC -- which made the NCAAs last year for the first time since 1999 by winning the America East Conference -- see the gap between the game's upper class and have-nots gradually closing. A smattering of major, regular-season upsets in recent years offers proof.

Still, come postseason time, it's hard for the up-and-coming programs to hang with the elite, mainly the Big Five: Virginia, Princeton, Hopkins, Syracuse and Maryland.

Except for the occasional, successful playoff run, it's tough for the little guys to counter the talent, depth, tradition and recruiting advantages owned by the bluebloods.

"The reason [a team ranked] No. 30 can beat No. 5 any day of the week is there are more good lacrosse players out there than ever before. That's where the parity is," said Seaman, referring to the national growth of lacrosse at the recreation and high school levels.

Meanwhile, NCAA growth has been stagnant. Butler, which added men's lacrosse 14 years ago, just dropped the sport, leaving Division I with 56 participants.

"But [parity] still hasn't touched those four or five [elite schools]," Seaman added. "The teams that have traditionally been on top are still able to dominate the blue-chip [recruiting] world. Once in a while, we might get one blue-chipper, but we don't get five or six in every recruiting class."

Seaman, who used to collect his share of top recruits as the coach at Hopkins in the 1990s, has a point.

Consider that, over the previous 15 seasons, all but one NCAA tournament final four has involved at least three of the Big Five. The lone exception came in 2001, when long shots Towson and Notre Dame crashed the party. Each went down in the semifinal round, respectively, to Princeton and Syracuse.

Over the past 15 years, the NCAA championship has belonged to either Princeton (six), Syracuse (five), Virginia (three) or Hopkins (one). The Blue Jays did it in 2005, after 10 final four failures spanning 17 seasons.

Maryland coach Dave Cottle has lived on both sides of the fence. Cottle built the Loyola program from scratch in the 1980s, then left after taking the Greyhounds to 14 straight NCAA tournaments and two final fours.

He did it primarily with a host of second-tier recruits who developed well and sometimes overachieved. A hot goalie such as Toomey never hurts in the postseason.

In five seasons at Maryland, Cottle has been to three final fours and produced three players who won awards for being best at their positions -- defensemen Michael Howley and Lee Zink and attackman Joe Walters. Cottle never coached one at Loyola.

"You have to get a bunch of B's and try to turn them into A's," Cottle said. "When it's all said and done, the teams playing [late] in May usually have the most All-Americans."

In other words, not the have-nots.

Loyola, sporting its best team on paper in years, is trying to make the NCAAs for the first time since 2001. UMBC, which developed little-known attackman Brendan Mundorf into one of the game's best, will try to return to the NCAA tournament without its former star. The Retrievers have never won a playoff game.

UMBC coach Don Zimmerman, who once attracted premier recruits as the coach at Hopkins in the 1980s, knows the obstacles well. He sees the increase in early commitments from coveted high school juniors, who often flow to the Big Five. He also sees, down the road, the increase in high school talent leading more big-time recruits to choose alternatives. Not all of them can go to the Big Five or Duke or Georgetown.

The Retrievers have no choice but to keep winning.

"Did we see a big pop [in recruiting] from last year? Not as much as I thought we might," said Zimmerman, who signs many players in the spring of their senior year of high school. "We're working to build that reputation.

"If you make the NCAAs one more year, then another year, people start thinking UMBC and playoff team. The name gets out there and it attracts more kids. We're not there yet."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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