Blue Hens try to stay grounded on first flight to semifinals

Final Four Previews -- Delaware

May 22, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

NEWARK, Del. -- Delaware senior faceoff specialist Alex Smith was sorting through his euphoric thoughts Sunday night, hours after the Blue Hens eliminated UMBC to keep this crazy journey going.

It still didn't seem real to the Boys' Latin graduate or his teammates. Delaware, which six weeks earlier was in the throes of a losing streak and on postseason life-support, suddenly had turned the Division I men's lacrosse world on its ear.

Next stop, an unprecedented trip to the NCAA final four at M&T Bank Stadium, where about 60,000 fans are expected Saturday to watch the Blue Hens try to do the unthinkable again, this time against Johns Hopkins.

Smith then answered his cell phone. On the other end was Bob Shillinglaw, Delaware's 29th-year coach, the man who has done so much good work for so long in such relative anonymity on this campus bordering Maryland just off Interstate 95.

"Coach said, `Hey Smitty, I just wanted to let you know we're going to the final four,'" Smith said. "This is definitely surreal."

The Blue Hens know they need to buckle down, forget about the last game and put all their energy into pulling off another upset. They were businesslike and confident in the days leading up to their stunning, 14-8 first-round rout at Virginia, where they played a perfect game even they didn't expect.

Yesterday, after its 10-6 dismissal of UMBC in the quarterfinals, Delaware was basking in the incredible moment, while trying to leave it behind.

"I felt like I was floating the whole time after the [UMBC] game, and I haven't hit the ground yet," senior midfielder Dan Deckelbaum said.

Senior midfielder Jordan Hall said: "I don't know if it's sunk in yet that we're going to be playing in front of 60,000 people. I don't know what that looks like. Our goal has always been to keep our eye on getting to the NCAAs."

Here's how wild the story is. Here is Delaware - with a program that had no scholarship players until the early 1990s, got to its only other quarterfinal round in 1999 with three scholarship players, and over the past three years has become fully funded with 12.6 scholarships - playing with the big boys.

Here is Delaware, with the coach who was raised in Severna Park, played lacrosse at North Carolina, came to Newark in 1979 and was the National Coach of the Year in his first season. Five years later, he took the Blue Hens to the NCAA tournament and got routed by eventual champion Johns Hopkins.

Shillinglaw became the coach who never left. He interviewed for the Princeton job that went to Bill Tierney in 1987 and interviewed for the Hopkins job that went to Tony Seaman in 1990. Harvard later took a good look at him. They all said, "No, thanks."

"When I first got here, I told my wife it's going to be a short time here," Shillinglaw said. "It'll probably be three years, and then I'm going to get something at Hopkins or Virginia or something like that. She's still busting my chops."

Now, at 55, trim and with the last of three daughters nearly raised, Shillinglaw is the one laughing.

He's gone 240-214 at Delaware and won 12 conference titles in four leagues. But none of those league crowns is as big as the one the Blue Hens bagged earlier this month.

If it had not gone on the road to beat Drexel and Towson to win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament - and secure an automatic bid to the national tournament - Delaware would not have been around to wreak havoc in the NCAAs.

That's because midway through the season, after a 5-0 start, a spate of injuries to players including starting attackmen Adam Zuder-Havens (bone bruise) and Vincent Giordano (ankle, toe), starting defenseman Rob Smith (knee) and defensive midfielder Brett Manney (ankle) sparked a near-disastrous tailspin.

Losses to Albany and Georgetown started a 1-5 skid that included defeats by Drexel and Towson and left the Blue Hens with little breathing room. An at-large NCAA bid was out of the question, and another conference loss would virtually eliminate the Blue Hens from the CAA tournament.

On top of that, star attackman Cam Howard had decided to redshirt after his knee had failed to respond to offseason surgery.

Then came the fateful night of April 14 at Villanova, where Delaware found itself in an 18-15 hole against its CAA opponent with just more than seven minutes left.

"If we don't win that night, we're not here," Alex Smith said. "We pulled everybody in during the fourth quarter, and I just said we've got to win this game. We just have to."

The Blue Hens rallied for a 19-18 victory, and the winning streak has reached seven. They've gotten healthy and have made personnel moves. The biggest was shifting former backup freshman midfielder Curtis Dickson to attack. The Canadian has started nine games and has 20 goals. He torched Virginia with four of them.

Delaware's Baltimore-area players, such as Alex Smith, Deckelbaum (Owings Mills) and junior goalkeeper Tommy Scherr (Mount St. Joseph), are trying to prepare for the deafening M&T stage, where they have watched Ravens games.

They are also determined to force Shillinglaw to make good on a bet. He has promised to shave the mustache he has grown during his three decades here if Delaware wins it all. They say the coach has broken previous promises to do it after they won the CAA, then after they reached the final four.

"We had the clippers in the locker room at Virginia. We were ready to go," Scherr said.

Said Shillinglaw: "If that's their motivation, to have my lip hairless, so be it. [If we win the NCAA title] I'll shave a lot more than my mustache."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Coming tomorrow: Cornell.

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