Some things change in college lacrosse but the contenders are the same

March 09, 2012|Mike Preston

When UMBC stunned Maryland on Tuesday night, it was the biggest upset of the college lacrosse season but just one of many so early in the year.

Logic dictates that this could be the season a team like No. 4 Massachusetts, No. 7 Notre Dame or Villanova or Penn State could break the hold the traditional favorites have on the sport and win a national championship.

That could happen, but don't bet on it. There is more parity in lacrosse, but not enough for one of those top four —Virginia, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Duke — not to win the 2012 championship. The weak have gotten strong, but the strong have gotten stronger.

We'll see more upsets but not many new faces on Memorial Day weekend.

"You've got to give a lot of respect to teams like Massachusetts, Villanova, Penn State and even Notre Dame because they are not one of teams that roll off the tongue when it comes to traditional favorites and winning titles," said ESPN analyst Mark Dixon. "For them, that would be like pie in the sky.

"But Virginia, Hopkins, Duke and Syracuse, they all have coaches who have won national championships before. One, possibly two or even three will be there in the end. That's just the way it's going to be for a while longer. They have too much talent and great coaching."

There is hope some of them can be replaced because there isn't a super team. No. 1 Virginia remains unbeaten, but the Cavaliers goalkeeping situation is suspect.

No. 2 Hopkins also is undefeated and the Blue Jays play great defense, but there are questions withintheir offense. No. 3 Cornell now has to play without super attackman Rob Pannell who broke his foot last Saturday, and Syracuse doesn't have its usual overwhelming talent in the midfield.

No. 8 Duke has lost twice already, and so has North Carolina, which has a wealth of local MIAA talent, but also the giant headache which comes with so many big headed players and their parents.

Maybe there is light for teams like Villanova and Loyola.

"It comes as no surprise to me that there are more upsets early in the season," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "With a greater number of kids playing high school lacrosse, there is more talent to go around. In addition, with so much early recruiting being done, there are more talented players that slip through the cracks or plenty of late bloomers that are finding homes outside the traditional top 5-8 teams.

"Teams are just working harder at recruiting.These players along with strong coaching and a greater commitment to working year round in our sport, make every game a greater challenge. I have always believed the mental part of things are equally if not more important than the physical, and with teams playing tougher schedules against talented opponents that are well coached you find yourself in a dogfight if you are not mentally focused in your preparation for that team and on game day."

And maybe that's why Mount St. Mary's beat Delaware, and the Blue Hens beat Villanova. Or maybe that's why Penn shocked North Carolina and UMBC caught Maryland.

Ryan McClernan, the Maryland's Crabs summer league coach, says the superpowers like Syracuse, Virginia and Hopkins simply can "out meat" most teams, and that's true because of the enormous depth of talent. But with the gap shrinking, maybe there is a coach out there like Penn State's Jeff Tambroni who might be stronger in the X & O's to lead their teams to championships.

"I don't think UMBC is going to win a national championship, but you saw Don Zimmerman do a masterful job against Maryland Tuesday night," Dixon said. "There were two or three times when Maryland had UMBC, but Zimmerman called timeouts at the right time to settle his team and let them gather themselves.

"There could be that guy out there, so there is something to that. Usually, there or two three upsets in the season, but not as many as we've seen so far this year."

Dixon subscribes to the old school theory that offense wins games and defense wins championships. Notre Dame goalie John Kemp has a .774 save percentage and is allowing only 3.91 goals a game. Penn State goalie Austin Kaut has a .679 save percentage.

Both are impressive, and again that gives some of these teams hope. But then you realize there aren't many better teams defensively than Hopkins, and Virginia has re-invented itself the last two seasons with great zone defenses.

As much as some things have changed, some have remained the same. The big boys will be well represented at the Final Four in May.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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