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The Latest Spin - Championship Weekend Notes

By Michael Spinner

If you’re hoping to see somebody else besides Salisbury in the Division III Championship Game …

The best news for the Tufts University Men’s Lacrosse team on Sunday night was that Salisbury was kind enough to not score one more goal and make their Division III Championship Game win the largest margin of victory in D3 Championship Game history. Otherwise, there was not a whole lot of good for Tufts to report from Sunday night’s game. In fact, there is not a whole lot of good news coming up for anybody in Division III men’s lacrosse circles, based on what Salisbury accomplished during the month of May.

The Sea Gulls didn’t just play solid lacrosse during their run to their ninth NCAA Championship, they absolutely dominated every inch of the field. Ever since losing to Stevenson, 16-12 on April 16, Salisbury rattled off seven consecutive wins, allowing a double-digit goal total only once, and sporting an average margin of victory of more than eight goals per game during the NCAA Tournament.

During the Championship Game, Salisbury simply toyed with the defending national champions, and probably could have won by 20. While there have been a number of undefeated Salisbury teams during their nine championship runs, this one-loss Sea Gull team could have been among the best in the history of the program, at least during the post-season. Salisbury was simply fantastic after April 16.
Oh, and by the way, they return a TON of talent for the 2013 season, enough to not only make the Sea Gulls the early favorite to win it all, but a very likely candidate to go undefeated and win their 10th national championship. I don’t expect anybody to touch Salisbury with a 10-foot pole during the 2012 season as the Sea Gulls return enough offense to load up a solid Division I program, and several key pieces on defense. They have to replace an outstanding goalie in Johnny Rodriguez, and a spectacular close defenseman in Colin Tokosch, but otherwise return most of their key pieces. Combined with the fact that most of the other traditional favorites (aside from Roanoke) graduate several top players, it would seriously appear as if a repeat on the Eastern Shore is all but a certainty. I expect Salisbury to not only win it all, but to win every game convincingly.

Two things stand out when it comes to the 2011 edition of Salisbury lacrosse. First, every year it seems as if somebody out there is predicting the demise of the Sea Gull empire that has seen Salisbury advance to the NCAA Championship Game an incredible 12 times during the last 20 years, winning nine, but amazingly the program has never been stronger. This is happening despite the fact that so many traditional powerhouses in Division III Men’s Lacrosse have seen better days.

Think about it, during the early 2000’s, traditional Salisbury opponents Washington & Lee, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, Gettysburg, and Washington College (all of which appeared on the 2011 Salisbury schedule) were all perennial threats to compete for a National Championship. While all of the programs remain competitive and in some cases strong, none of them have been able to consistently compete at the level that Salisbury reaches every single season.

The longevity of Salisbury’s dominance is simply incredible … and one of my earliest predictions for the 2011 season is that we have only just begun to see how good this group can be. The 2012 edition is going to be a heck of a lot better.

Secondly, while Head Coach Jim Berkman has received more than his fair share of accolades during a Hall of Fame career – except a spot on the coaching staff of the US National Team which has somehow eluded Berkman (the topic of another column one day) – there was one moment this season that in many ways secured Salisbury’s place as the nation’s top team.

On Saturday, April 23, the Sea Gulls rallied to defeat Stevenson in the CAC Championship Game. During that game, with just over seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, Berkman replaced Johnny Rodriguez with back-up goalie Tim Swinburn. Swinburn was phenomenal the rest of the way, and led the Sea Gulls to a conference championship.

A goalie controversy at Salisbury?

Berkman would have none of it. During an interview with Lacrosse Magazine three days later, when asked if he would consider replacing Rodriguez with Swinburn on a permanent basis, Berkman immediately dismissed the question and made it clear that he was sticking with Rodriguez no matter what. No controversy, no drama, no distraction. Rodriguez remained the team’s starter, and the team set its sight on a national championship, a goal that the Sea Gulls reached almost flawlessly.
While Jim Berkman’s knowledge and ability to teach the x’s and o’s and all necessary skills to develop a championship team is undeniably among the best in the history of the sport, Berkman’s true greatness could be his unfailing ability to maintain his team’s focus. Tim Swinburn’s outstanding play during the CAC Championship Game could have opened the door to a distraction at Salisbury. Instead, Berkman used the momentum gained by defeating Stevenson to focus his troops even further, and their run during the post-season was one of the most dominant in Division III history. It’s amazing what one small decision in the midst of a long season can accomplish, and like almost everything else he has done during his coaching career, Berkman handled this one almost perfectly.

Year of the Gear?

In a word, yuck. That is how I would describe some of the updated gear we saw during the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament. Whether it was Johns Hopkins shifting to helmets which appeared to have turkeys growing out of the sides, or Syracuse’s bizarre decision to incorporate ‘Volt’ into their orange and blue color scheme, it would appear as if efforts to enhance and improve lacrosse equipment and apparel have taken steroids during the last calendar year. The problem is that these gear ‘enhancements’ have improved nothing, and really look silly.

I love Johns Hopkins lacrosse. There is something about a Division III school fielding one of the best Division I athletic programs in the country that has such a nice ring to it, which is why programs like Johns Hopkins lacrosse and Colorado College ice hockey (among others) are always ones I root for. But, if a layman were to view Johns Hopkins’s NCAA Tournament helmets, they would deduce that Hopkins were anything but the Blue Jays. My question is, what was wrong with the good, old fashioned Blue Jay on the side of the helmet? It is a great logo … why not stick with what works? I love the idea of breaking out new helmets for the NCAA Tournament, and the shape, style, and color scheme looked great. It is the huge wing decals on the side that bothered me … and I don’t think they provided a great showcase on national television.

And then there was Syracuse. I have been accused of being anti-Syracuse in this column over the years, and I have always rejected that assertion. The truth is that when I watch lacrosse, I root for the underdog, and then I root for a great game. With that said, the only thing to be written about Syracuse’s use of ‘Volt’ cleats, helmet panels, socks, etc. during the NCAA Tournament was that it was revolting (pun intended). I get it. Nike has trademarked the use of Volt, and the University of Oregon has found a way to replace the yellow/gold in their color scheme with Volt – I assume in the event of a power outage or if the folks at the University of Oregon develop the desire to attract bees. But at least Volt is part of the Oregon plan. At Syracuse – where the team’s nickname is the ‘Orange’ – exactly where does the Volt fit? Oh yeah, it doesn’t … and it certainly didn’t on television for the NCAA Tournament. Quite frankly, Syracuse’s use of Volt was ugly. It made the Orange stand out, but in the wrong way.

The point here is that lacrosse has evolved a long way from the Bachrach helmet, Brine floating cuff system gloves, and other relic forms of gear. The new gloves, helmets, and everything else look great. Lacrosse equipment has never looked or performed better. However, we need not celebrate this fact by making items of equipment stand out the way Hopkins and Syracuse did this year. The focus should not be on the gear, but the game. If there is a new helmet that a school wants to unveil for the NCAA Tournament, and they use their traditional logo and color scheme, people will still want to buy it. All Hopkins and Syracuse did this year was stand out, and not in a good way.

Here’s hoping the top lacrosse programs keep it simple moving forward!

How about them Wildcats?

Speaking of empires, it’s getting to the point where the accomplishments of Kelly Amonte-Hiller, the coach, are going to be compared to Kelly Amonte, the player, and all of the other Maryland Terrapins who led Maryland to seven consecutive national championships from 1995-2001. With their 8-7 win over Maryland on Memorial Day Sunday, Northwestern won its six national championship during the last seven years, and the Wildcats were a couple of goals away from making it seven straight after losing to Maryland during
the 2010 championship game.

Believe it or not, it’s hard to compare Northwestern to Maryland, simply because it is not a comparison of apples to apples. Maryland was nothing short of a dynasty from 1995-2001, however during that run, Division I lacrosse was essentially defined by the ACC, the Ivy League, and a couple of upstarts (i.e. Georgetown, Loyola).

During Northwestern’s run, the sport has spread like wildfire across the Division I landscape, with BCS schools such as Oregon, Cincinnati, Fresno State, Stanford, Florida, Lousiville, and now USC, Marquette, and Michigan adding varsity women’s lacrosse. The explosion of Division I women’s lacrosse has spread the talent wealth, so to speak, and yet still, Northwestern remains at the top of the pack. The fact that Northwestern has continued to dominate women’s lacrosse despite the expansion to so many institutions that pride themselves on athletic excellence is a testimony to the amazing work of Amonte-Hiller. A dynasty in Division I Women’s Lacrosse is improbable, yet somehow Northwestern refuses to skip a beat.

The Wildcats’ collective challenge has only just begun as Florida found a way to beat Northwestern this season, and is only getting better, while Maryland appears to be poised to remain near the top for a long time to come, and the rest of the ACC and most of the Ivy League will always be a national championship contender. Add to the mix that USC and Michigan give the sport two more potential perennial national championship contenders, and it is clear that the field at the top is going to get more cluttered every season. What Amonte-Hiller has done at Northwestern is simply sensational. If Northwestern keeps their empire going as the newer BCS programs continue their development, Amonte-Hiller’s Hall of Fame status will likely shift to legendary status in a hurry. By the way, only Florida returns the kind of talent that Northwestern will return for the 2012 season. The Wildcats are almost untouched by graduation and have most of their key players back. Is Northwestern a lock for a National Championship? Of course not. But, it would be more than fair to call them a heavy favorite.

Men’s Division II

The ‘Big Three’ are
back – actually, they never really left
I first started covering lacrosse as the Division II editor of Inside Lacrosse, a position of convenience simply because I happened to be playing Division II lacrosse at the time. That was the late 1990’s, and Division II lacrosse – after a 10-year hiatus – had just returned to the lacrosse landscape. At that time, there were three programs of note in Division II lacrosse – C.W. Post, NY Tech, and Adelphi – and their coaches (Tom Postel, Jack Kaley, and Sandy Kapatos, respectively) absolutely dominated the landscape, with only a run by Limestone in 2000 and 2002 to interrupt what was an early ‘Big Three’ dynasty.

And then something happened, Division II started to seriously expand. Thanks to the fantastic work of Dan Sheehan at LeMoyne, and others, Division II saw some rapid expansion and parity during the early part of this century. Fast forward a few years later, and the Head Coaches of the ‘Big Three’ retired, other Division II programs began making serious pushes, and suddenly the ‘Big Three’ were much less relevant. The three Long Island powerhouses never disappeared – in fact, one of the ‘Big Three’ has appeared in all but two NCAA Championship Games since Division II was brought back in 1993 - but it just seemed like all three were never as strong at the same time as they were when Division II first came back.

And now it would seem as if what went around is coming back around. While the story of the year in Division II men’s lacrosse is clearly the National Championship run for a Mercyhurst program that has been on the lip of the cup for the better part of a decade, if there is a subplot thickening, it is that the ‘Big Three’ are all standing pretty tall once again. Thanks to the great work of Head Coach John Jez, CW Post is still the class of Division II, having won the 2009 and 2010 national championships. For Adelphi, after a few lean years, Head Coach Gordon Purdie has revamped the Panther program, and Adelphi fell a hair short of their first national championship in 10 years this season. NY Tech, under Head Coach Bill Dunn, was a respectable 10-4 this season, never losing a game by more than five goals.

Of all three programs, NYIT has the furthest to go to get back to the top after winning the 2008 national championship, simply because Jack Kaley was the ultimate system coach. He alone was probably the toughest of the ‘Big Three’ coaches to replace upon retirement, but Bill Dunn seems to be bringing in a ton of talent to NYIT, and it is hard to believe that a post-season run is not imminent for the Bears.

In other words, when the Division II Tournament expands to eight teams next season (a fantastic development), don’t be surprised if there is a heavy dose of the ‘Big Three’ on an annual basis. The difference this time around is that the field is far more level. Mercyhurst will only recruit better now that they won a national championship, and Limestone and LeMoyne are going nowhere. Dowling is not far removed from an appearance in the NCAA Championship Game, and upstarts such as Mercy College and Merrimack seem to be poised at a post-season run.

The development and expansion of Division II Men’s Lacrosse is one of the great stories in the lacrosse world, and having the ‘Big Three’ back at the top collectively can only help Division II continue its self-showcase. For 2011, the Division II Championship Game was a classic. It was great to see a new name at the top, and almost as great to see Adelphi back in the finals, something that seemed like a right of passage not too long ago. If you want to talk about parity in lacrosse, the conversation really begins at the Division II level … and the conversation seems to be on the verge of a long-term continuation with the tournament field expanding.

Finally … John Tillman – Man of the Year

My favorite moment of the 2011 post-season? Maryland stuns Syracuse, 6-5 in overtime on May 22 during the Division I Men’s Lacrosse Quarterfinals. Moments after probably the proudest moment of Maryland Head Coach John Tillman’s career, he was interviewed by ESPN. Instead of speaking of how proud Tillman was of his team (which he got to, eventually), instead of lauding a defeat of a team that seems to have made advancing to the final four a right, instead of discussing what a great game had just transpired, Tillman took the moment to thank his predecessor, Dave Cottle, and their staff for the excellent work they did to assemble such a terrific team.

Tillman’s statement on national television was one of the classiest, most respectable acts I have ever seen in college athletics. He had no reason to use that particular moment to recognize Cottle’s great work, but he did so because John Tillman is simply a class act, who represents the finest virtues in coaching. While it was simply a two sentence statement praising Cottle, Tillman put himself in a class above most (if not all) others by using one of his first moments in the true national lacrosse spotlight to prove that he is truly a first class man, along with a fantastic lacrosse coach.

John Tillman may not have led his team to a national championship, but he certainly conducted himself as a champion, and the University of Maryland is clearly in great hands for what should be a long time to come.

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