College lacrosse is a marathon, not a sprint
By: Justin Lafleur
There is increased parity in college lacrosse these days. Any team can win on any given day. The same handful of teams isn’t always at the Final Four and more programs than ever before have legitimate aspirations to reach Championship Weekend.
Despite the parity, there are three programs that have emerged the most over the last few seasons. All three are in the Final Four once again in 2014.
Let’s break it down. Over the last four years, there have been 16 bids to Championship Weekend. These three teams have filled 10 of those spots. Can you guess who?
One is pretty obvious. The Duke Blue Devils, who have advanced to eight straight Final Fours and have made a habit of playing their best lacrosse when it matters most. The other two are Denver and Maryland, who’ve each made Championship Weekend three times in the last four seasons.
All three of these teams won their quarterfinal games this past weekend by eight or nine goals. That’s not easy to do, especially this time of year against such quality competition. In a day of parity, these three teams have begun separating themselves. They have been the most consistent performers, especially with the pressure on in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke won a National Championship during this stretch (last year). Denver and Maryland are looking to turn success into a title. The Pioneers have never made the championship game, although they were close last year before dropping a heartbreaker in the semifinals to Cornell. Maryland made the title game in 2011 and 2012 as unseeded teams, but fell defeat each time. The Terrapins are eying their first national championship since 1975.
The fact that Maryland made it to the finals (twice) as an unseeded team further proves the importance of playing well in May. Sure, losses in February and March could affect seeding, but teams still advance deep into the NCAA Tournament as unseeded teams. In fact this marks the first time since 2009 that an unseeded team did not make Championship Weekend. That isn’t to say there haven’t been upsets. Four seeded teams fell in the first round and the remaining four teams are seeded 1, 5, 6 and 7.
Two of the last three national champions were seven seeds (Duke last season and Virginia in 2011). The Blue Devils won the 2010 National Title as a five seed.
Wins in April and May, not in February or even March, are what matters most. This year is no exception. Duke lost to Maryland (10-6) and Loyola (14-7) in March, but has since won 11 of its last 12 games, the only loss being a last-second defeat to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament.
Early in the season, Cornell was the hot team nationally, standing near the top of most national polls. The Big Red hit a mid-season funk and still had a great season, earning an at-large berth and losing a tough game at Maryland in the NCAA Tournament. However, I bet Cornell would trade all its early-season wins to still be playing.
Whatever Duke, Denver and Maryland are doing, I’m sure other teams will try to follow. Their formula for success is working.
These three teams made a statement with dominant quarterfinal victories. Duke flexed its muscles early against Johns Hopkins, scoring the first six goals. The Blue Jays inched back into the game, pulling within 12-10 in the third quarter, but Duke ended the game as strongly as it began, scoring the game’s final five goals and seven of the last eight for the 19-11 victory.
In Sunday’s second game, Denver found itself trailing 3-2 midway through the first quarter, but began pulling away from there. The Pioneers went on an incredible 10-0 run which lasted almost 30 minutes until Drexel scored its fourth goal of the afternoon at 6:12 of the third quarter.
The big question for the Pioneers was strength of schedule. Going into Selection Sunday, even a home game in the first round was far from a certainty. They received one, earning the five seed, and beating North Carolina fairly convincingly before the 15-6 win over Drexel to reach yet another Final Four.
Like Duke, Denver had some struggles at the beginning of the season, standing 3-2 after a 12-10 loss to Penn. But the Pioneers haven’t lost since. The back-to-the-wall feeling may be paying dividends now. If they hadn’t won the Big East Tournament, you could make an argument that Denver wouldn’t have received an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Although they likely still would have, that ounce of doubt has helped make the last two months feel like must-wins.
“We’ve been in playoff mode since early to mid-March,” said Tierney after Sunday’s game. “We stumbled along the way. These guys have been faced with having to win for the last two and a half months. The fact that now, it’s for real, you have no choice. You have to win the next one to move on.”
A day prior, Maryland erased much doubt early in its game against Bryant, taking leads of 7-1 and 9-2 on its way to a 16-8 victory. The Terps began the season 7-0 and had three hiccups along the way – at North Carolina, at Johns Hopkins and vs. Notre Dame – but Maryland has rebounded and finds itself in familiar territory.
Not to be forgotten is Notre Dame. Although the Irish have only made two Final Fours in this stretch, they have emerged as of late to enjoy their fair share of success in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke head coach John Danowski has admitted that he focuses on player development early in the season. It’s not that winning isn’t a focus or priority, it is, but he keeps the bigger picture in mind. Each and every season, it feels like people have doubts about Duke after an early-season loss. This year, it was a 14-7 defeat to Loyola, its second straight loss. But each year, the Blue Devils find their stride and make it back to the pinnacle of the sport, Championship Weekend.
Although it’s harder to make the NCAA Tournament for teams from smaller conferences, a loss in February or March isn’t necessarily devastating. In fact, many times, an early-season loss can be a wake-up call and exposure a team’s issues, serving as a learning opportunity which helps in the long run. An early-season loss could help that team win a key game in April, or that pressure-filled game in May to advance in the tournament.
The beauty of automatic berths is that teams can struggle in the early going, but rebound to win their conference tournament and play in May. Just look at Richmond and Air Force this season, who played their best lacrosse when it mattered most and found themselves dancing.
College lacrosse is truly a marathon, not a sprint.