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DII men's lacrosse championship preview
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DII Men’s Championship Preview

When Sunday of Championship Weekend rolls around, we’ll get to see the DII men’s lacrosse championship game between the Southern newcomer Lenoir-Rhyne Bears and the mainstay from the North, the Le Moyne Dolphins, in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

These two programs are both coming about this trip to the championship game in very different ways. This will be Lenoir-Rhyne’s inauguration to the DII men’s lacrosse championship game, but it has been a few years in the making. For Le Moyne, this is its first trip back since 2016, with Merrimack making its run of three-straight finals to represent the North since then. Overall, the Dolphins will be making their 10th appearance at Championship Weekend and are looking for their sixth title.

DII Men’s Lacrosse Championship Preview

First up: Le Moyne

The Dolphins first made the DII men’s lacrosse championship game back in 2004, winning in overtime over Limestone. Between that appearance and their last in 2016, they were never absent for more than two years, including a stretch of five showings in a row from 2006 through 2010. Only Adelphi (five from 1995-1999) and Limestone (six from 2000-2005) can compare to a run like that. But their dry spell has been lifted, and they are looking to add more hardware to the trophy case.

Like most years, Le Moyne is leveraging strong defense as its backbone. The team has the third-best scoring defense in the nation, averaging just fewer than seven goals per game allowed, and is winning nearly 60% of its draws. Underscoring how stifling its defense is, the team’s keeper, Frank Delia, who has been the starter for the last several games, is 10th in the nation with a save percentage of 57.6%. Why is that remarkable? Because the Dolphins are 66th of 69 possible teams in total saves per game. Simply put, teams just have a hard time even getting a shot off against this team, let alone good shots. Anchoring the defense is USILA North First Team defenseman Nate Arnold, who leads the team in both caused turnovers and ground balls (among non-faceoff specialists).

Offensively, the Dolphins are no slouch, either. Averaging almost 22 points per game (14th in the country), Le Moyne not only scores a ton, but it also turns the ball fewer than almost anyone. Driving this offense is USILA North Offensive Player of the Year Matt Hutchings. Hutchings leads the team with 43 points off 17 goals and 26 assists. Who is he feeding with those assists? Journeyman attackman Jake Nelson and Kevin Sheehan. Nelson joined this team after transferring from Syracuse, where he spent the previous three seasons. Prior to being on the Orange, he was at Mercer and Binghamton before that. Sheehan and Nelson are both coaches’ sons who know exactly where to be and when to create their scoring opportunities. While these attackman account for most of the Dolphin’s scoring, the midfield trio of Ben McCreary, Ross Filtch, and Colin Sypek cannot be ignored. Those three combined for 58 goals and 20 assists of their own.

What About the Bears?

Lenoir-Rhyne is hoping to make this game the storybook ending to a slow building process. Head coach Greg Paradine was brought in back in 2009 to start growing the program in anticipation of its 2011 inaugural season. It did not take long to turn this new program into a contender. By 2016, the Bears were already racking up conference wins, and losing seasons were a thing of the past. In 2017, they made their first NCAA Tournament, losing to Tampa by three goals. The next year, they returned to the tournament, only to lose to eventual national runner-up St. Leo by a single goal. They took a slight step back in 2019, but had things back on track in the shortened 2020 season, ending at 6-1, including a win over Limestone. This is the year that things are finally coming together for the Bears, though.

This coaching staff is exciting. Paradine had a decorated playing career at UNC, where he was an All-American, national champion, and never missed a Final Four from 1990-1993. But the big thing is that this new program is built entirely from within, working off its past success. In charge of the team’s defense is L-R alum Ryan Crompton. Crompton was a goalie for the program’s first NCAA teams and also rewrote its record book for goalies. Leading the offense is another alum in Ned Kaish, who was one of the most prolific scorers in program history. He’s the one driving this team to reach the scoring heights it’s currently seeing.

Speaking of scoring, that’s where Lenoir-Rhyne really excels. As a team, it is second in the country with nearly 19 points per game and fifth in the nation in assists per game (10.62). The Bears are also top five in shooting percentage. What these numbers all point to is a group that moves the ball a ton and uses that to create ideal shots where it wants to be taking them.

And how do they do this? USILA South Offensive Player of the Year Eric Dickinson. Dickinson leads the way with 80 points off 46 goals and 34 assists, good for seventh in the country for points per game. He’s been rewriting the record books since he first stepped on campus. As a freshman, he broke both team and conference scoring records. Each year, he adds to that total and owns career records for both the school and the conference as well. For a program like Lenoir-Rhyne to make the jump to true national contender, it usually starts with a special player who can help elevate the rest of that team. For the Bears, that’s Dickinson.

The Matchup

This game will largely come down to the Bears offense against the Dolphins defense. Considering how prolific Lenoir-Rhyne is at scoring, it’s important to point out that it didn’t run up the score on bad teams while struggling with others. It put up serious points against everyone. Most notable is conference foe Wingate, whom the Bears actually played three times. The first match was a narrow 16-15 loss, but they responded with two wins by scoring 19 and then 18 in the conference final and NCAA Tournament semifinal to reach this point. Against other ranked opponents, they scored 16 against Tampa, 15 against Queens, 14 against Belmont Abbey, and 16 against Limestone. So the real question becomes: can Le Moyne slow them down?

For the Dolphins, they enter this game undefeated at 14-0, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. While they have put up some high scoring totals, they have also shown their ability to win the close games; they have two overtime wins on the year over Adelphi and Bentley. But along the way, they have racked up wins against seven top-10 teams, most recently defeating Mercyhurst, 11-9, in the national semifinals. There have only been three teams to break the 10-goal mark against Le Moyne this year, and two of those were the overtime games. The other team was Pace, who managed to get 11 inits 14-11 loss to Le Moyne back in March.

So, what does this set up? Most likely, this game will turn into a battle for pace. Le Moyne will thrive if it can force Lenoir-Rhyne into a game where the shot clock becomes a factor and the scoring opportunities are severely limited. This will also mean faceoffs will turn into a large factor, but Lenoir-Rhyne may have the slight edge there based purely on the percentage comparison. But, if the Bears are able to keep the tempo high and let their offense run before Le Moyne can settle into a defense with the matchups it wants, it could be a historic day for Lenoir-Rhyne.

What’s most likely is that there will be a balance of these two things, forcing a close game that will come down to just a few goals late in the fourth quarter to decide it all. If that’s the case, I lean towards favoring Le Moyne to hoist another trophy as the conclusion of 2021 DII men’s lacrosse championship game.

Look Back at the DII Men’s Lacrosse Season

Lax All Stars has covered the Division II for months, with weekly round ups and other features highlighting the action in the division. Before the DII men’s lacrosse championship game, take a look back at the 2021 season through our coverage.