Trust the System and Stay the Course…
Congratulations to Coach Mike Morgan and the Warriors of Merrimack College on their first-ever NCAA D-II national championship. Their 23-6 victory over first-time participant Saint Leo’s from Florida might not have kept many fans in their seats, but let’s remember, we’re committed to growing the game of college lacrosse here, and nowhere are we growing it faster and wider than at the D-II level.
Yes, if it was a high school game it would have gone to a running clock in the second half, and yes, it was the biggest margin of victory of any NCAA men’s lacrosse national championship – at any level. Hats off to Merrimack (at least they didn’t celebrate each and every goal with choreographed sideline cellies). And hey, Coach Morgan must be a great guy; after all, he was coached in college by a guy who I used to coach in college (Frank Aloi, Oswego State ’87, who coached at Merrimack from ’96-‘00). Take that, Mr. Bacon!
For the fourth time this weekend, I watched the winning team bust out to a 4-0 lead. This time, though, the margin snowballed to seven before Saint Leo’s eventually got on the board. Merrimack’s starting attack unit combined for 21 points (Christian Thomas 3-7-10, Sean Black 3-4-7, and Charlie Bertrand 4-0-4) and the Warriors won 19 of 30 face-offs. Put those stats alongside a man-up unit that went 5-for-8 and the Lions faced a long, frustrating day.
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Look, did Saint Leo’s deserve to be playing in Gillette Stadium? Certainly! They were the #3 seed in the South and they beat #2 (Tampa) in OT and then knocked off #1 (Lenoir-Rhyne); they were over-achieving, according to the selection committee. Did they play their very best game today at Gillette? Probably not – but ask Albany, Maryland, or, from other NFL stadium games of other years, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, or Notre Dame, and they’ll all say the same. Disappointing performances happen – all the time.
Instead, let’s celebrate the fact that D-II men’s lacrosse is getting more and more new blood into the national spotlight every year. Tampa (FL) has made the eight-team tournament the past four years, and Colorado-Mesa (CO), Lenoir-Rhyne (NC), and Seton Hill (PA) all earned invitations to the dance this year.
And for all the lop-sided scoring we saw at Gillette on Sunday, remember that Merrimack was playing in just their second national championship game.
Is this a criticism of D-II lacrosse?
Hardly. Rather, it’s recognition that, of all three men’s divisions, D-II might just be the land of opportunity.
Since D-II’s re-birth in 1993, nine different schools have won its NCAA trophy. Believe it or not, but that’s the same number of schools that have won it in D-I as well as D-III – but consider how few D-II men’s lacrosse programs there were when they started out back in ’93.
The Long Island powerhouses (Adelphi, CW Post, and New York Tech) dominated for the first seven years, winning six titles, and then LeMoyne and Limestone entered the picture and they combined for 10 of the next 18 championships. Throw in more champions from the North (Springfield, Dowling, and now, Merrimack) and one from the “South” (Mercyhurst), and you’ve got your nine D-II champions.
The NCAA’s commitment to “access to the championship” has encouraged and spurred the growth of the game. Automatic Qualifiers, Pool B, and Pool C berths have allowed for more and more new teams to enter the playoff sweepstakes. The NCAA D-II tournament is now up to eight teams, when there once was a time when just two teams were selected to play for the national championship.
Merrimack went 10-1 in the NE 10 and was seeded second in their conference playoffs. They went on to win their next two games to take the NE 10’s AQ.
Saint Leo’s, on the other hand, got knocked off by Tampa in their Sunshine State tournament, but received a Pool C bid reserved for the best teams that do not win their conference championship.
See? The system works.
Thankfully, gone are the days when a team like Bucknell could go undefeated (12-0 in 1996) and not make the NCAA tournament. And gone are the days when a top five program like Hampden-Sydney could get knocked off in its conference championship and not receive a berth in the NCAA playoffs. Those were unfortunate aberrations, victims of going from where we were to where we are now.
Did you know that this year there were 70 NCAA D-II men’s teams playing lacrosse? There’s a Rocky Mountain Conference, a Conference of the Carolinas, and a Sunshine State Conference – neither can D-I nor D-III can say that.
With the exception of Limestone and Mercyhurst, the North Region has dominated D-II national championships. While today’s final score may not have impressed the lacrosse world, the fact that we had a college in Florida playing in the national championship should have.
Congratulations to Coach Jorgensen (who I believe played for Springfield’s 1994 national championship team) and the rest of his Lions. They may not be happy with their last performance of the year, but there were about 68 other teams who would have loved to be in their shoes this afternoon in Foxboro.
And come next February, the fight for that dance card begins once again.