Posted Thursday, April 19, 2007 by .
Upstart Teams Serve Notice to Traditional Lacrosse Powers
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By PETE THAMEL
Published: April 19, 2007
Perhaps no game better illustrates the bizarre nature of this college lacrosse season than tomorrow’s matchup between Albany and Syracuse.
Albany (11-0), which joined Division I only eight years ago, is ranked No. 3 in theNike/Inside Lacrosse media poll. Syracuse (4-6), which has won eight national titles in lacrosse, is ranked No. 16 and desperately needs a victory to reach the 16-team N.C.A.A. tournament.
That situation offers a microcosm for this unusual season, as the three teams at the top of the polls — No. 1 Cornell, No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Albany — are not among the four teams that have dominated the sport. Since 1991, only four programs have won national titles: Syracuse, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Virginia.
“I’ve never been around a year like this,” Virginia Coach Dom Starsia said.
The most surprising team among the top three is Albany, which until last season did not even have a home field. It played most of its home games at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and would occasionally play home games at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., which is 100 miles away.
“We’ve made great strides here,” Albany Coach Scott Marr said. “We’re not getting on a bus to go to practice or practicing early in the morning.”
The program has matured, Marr said, in part because of its location between the lacrosse hotbeds of Central New York and Long Island. Since lacrosse teams can give out the equivalent of only 12.6 scholarships, Albany is typical in that it has three full-scholarship players and 19 players sharing the rest of the money.
Marr said that the good education and lower tuition, especially for in-state students, helped lure talented walk-ons, including three of Albany’s four top defensemen.
Albany will be tested tomorrow against a Syracuse team that is more talented than its record. The Orange probably needs to win the rest of its games to reach the N.C.A.A. tournament, which begins May 12. An Albany victory tomorrow would probably give the Great Danes an inside track to a home game in the first round of the tournament.
Syracuse lost, 16-15, to Cornell last week, solidifying the Big Red’s spot atop the polls. That game, combined with an earlier victory over Duke, has Cornell (10-0) dreaming about its first national title since 1977. That 1977 team will be honored when the Big Red plays host to No. 5 Princeton on Saturday.
“The good thing is that this has been done here before,” Cornell Coach Jeff Tambroni said. “Its not the first time we’ve ever gone through this path.”
Leading Cornell’s charge is the senior attackman David Mitchell, who is from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Tambroni jokes that Moose Jaw is a place one hears about in the hockey movie “Slap Shot,” not the lacrosse field.
Tambroni and his staff found Mitchell at a tryout for the Canadian under-19 team and he has evolved from a raw athlete into one of the game’s top players; he has a team-high 31 goals.
Cornell may end up seeing Princeton again. The N.C.A.A. quarterfinals will be played on the Princeton campus, and there is a chance the teams may meet there to play for a trip to the semifinals in Baltimore. That will all be part of trying to break the stranglehold of college lacrosse’s Big Four.
“The question is if a team can break into that top rotation,” Tambroni said. “That remains to be seen.”
What would cause the biggest stir would be if Duke reached finals weekend in Baltimore on May 26-28. Duke (10-2) lost to Johns Hopkins in the title game in 2005 and was a favorite last year before its season was canceled after three players were accused of rape and sexual assault at a team party. The charges against the players were dropped.
On the field, Duke’s only losses this season under its new coach, John Danowski, have been by one goal, against Cornell and Loyola. The Blue Devils picked up a defining victory last Saturday when midfielder Brad Ross whipped home a behind-the-back goal to beat Virginia, 7-6.
“They’re the real deal,” said Starsia, the Virginia coach. “They’re the best team that I’ve seen to date.”