As the sun sets on another NCAA lacrosse season I’d like to start off by thanking Inside Lacrosse, not only for having me as their Denver freelance guy, but also for the privilege of voting in the media poll. This is something that I’ve taken very seriously this year and thoroughly enjoyed even though it was extremely frustrating at some points.
The latter comment leads nicely into my next, obvious, conclusion: 2016 was one of the best years for college lacrosse. Ever. The amount of parity, the number of upsets, the constant curveballs; it all added up to a topsy-turvy season that kept us all guessing up until the very end. As lacrosse fans we can only hope that this is the norm going forward because it was a helluva lot of fun.
For my final poll of the year there’s not a ton of guesswork for which teams to include. I would argue that the teams that made the tournament automatically grab 18 slots because those were the teams that played their best lacrosse at the end of the season. The other two slots belong to teams that I think should have made the tournament, or would certainly have made a great tournament that much more exciting had there only been a few more spots available.
Here’s my final run-down for 2016. Thanks again Division 1. It’s been a blast. To quote the inestimable Robert Hunter, "Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there."
1. North Carolina: I will be the first to admit I was not in the Heels’ corner this year. The team had trouble putting away CAA teams early in the year and was as unpredictable as the rest of the lacrosse landscape this year. You could argue they were a bellwether of sorts. In fact, I didn’t even think they should have been guaranteed a place in the Big BBQ. Despite what happened earlier in the season, the Heels played their best lacrosse when it mattered most–late April and May. Some may call this the "Duke narrative," but that’s just banal at this point. UNC showed that Duke doesn’t have exclusive ownership of this. You could make an argument that Loyola followed a similar blueprint this year. Respect to Coach Breschi, Chris Cloutier, and the rest of the North Carolina team for their national championship.
2. Maryland: A lot of people bag on the Terps for losing yet another national championship game. Yes, Maryland is the cradle of the lacrosse world and expectations are high. Yes, their championship drought spans two generations (if you accept the premise that a generation is equivalent to about 20 years). But John Tillman has shown that he is one of, if not the best coach in college lacrosse for the past decade or so. The only thing the man hasn’t done is won a championship. He’s taken the hard shells to FOUR title games in the past six years. Anyone else would kill for that type of sustained success. And yes, people bag on the Terps for their pace of play, but if you didn’t get excited by their last two games against Brown and UNC, then I can’t help you. Perhaps a baseball game is more your style? With Tillman at the helm it seems only a matter of when not if the Terps will get the title monkey off their back.
3. Brown: As I tweeted during the Brown/Maryland game, how can any recruit watch Brown play and not want to go there? I was at the presser following the Brown/Denver game last year and to say I was impressed by Lars Tiffany would be an understatement. If you saw the presser after the semis this year, you know what I’m talking about. Coaches don’t play "what if," but I can. What if Bruno had a healthy Dylan Molloy throughout the tournament? Would things have been different? The Bears lose some great seniors to graduation, but they bring back a whole lot. Let’s hope they keep rolling the ball out and having fun.
4. Loyola: Like I already mentioned, the Hounds got hot at the right time. They just couldn’t beat the team of destiny from North Carolina. Pat Spencer will be fun to watch for the next three years; ditto with Jacob Stover. Charlie Toomey has shown that 2012 wasn’t a fluke and that the Greyhounds have the ways and means to compete for a title regularly.
5. Towson: The fact that Tyler White wasn’t selected as an All-American is a bigger snub than Pat Spencer receiving second team honors rather than first. White was the heart and soul of a very impressive Towson defense. The Tigers impressed all year long and their tournament run, past Denver at home, shows that they belonged there this year.
6. Navy: The Mids were the last team in the tournament and then went and beat Yale at home. The Bruno buzz saw proved too much, but Navy impressed all year. Rick Sowell is a miracle worker when it comes to resurrecting programs (hell if he can do it at Dartmouth…) so the fact that some folks at Navy aren’t thrilled with him is mind-boggling. In short, is Navy back? Yes. Navy is back.
7. Notre Dame: The Achilles Heel for the Irish proved to be North Carolina this year (excuse the pun). Their vaunted defense showed cracks late in the year and their anemic offense was bound to catch up with them and that’s just what happened. It will be interesting to see how well ND reloads next year.
8. Syracuse: The Orange just couldn’t match up with the Terps in the tournament. They beat Albany in a tale of two halves, but alas this just wasn’t Syracuse’s year. 8th in the tournament, 8th in my final poll… Seems fitting.
9. Marquette: Again, thanks to Inside Lacrosse, I covered the Big East final and got to hear Joe Amplo and his players right after they clinched the Big East title. This was a very impressive bunch. Sustaining this success may be a challenge with 19 seniors graduating, but don’t put it past Amplo.
10. Denver: Prior to this poll the lowest I had Denver all year was #3. While most of the teams up to this point heated up at the end of the season, Denver, uncharacteristically, fizzled. Their guns of their vaunted offense fell silent at the wrong time. The Pios had not lost back-to-back games since 2012, and have NEVER lost back-to-back games at home under Bill Tierney. In fact, the Pios hadn’t lost at home since the ECAC finals to Loyola in 2012. Tierney admitted that this year’s squad wasn’t as talents as previous iterations, but pretty much everyone had them penciled in for Memorial Day weekend. Nevertheless, expect Denver to bounce back in 2017.
11. Yale: Another team I had in my top 6, or thereabouts, all year long lost a thriller to Navy in the first round. Andy Shay’s tenure at Yale has been nothing short of impressive. Michael Quinn going down late hurt this defense-first squad, but they’re still a great team.
12. Albany: I’m a big fan of the Scoobies, and was a bit annoyed that they drew Syracuse because we’d already seen that movie this year. The re-run proved more entertaining as the Danes got out to a hot start before fading in the second. The post-Lyle Thompson era in Albany looks like it’s going to keep the party going. Just like Brown’s style of play, this is good for the sport of lacrosse.
13. Johns Hopkins: Did the Jays deserve a spot in the tournament? It’s debatable. For the second year in a row a Hopkins team plagued with injuries pieced together a decent campaign. That speaks to great coaching (although possibly calls into question their strength and conditioning regime). Still, even when Petro is down for the count, it’s unwise to count out a Petro team.
14. Air Force: The Falcons won 15 straight before facing Notre Dame in the first round. Their worst loss of the season came at the worst possible time. Nevertheless, the Fly Boys impressed many along the way, including their upset of Duke in Durham. Props to Coach Seremet and the boys from the Springs.
15. Duke: I’ve made not bones about my anti-Duke bias this year and this team was a total rollercoaster. While UNC’s CAA loses put them on the precipice in my opinion, Duke’s SoCon losses left me scratching my head when it came to selection Sunday. The Blue Devils laid an egg in the first round, just like last year. Don’t expect Duke to go away anytime soon, but they may not be an automatic Final Four team anymore. I’m not saying Duke won’t get back, or even win another championship. It’s just that I wouldn’t be surprised if the consistency with which they attained those milestones dropped off.
16. Quinnipiac: The Bobcats’ win over Hartford in the play-in game was entertaining and they put together a very good 2016 campaign. They weren’t the first, nor the last to fall to the Maryland Machine. There’s no shame in that.
17. Hartford: An unanticipated America East title vaulted the Hawks into the Big BBQ. Talk about getting hot at the right time.
18. Hobart: Pretty much the same thing as Hartford, but swap out American East for NEC.
19. Rutgers: Lax Twitter seemed to think that Rutgers got hosed out of a tournament bid, courtesy of Johns Hopkins, a team the Scarlet Knights went 2–0 against. This is another team that took a giant step forward in 2016. It will be interesting to see if this progress can be sustained.
20. Stony Brook: A high scoring and exciting team, the Sea Wolves lost their sea legs at the worst possible time. They lose some impressive talent to graduation, but 2016 was a fun ride on the island.