With a 14-5 dismantling at the hands of Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Navy lacrosse season came to a rather unceremonious conclusion. That was one painful game to watch, wasn’t it? It was the HBO free preview weekend on DirecTV, and I could’ve changed the channel to Schindler’s List and not have been as depressed as I was watching that debacle. Already a 10-0 blowout by halftime, it was probably the most disheartening Navy performance since the loss to Air Force in 2003. My father, after sending me a text message at the half announcing that he’d switched to the NASCAR race (I can’t blame him), called me after the game saying, “Well, at least we won the second half.” Which to me kind of felt like saying, “Well, I know we’re at the vet to put the dog to sleep, but at least we got a good parking space.” He was right, of course, but at the time I wasn’t really in the mood for silver linings.
With such a lousy ending, it would be easy to forget that there were, in fact, “up” parts in this up-and-down season. Looking at the big picture, there is quite a bit to be happy about. Navy went to the NCAA tournament for the 6th consecutive year after having missed the previous four. The Mids also won their fifth Patriot League tournament in the six years that they’ve been a member of the conference. The regular season included the first win over Georgetown since 2004, an absolute manhandling of Maryland, and a convincing win over Army to erase the memory of last year’s loss. There isn’t a Navy fan out there that wouldn’t have taken these results if they were offered to him at the beginning of the season.
Nevertheless, it’s kind of hard to feel too good. Even with all those accomplishments, there were games that made you feel as if something was just wrong. While the Mids won the Patriot League tournament, their performance in the regular season was troubling at times. The opener against VMI was solid, if unspectacular. Ohio State was a quality win, even if the Buckeyes didn’t really play up to expectations this year. And while the loss to UNC was frustrating, Navy was in a position to win it at the end; nothing to be ashamed of in that game. Then things sort of got derailed. First came the loss to Bucknell. Then there were four games– Mount St. Mary’s, Lafayette, Lehigh, and Holy Cross– that were a lot closer than one would hope. Especially the Holy Cross game; the hapless, Patriot League-doormat, 3-12 Crusaders actually held a 4-3 lead over the Mids going into the 4th quarter. Sure, a win is a win… But that doesn’t mean that winning means that everything is hunky-dory. To Coach Meade’s credit, he recognized this and made constant lineup adjustments each week, trying to find the right group of guys who would help Navy play to the best of their ability. After losing to Colgate, Meade finally found the catalyst he needed; his third starting goalie of the season, Tommy Phelan.
Phelan started several games in 2008, but was sort of a forgotten man coming into 2009. Matt Coughlin, whose injury propelled Phelan to the starting job last year, came back healthy and ready to reclaim his spot. When Meade first started looking to shake up the lineup, he didn’t turn to Phelan to replace Coughlin; he picked talented plebe RJ Wickham. Wickham was an All-American his senior year of high school, a standout at the prep school, and is generally regarded as the goalie of the future. But like most plebes, he struggled. So Meade turned to choice #3, Phelan. The senior from Towson picked up where he left off last year, making eye-popping save after eye-popping save. I’m not sure if being overlooked (and the resulting chip on your shoulder) really helps you step in front of lacrosse balls better, but Phelan sure played like it did. He went from third-string to MVP instantly, making 15 saves in his first start and leading the Mids to a win over Georgetown. That started a 3-game winning streak that turned Navy’s season around. The team followed up the Georgetown win with what was their best performance in at least two years, a 10-4 thumping of Maryland. After doubling up on Army in Baltimore, it looked like Navy was peaking at the right time– right before the Hopkins game and the start of postseason play. What once appeared to be a lost cause was now a source of optimism. Maybe we did have a shot at Hopkins this year! Then again, maybe not. Johns Hopkins frog-stomped the Mids, 15-7. Navy bounced back, winning some nail-biters in the Patriot League tournament to secure their berth in the NCAA tournament. But once they got there, it was the Hopkins game all over again. Thus endeth the 2009 season.
Phelan’s revival gave Navy fans a glimmer of hope. His story bore some resemblence to Navy’s 2004 campaign, when Matt Russell stepped in as the starting goalie in the third game of the season to begin the Mids’ improbable run to the NCAA final. Both goalies lifted their respective teams to their maximum potential; the problem is that the 2009 team just didn’t have as much potential. Ugh… That sounds a lot more harsh than I hoped it would. It’s not that this year’s team wasn’t good; it’s that the 2004 team was really, really special. We’ll get back to this in a minute, but right now the question on everyone’s mind is, “Why?” Why hasn’t Navy been able to repeat the magic of 5 years ago? Why has the team struggled so much against teams they used to dominate? What’s wrong?
The most popular answer to that question lately is “parity.” The thinking goes like this: lacrosse, once a Mid-Atlantic novelty, has become more and more popular nationally in recent years. According to the Wall Street Journal, participation in high school lacrosse has doubled over the last decade. Yet even though youth lacrosse is booming, the growth of NCAA Division I lacrosse hasn’t matched the pace. More kids playing lacrosse in high school means that there are more good players out there, and there just aren’t enough scholarships/roster spots for the traditional lacrosse powers to scoop up all these guys the way they used to. Players that are good enough to play at Syracuse and Cornell are ending up at places like Colgate and Hofstra, making those kinds of teams better than they traditionally have been. Now you don’t have to be one of the traditional powerhouses to make a splash on the college lacrosse scene; there are enough talented players to go around.
On the surface, the logic would seem to be plausible. The problem is that actual results don’t play out that way. Sure, you could point to games like Harvard beating Duke or Brown beating Cornell and say, “Look! Parity!” But upsets happen every year in every sport. When it really mattered, the usual teams rose to the top. Only seven schools have ever won the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse tournament: Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, North Carolina, and Princeton. Those seven teams, plus Duke, are what made up this year’s tournament quarterfinals. There’s no indication of parity there. Of course, that’s only this year; one could point to Delaware’s unlikely run to the final four in 2007 as an indicator of this new world order of parity. But the problem there is that while the Blue Hens’ run to the final four was unlikely, it was hardly unprecedented. Over the last 20 years, final four appearances have been made by Loyola, Yale, Towson, Brown, Notre Dame, and UMass, in addition to Delaware. Sometimes lightning strikes and a special class or two of players overachieves and leads their team to a dream season. Or sometimes a hot goalie and a hot faceoff man can carry a team. Since the tournament was first expanded in 1986 (and again in 1987 and 2003), more teams have that opportunity to get hot and make a run. That’s not a case of increased talent; that’s a case of increased opportunity. In either scenario, none of these teams have been able to sustain the success they found. If we were seeing true parity, then we should also be seeing consistency; the group of elite teams competing for championships should be getting larger. But that just isn’t the case; every year you have more or less the same mix of ACC, Ivies, and independents left standing at the end. For Navy in particular, the concept of parity is used to explain why the team that once ran roughshod over the Patriot League now finds itself in a dogfight every week. The Patriot League is just better now, they say. But is it?
The answer is yes… and no. Yes, the Patriot League is more talented than in years past. But no, it isn’t any better relative to the rest of the lacrosse world. Colgate, Bucknell, and Navy have spent the last couple of years hovering around 10-20 in the polls each week, with one or two of them making the tournament. This isn’t any different than Patriot League seasons past, where Army, Hobart, and Bucknell would hover around 10-20 in the polls each week, with one or two of them making the tournament. Watching Patriot League games, you know you’re seeing a better product than before. But why doesn’t that show in the polls, or come tournament time?
The reason is because there’s a fundamental flaw in the logic behind the parity theory. Yes, the spread of lacrosse nationwide has led to a greater distribution of talent in Division I. But in order for the parity idea to work, the talent level of the best players would have to remain constant as they spread out to different schools. But it hasn’t. With the increase in popularity has come an increase in specialization. There has always been a dedicated lacrosse community, but for a lot of athletes lacrosse was a way to stay in shape between basketball or wrestling in the winter, and football or soccer in the fall. Nowadays, more of these athletes are making lacrosse their primary sport. They’re focusing on lacrosse year-round, and going to lacrosse camps and tournaments in the summer where they might have focused on something else in years past. Lacrosse isn’t just more popular in the west and midwest, either; it’s more popular in its traditional hotbeds. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d see the tournament final played at Franklin Field or the old Rutgers Stadium in front of around 10,000-19,000 fans. Now the game has to be played in larger, NFL-caliber venues because attendance has more than doubled. That isn’t because 20,000 people are flying in from California; it’s because more people in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states are making lacrosse a priority. Today’s best players are better than the best players from 20 years ago, and these players are still going to the usual powerhouse schools. The increased popularity of lacrosse hasn’t resulted in parity; rather, it has created a rising tide that lifts all boats.
All boats but Navy’s, you might be thinking. If everyone is the same relative to each other, then why isn’t Navy still crushing the Patriot League like they did when they first joined the conference? After all, didn’t all this rambling start when I asked what was wrong? Well, sure… I don’t think there’s a team out there that could be labeled as being perfect. There’s always something to fix. But there’s a huge difference between having to fix the various the various imperfections of a team from year to year, and thinking that there’s something wrong with the program.
The Mids certainly had their fair share of problems this season. The team’s offensive philosophy seemed to value maintaining posession more than generating scoring chances. That’s not really true, of course, but it’s clear that the coaches’ strategy was to control the clock by waiting for the perfect shooting opportunity. The problem is that the Mids wanted those shots to be a little too perfect. There were some games where a posession was just as likely to result in a stall warning as it was a goal. The more you pass the ball around looking for the perfect shot, the more likely it is that you’ll turn the ball over first. There needs to a balance between being selective and being downright finicky. There also needs to be improvement on faceoffs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing a ball-control game; one could argue that the football team does the same thing. But in order to control the ball, you have to win it first. If you don’t, then playing ball-control actually starts to work against you. Defensively, the Mids were just a step slower than the upper echelon of their schedule. They were well-coached and played great team defense, as evidenced by how well they played when they were down a man. But when the teams were at even strength and players got isolated in one-on-one matchups, they were beaten far too often.
That all sounds like doom and gloom, but it really isn’t. These are the kinds of strengths and weaknesses that almost every team outside of the traditional elite has to adjust to each year, not evidence of some systemic flaw. Look at other problems that Navy has had recently, and how they’ve been corrected. Navy’s EMO unit was among the best in the country in 2009. The transition game was once again a strength of the team, a far cry from the ulcer-inducing clearing attempts of the past. And no longer did the Mids try to milk a one-goal lead for an entire half; Navy’s killer instinct returned, and 5-4 squeakers turned into 10-4 blowouts when opposing defenses got too aggressive in trying to create a turnover. The problems the team had this year were different, but the results were the same; Navy still came out on top of the Patriot League and played their way into the NCAA tournament. Adapting to each season’s new set of circumstances and finding consistent success is the very essence of a good coach and a good program. Maybe the team has some areas that need some shoring up, but as a program, Navy is right where it should be.
Yet some people don’t see things that way. As enjoyable as the 2004 season was, I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Meade is sick of hearing about it. It was great while it lasted, but having every season compared to it is a bit unfair. The problem is in how people view that incredible year. To me, it’s comparable to the aforementioned final four trips by Delaware, UMass, Notre Dame, and the like; a good team that has a season where it all comes together, with the bonus of sustained success in subsequent years that those other teams weren’t able to achieve. But some people see it differently. To them, 2004 wasn’t lightning in a bottle; it was Navy retaking their rightful place among the elite, a return to the glory years of Dinty Moore and Willis Bilderback. It shouldn’t be celebrated for the Mids to make the final four; it should be expected! And when you look at things that way, every year since then has been a disappointment.
Disappointment is going to be the norm when your expectations aren’t grounded in reality. Because of the history of the sport at USNA, lacrosse gets held to a different standard. The new Bilderback-Moore Lacrosse Hall of Fame at the stadium is filled with reminders of the glorious, championship-filled history of Navy lacrosse. But those titles were being won at the same time the football team was playing Texas for the national championship. Does anyone expect the football team to head to the Cotton Bowl every year? Of course not. We know what high academic standards and a military lifestyle do to our recruiting pool, and if we’re going to bowl games and winning CIC Trophies, we’re happy. Other sports are expected to compete for Patriot League championships. So why should lacrosse be any different?
There’s some merit to the argument that we should be better in lacrosse than in other sports, at least relative to the rest of the country. For example, while football is ruled by Texas, USC, and Florida-types, schools like Princeton, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins sit atop the lacrosse totem pole. There isn’t the same chasm between Navy and the sport’s top programs when it comes to academic standards. There is still, though, the military lifestyle and commitment. The usual response to this is, “Well, that’s no excuse!” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it is absolutely a factor in recruiting, and simply saying that it’s not an excuse isn’t a solution. If there are ways around this (short of some ASO-style atom bomb), I’m sure there are plenty of ears in Annapolis willing to listen. Once upon a time, Navy would simply out-athlete their opponents, but those days have passed. Coach Meade found his own way to expand the recruiting pool, pioneering the movement to recruit non-traditional areas of the country. In 2004, TV commentators would chuckle at how far-strung Navy’s roster seemed to be, with guys like Ben Bailey and Ben Horn from places like California and Tennessee. Nobody’s laughing anymore. A quick roster scan of the seeded teams in this year’s tournament reveals players from not only California and Tennessee, but Washington, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Colorado. Coach Meade is having compete for these players a lot more than he used to. Maybe there’s another way to expand the recruiting pool again. Until that happens, it’s insane to demand consistent final four appearances.
That’s a whole lot of babble just to say that the lacrosse program is doing fine. Playing for conference championships, going to the NCAA tournament, and occasionally advancing to the quarterfinals and beyond is a good place to be. As frustrating as some games can be, it’s important to remember the bigger picture.