Division III Women's Bracket Unkind to NESCAC Champ Colby

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Salisbury edged Colby, 6-5, in March at Tierney Field. The Mules haven't lost since. Both teams qualified for the NCAA tournament.


The NCAA Division III women's lacrosse tournament represents the largest of the association's six, a 40-team behemoth comprised of 29 conference champions and 11 at-large entrants.

It's predictably mirrored the participation and sport-sponsorship growth at that level, but such growth left the committee charged with determining championship participants a challenge. The committee had just nine at-large invitations to extend to runners-up in leagues that qualified their champion for an automatic bid. Pool C teams had to win games against strong schedules and hope their vanquished foes won their other games to garner consideration for an entry, given they did not win their conference crown.

"To see the growth of the automatic qualifying conferences is daunting, but exciting," said Celine Cunningham, coach and associate athletics director at Stevens and chair of the NCAA Division III Women's Lacrosse Committee. "Determing the Pool C bids is a big challenge, and the Pool B teams really need to manipulate their schedules to have that cross-section of competition."

Pool B teams represent independents or teams that play in a conference that does not yet have an automatic qualifer into the NCAA tournament. Two such bids were distributed to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, ranked No. 17 in the most recent Nike/US Lacrosse Top 20, and Colorado College.

"The committee gave those two teams a ton of credit for coming east to play some of the stronger teams. That certainly aided their cause," Cunningham said.

The Athenas and Tigers were rewarded with first-round byes and a second-round matchup with each other Sunday in Southern California.

The committee does not seed participants, but names quarterfinal round hosts. No. 1 William Smith, No. 3 TCNJ, No. 5 Gettysburg and No. 10 Trinity (rankings reflect Nike/US Lacrosse) each will host a four-team regional of survivors of this weekend's first two rounds, assuming, of course, their own survival.

"The teams at the top of the regional rankings, the committee tries to ensure that they can host throughout. We can't always, but we try," Cunningham said.

The Favorite

TCNJ

Tough to conclude with certainty given the lack of seedings, but based on a top finish in the NCAA-compiled East Region rankings updated yesterday, TCNJ (15-1) represents a de facto No. 1 overall seed. The IWLCA poll today ranks the Lions atop the nation following their 11-2 defeat of Montclair State in the New Jersey Athletic Conference championship game. TCNJ's case is bolstered by defending national champion Middlebury, the only team to defeat the Lions and subsequent, narrow losers of just four games against a very challenging schedule.

The Lions have the coaching in National Hall of Famer Sharon Pfluger, the talent in conference defender of the year Elizabeth Morrison and attacker of the year Mia Blackman, and the pedigree in having won 13 national championships to extend to 29 their streak of quarterfinal appearances. They also may have the motivation, having not reached the final since their last crown in 2006.

Last Team In

Mary Washington or Wesleyan

Mary Washington is ranked No. 8 in the Mid-Atlantic Region and is the Capital Athletic Conference's third team in. No. 18 Wesleyan, ranked No. 5 in the New England Region, is the NESCAC's fifth team in. The Eagles finished 14-5 following a CAC semifinal loss to Salisbury and a non-league schedule that included some tests without success, absent a late-season dismantling of eventual Landmark Conference champion Catholic.

The Cardinals (11-5) earned their first NCAA tournament bid thanks in part to their NESCAC schedule.

First Team Out

Muhlenberg, Oberlin or Stevens

The Mules own a win over Gettysburg, but back-to-back decisive losses to F&M likely resulted in a No. 9 final Mid-Atlantic Region ranking. The Yeowomen's (14-2) defeats, both to North Coast Athletic Conference rival Denison, proved costly. Stevens actually had the higher seed entering yesterday's Empire 8 Conference final against St. John Fisher, but fell, 10-3.







Toughest Draw

Trinity

Though the Bantams can play at home until the final four, their road to that event in Salem, Va., may go through Pennsylvania. The commonwealth produced three teams in Trinity's bracket, each capable of stopping its streak of NCAA championship game appearances at five. No. 15 Franklin & Marshall can beat anybody when it's on (in a potential round of 16 game). No. 11 York, No. 12 Messiah, No. 13 Cortland, or No. 14 St. John Fisher could emerge as Trinity's quarterfinal opponent.

Upset Alert

Mary Washington

Mary Washington hasn't played since April 26 and draws USA South champion Meredith, which will be look to avenge a season-opening defeat at the Eagles. Wesleyan's been off since April 29, though a first-round loss to Ithaca would not be considered as significant upset given their comparable positions in the Nike/US Lacrosse Top 20.

Revenge Fuel

Colby

The Mules won the nation's toughest conference, the NESCAC, and finished atop the New England Region rankings. Yet the Waterville, Maine, based program will hit the road for its second-round game. And Colby will hit the road to league rival Middlebury, whom the Mules vanquished in both the regular season and league semifinals (the latter at Middlebury). On the other hand, each of the other four NESCAC entrants will play at least one home game. The reward for a third win over the defending champs this season? A trip to No. 3 TCNJ, assuming the Lions defeat Endicott or Farmingdale State.

Cunningham said Colby was unable to host games this weekend, and a Colby spokesman said another event in the area had rendered local hotels unavailable.

Players to Watch

Sarah Honan, William Smith, Sr. G

William Smith goalie Sarah Honan ranks third nationally in goals against average (4.47) and save percentage (59.3). The senior was named the Liberty League tournament MVP and, while she has talented players in front of her, has allowed just one of the Herons' last eight opponents to score five goals.

Allie Bond, Catholic, Sr. M

Catholic midfielder Allie Bond leads all players participating in the NCAA tournament in draw controls per game, averaging 7.35. That's good for eighth in the nation, huge for a team that experienced ups-and-downs but has won six straight games. She's capable of taking over, as she corralled 18 in a March 29 game at Rowan.

Kristen Ohberg, Cortland, Sr. A

Cortland attacker Kristen Ohberg scores points. A lot of them. She's the NCAA active leader across all divisions in points scored with 362. She led the nation in scoring a year ago with 122 on a balanced 64 goals and 56 assists. Getting the ball in her hand works in big games -- she scored four goals and added an assist in a win over Trinity in the 2015 NCAA final.

Don't Be Surprised If...

Wesleyan makes its first run a deep run.

The Cardinals are playing with house money, having already set program records for wins (11) and NESCAC wins (seven) in coach Kim Williams' second season. If they get past Ithaca, they may face Hamilton, whom they defeated earlier 8-7.

You'll Hear A Lot About...

William Smith's return to relevance.

The Herons were dominant before and shortly after the turn of the century, reaching the semifinals 10 times from 1987-2003 and advancing to five title games under National Hall of Famer Pat Genovese. In her second year at the helm, former Yale coach Anne Phillips has William Smith playing great defense and poised to return to former positioning near the top of the lacrosse world. Getting to the top is not unrealistic.

Predictions

Semifinals
William Smith over TCNJ
Franklin & Marshall over Gettysburg

Championship Game
William Smith over Franklin & Marshall

William Smith will join TCNJ in the semis on one half of the bracket, while Pennsylvania provides the other semifinalists and Centennial Conference rivals F&M and Gettysburg. The Herons edge the Diplomats in a defensive struggle to win the program's first NCAA title.

Grading the Committee

A

It's a tough gig, given just nine at-large bids to deploy and that some committee members, like Cunningham of Stevens, had to coach their teams Sunday before working to finalize the bracket. You feel for Colby and for a perhaps-under-appreciated Washington and Lee, the No. 2 team in the Nike/US Lacrosse Top 20 saddled as visitor to No. 1 William Smith in a potential quarterfinal. But the Generals were largely overlooked in the preseason and just kept winning, so they may turn that into motivation.

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