No one can accuse ESPN analyst Mark Dixon of being limited strictly to the men’s game as he will call Wednesday night’s women’s contest between Towson and No. 20 Johns Hopkins, which will air Wednesday at 5 p.m. on ESPNU. The former Johns Hopkins midfielder, who can be followed on Twitter via his account @dixonlacrosse, will contribute to the network’s coverage of No. 11 Syracuse at No. 2 Johns Hopkins March 17, but he shared his thoughts on the college lacrosse season thus far.
What’s the significance of No. 1 Virginia’s 14-10 victory over [No. 11] Syracuse on Sunday?
I think you saw a Virginia team that was challenged by a Syracuse team that was not going to back down. You wouldn’t expect anything less from Syracuse. Virginia got up in the game, 3-1, and then Syracuse went on a run to make it 6-3. But that’s where you saw Virginia’s leadership take over. All week long, we in the media talked about the star power that Virginia had versus the lack of star power for Syracuse. And the stars shined in Charlottesville on Sunday. [Senior attackman] Steele Stanwich has three points with two nifty assists, [redshirt senior midfielder] Colin Briggs – who Inside Lacrosse has coined “Big Time Briggs” because he loves the primetime and bright lights – had three goals and one assist. I think a star in the making is [sophomore midfielder] Rob Emery who had two goals. And you also saw Virginia make adjustments. Syracuse was running by Virginia, particularly in the second quarter, getting some unassisted goals. [Redshirt senior attackman Tim] Desko and [sophomore attackman] Derek Maltz are terrific shooters. Maltz reminds me a lot of [former Maryland attackman] Grant Catalino, and [Cavaliers senior goalie] Rob Fortunato was really struggling. So what did they do? They went to that zone, and they really limited the quality of shots that Syracuse was getting. In the second half, Virginia was able to win faceoffs, win groundballs. Virginia just won that game all over the place. They won all of the hustle plays. They were 42-21 on groundballs, they dominated on faceoffs [20-of-28]. [Sophomore Chris] Daddio for Syracuse had done a great job, winning 64 percent prior to Sunday’s game. So it was just a total team effort, and that’s what we’re seeing out of Virginia since 2011. They’ve always had the talent, but now they have the leadership to match the talent that dots their roster.
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So would it be fair to say that Syracuse is better than what many people initially thought?
I think people were unfair to teams like Syracuse, Maryland, Notre Dame. Obviously, when you lose leadership and senior talent, there’s going to be some adjustment. But Syracuse is Syracuse for a reason. I think Syracuse is better defensively. I think [junior defenseman] Brian Megill is very good, I think [sophomore defenseman] Matt Harris is very good. Their goaltender situation though – no team has won a national championship with two goalies since Princeton [in 1998], and those Princeton teams were pretty special when you consider the offensive and defensive talent that they possessed. So I think they need to solve their goalie situation. I think Syracuse needs midfielders. [Junior] JoJo Marasco is a good player, but is he a marquee guy? I’m not sold. When you look at a guy like [redshirt freshman] Hakeem Lecky, [you see] lightning-bolt quickness, and he scored a goal on Sunday, but he disappears for stretches. [Senior] Bobby Eilers is a player who needs to step up. I had Virginia by three in that game and they won the game by four. I was impressed with Syracuse’s grittiness and their ability to hang with Virginia, but this is a re-loading year for Syracuse. We always talk about Duke being that team that struggles in February and March. Syracuse can fit that bill, too. They might not show up in the win-loss column, but always by May, Syracuse is a much better team than they were in mid-March, and I think this Syracuse team will fit that bill.
What has been the biggest surprise thus far?
I think you have to look at teams like [No. 15] Lehigh. They got smoked by Villanova, 17-7, and then they come back and knock off Penn and North Carolina in a five-day stretch. That’s pretty impressive. [No. 19] Fairfield’s undefeated with six overtime periods in four games. So I think that’s been pretty surprising. The other thing is, I’m somewhat surprised at the level of goalie play that we’ve seen in 2012. I think it’s really been off the charts. If you look at the returning All Americans, [Johns Hopkins junior] Pierce Bassett was on the second team and [Princeton senior] Tyler Fiorito was on the third team. Both of them are playing well, but they’re not the guys that we’re really talking about. The guys that we’re talking about are [junior] John Kemp at Notre Dame, who is saving over 70 percent of his shots and giving up less than four goals a game. [Sophomore] Austin Kaut from Penn State is a big reason why they’re being so successful at this point in the season. And then you have [redshirt sophomore] Niko Amato down at Maryland who has been sensational. They were outshot, 15-1, in the fourth quarter by Duke, and he made nine saves and really helped Maryland get that win. This could be the year of the goalie. There are guys that I just mentioned vying for All American honors, and you can only have three make the first, second and third teams. So I think the goaltending this year has been a very pleasant surprise. I also didn’t expect UMass to be undefeated at this point in the season, especially after Ohio State knocked off Denver. UMass had to travel out to Columbus to take on Ohio State, and they knocked them off. UMass is a team that’s very, very dangerous. They have good balance on offense and defense. But they still have to go through that gauntlet that is the CAA [Colonial Athletic Association].
Is there a team that has fallen short of your expectations?
I’ve been a little surprised at the slow start by Penn. [Note: Dixon spoke prior to Penn’s game against North Carolina Tuesday night.] Last year, faceoffs were really bad for the Quakers, and I thought they were going to be much better this year with Joe McCallion coming in as a freshman from Haverford and some improvement from returning players, but they’re only winning 28 percent of their faceoffs. The result is they’re 0-2. I had them ranked No. 10 in the preseason, and I expected them to at least be 1-1 right now. But the one glaring thing that is surprising me about the Quakers is their anemic performance at faceoffs. But they’re only two games into the season, so there is a lot of lacrosse left to be played. If you want to talk about a schedule, their next four are [No. 12] North Carolina, [No. 14] Villanova, [No. 20] Princeton and [No. 3] Cornell. That’s a wicked schedule right there.
What team outside of the Top 10 has the most staying power?
I think [No. 14] Villanova has some pretty significant staying power, but look at their next five. It’s at Penn, against Princeton, at [No. 5] Maryland, at Syracuse and at [No. 6] Penn State. I don’t know what they’re doing in Philly, but that’s a pretty serious schedule. The other team I think we should keep our eyes on is [No. 17] Loyola. I really like the way the Greyhounds are playing. [Senior] Scott Ratliff is a terrific long-stick midfielder. You’ve got a great 1-2 combination at attack with [senior] Eric Lusby and [junior] Mike Sawyer. [Junior] Sean O’Sullivan in the midfield is playing very, very well. And Loyola hasn’t had the services of [senior] Josh Hawkins, who is one of the best short-stick D-middies in the country. They’ve been able to keep it together.