ESPN analyst Mark Dixon will help provide coverage of Wednesday night’s women’s contest between Virginia and Johns Hopkins and the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s tournament final, which is scheduled for April 23. The former Johns Hopkins midfielder, who can be followed on Twitter via his account @Dixonlacrosse, shared his thoughts on the leading championship contender and broke down the favorites in some of the conferences. [Note: I mistakenly mixed one answer regarding the Colonial Athletic Association and the Patriot League. The revision is in italics. My apologies for the error.]
Is there a leader that has emerged from the pack thus far?
I think yes and no. I think Virginia is a team that has shown that it can win in different ways and has been pretty consistent across the board. The only thing standing between them and a perfect season was the overtime loss to [No. 5] Johns Hopkins. But I think right now, the prohibitive favorite has to be Virginia. When you look at the next couple of teams, Johns Hopkins is still very much in the mix. [No. 6] Notre Dame, with that defense, is incredibly stout. And then you’ve got [No. 3] UMass and [No. 8] Loyola sitting there undefeated, and people still want to know if they’re for real or not. I think that’s a little unfair to those teams because they’ve taken care of everybody that’s in front of them. Loyola has beaten [No. 9] Duke, UMass has beaten [No. 18] Bucknell and [No. 11] Penn State, but it’s almost like people are waiting for them to falter so they can say, ‘See, we told you so. These guys really aren’t that good.’ I think you have to give the respect to Loyola and UMass. And then you’ve got a [No. 7] Denver team that can do what they did last year and hit a groove late in the season and really turn it on. But I think right now, you’d have to say that Virginia has probably established themselves as the team – if they can stay healthy – that has to be the favorite.
Were there any results from this past weekend that surprised you?
Not really. This has been a season that has really been characterized by close games and upsets. You can look at [then-No. 18] Colgate knocking off [then-No. 9] Lehigh. I may have said Army beating [then-No. 12 Bucknell] had I not had conversations last week with Colgate coach Mike Murphy and Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese where both of them said that Army is a very good team, especially offensively. They just haven’t caught any breaks. So maybe Army knocking off Bucknell could be characterized as a surprise. You can look at a team like Drexel that just lost their fifth one-goal game of the season against [No. 11] Penn State. If Drexel wins half of those games, instead of being 5-6, they’re 7-4 or 8-3. So it’s not a surprise, but it’s indicative of the way this season has gone. I can tell what I was really impressed with. I was impressed with St. John’s fighting back two goals down at [then-No. 20] Georgetown with 42 seconds left to beat the Hoyas in overtime. I was impressed with Loyola on the road down 6-4, and they came back and scored the game’s final four goals against [No. 19] Fairfield. That’s a brutal stretch right now that Loyola is in – at Fairfield, at Denver and at Hobart – and that’s a team that has to win on the road because the ECAC [Eastern College Athletic Conference] Tournament is in Denver. No one wants to play Denver in the first round of that thing. So by them taking care of business and beating Fairfield, they’ve got Denver this weekend and obviously, they want to win that game, but should they falter, maybe they can grab that No. 2 seed and still stay away from Denver until the championship. I was excited to see Towson have some success this year. I think Shawn Nadelen has done a great job, but it was a little surprising to see a really close game up at UMass and then the Minutemen just turned it on and scored 10 of the last 11 goals of the game to turn a really tight game into an easy win. So nothing surprises me at this point in time. I think what I look at more is, ‘Who’s impressing me and what efforts are teams putting forth to win these games?’
Let’s break down some of the conferences and get your favorite to win each league. Since you’ve already mentioned Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference, what about the Colonial Athletic Association?
I think right now, UMass has to be the favorite. They’re playing very well. [Junior] Will Manny and [senior] Art Kell at the attack, you’ve got [senior] Anthony Biscardi in the midfield, [senior] Tom Celentani on defense, [redshirt senior] Tim McCormack in the goal. They’re just playing at a very high level right now, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. But I would not sleep on Penn State. Nice defense, very good goalie, and it’s a veteran group that knows how to put the ball in the back of the net with that attack. And then I think you have to look at Hofstra. That’s a team that’s putting up goals. [Junior midfielder] Adrian Sorichetti has one seven-goal game so far this season. They’ve got a nice goaltender in [senior] Andrew Gvozden. It’s a seven-team conference, and you’ve got five teams in the mix for the postseason. It’s just so competitive that anybody can beat anybody on a given day. But I think right now, you have to say that UMass is the favorite in that conference.
What about the Patriot League?
This is my favorite conference. Week in and week out, they beat each other up, and it reminds me of the old NFC Central in football, a defensive-minded conference. But this year, these teams are lighting up the scoreboard. If I had to pick a favorite, it is hard when you look at the offensive firepower of [No. 15] Colgate and how they were able to stand toe-to-toe with [No. 16] Lehigh and win that battle and get up into double digits against the Mountain Hawks. Bucknell is a team that has four losses by a combined six goals. It’s really tough to pick a favorite, but I might have to go with Lehigh just because of the combination of an excellent faceoff man in [junior] Ryan Snyder, [freshman] goalie Matt Poillon is playing very well. I think the loss to Colgate helps them more than it hurts them. I pick Lehigh, but man, that thing is wide open. It’s going to come down to Lehigh, Bucknell and Colgate. Army and Navy have had their moments this year, but I just think the first three are on a little bit of a different level, especially when they get into that postseason.
That’s [No. 2] Cornell’s to lose. It’s going to come down to Cornell and [No. 14] Princeton April 28. That’s a huge game right there. Year in and year out, it seems we always want to pick somebody different – whether it’s Penn or Yale or Harvard. But Cornell just stays the course, and I don’t know any other team that can lose a player of the same caliber as [senior attackman] Rob Pannell and continue to execute at the level that they’re playing right now. They’ve got a huge one [today] against [No. 13] Syracuse, which just knocked off Princeton. But I really think that it’s Cornell in the Ivy League.
How about the Big East?
Notre Dame is the team. They’re starting to get some offensive punch. [Sophomore] Jim Marlatt at the midfield has been great, [junior] Ryan Foley and [sophomore] Westy Hopkins and [senior] Sean Rogers at the attack, but it’s that defense. [Senior] Kevin Randall is a first-team All American, and he’s a serious contender for the [William C.] Schmeisser [Award, which is given to the nation’s outstanding defensive player]. I think it’s going to come down to him and [Johns Hopkins junior] Tucker Durkin for Defender of the Year. [Junior] John Kemp is the best goaltender in the country. People can talk about systems, but the bottom line is, Notre Dame has got some pretty good players, players that I think any other team in the country would be thrilled to have on their roster. [No. 12] Villanova is a team that has been up and down. I love their athleticism, and I think they have an offense that is fast enough to challenge Notre Dame and get to spots to get shots. Syracuse, I think everybody had them marked for dead after they dropped to 4-4 with two straight losses. But they had a nice win at the [Carrier] Dome. They played some zone defense against Princeton, which I’m putting in my column for Inside Lacrosse this week. It’s just ironic that when everybody talks about the run-and-gun style of lacrosse, Virginia and Syracuse are on the tip of everyone’s tongues, but they’ve had to redefine themselves over the last couple of seasons to stay competitive and be successful. Syracuse playing zone defense at home, that was a difference-maker in that game. Princeton couldn’t adjust and handle some things. But with all that being said, I think it’s Notre Dame in the Big East.
The Eastern College Athletic Conference?
I’d love to say Loyola because of the way that they’re playing. I’m very impressed with Loyola. [Junior] Mike Sawyer and [senior] Eric Lusby at the attack are a great 1-2 punch. You’ve got [junior] Scott Ratliff at the long stick, and he reminds me a lot of P.T. Ricci and what he brought to the table. They’ve got some penetrating middies in [juniors] Chris Layne and Sean O’Sullivan who can make some things happen. Weird things happen in Denver though, and in the ECAC Tournament, they’ve got to win two games in Denver to bring that championship home. I don’t know what it is about Denver, but they’re tough at home. So I think with Loyola having to go to Denver in the regular season and then having to win two tournament games in Denver, I think you have to give a slight edge to the Pioneers with that home-field advantage. This weekend will be very telling in terms of what Loyola can do against Denver on the road. I think that’s a great test run for Loyola to see how they stack up not only against the Pioneers on the field, but also their travel preparation, how they get out there, how they practice, how they adjust to the altitude and all of that good stuff.