ESPN analyst Mark Dixon has added sideline reporter and play-by-play caller to his list of titles. He patrolled the sideline of No. 5 Johns Hopkins' 15-6 rout of Siena on Friday and will provide analysis for the Moe's Southwest Grill Classic doubleheader in Jacksonville on Sunday involving No. 10 Denver against No. 18 Penn State and No. 15 Ohio State against Jacksonville. The former Blue Jays midfielder, who can be followed on Twitter at @DixonLacrosse, discussed his thoughts on the pace of play, Duke's loss to Denver and one team that's not getting enough attention.
What resonated with you the most from the first full weekend of college lacrosse?
I think pace of play was really, really good. If you look at the scoring, you had Denver-Duke which was 14-12, and the Bryant-Colgate game was 14-13. So I think the intention of the new rules to increase pace of play has had its desired effect. Individually, look at the shooting numbers. [Johns Hopkins senior midfielder] John Ranagan took 11 shots against Siena and got three goals. [Senior attackman] Logan Schuss from Ohio State took 17 shots and scored seven. The good offensive players are getting their looks, and – not that those two have ever been bashful about taking shots – I watched the [Johns Hopkins] game, and with Ranagan, I think maybe with one or two, you were like, 'Eh, I don't know about that.' But the majority were good, quality shots. I talked with [coach] Nick Myers this morning over at Ohio State, and he said the same thing about Logan Schuss. Maybe one shot was something that he'd like to have back. But they're good, quality shot opportunities, and I think that's the biggest thing that stuck out this weekend – the number of shots that were taken, the number of quality shots and the pace of play. People really seemed to be pleased with that. I guess on the flipside, especially with the Hopkins game being on ESPNU, a number of people were bellyaching about the hit calls and the amount of flags. They felt like that offset the pace of play a little bit.
Did you feel like the penalties slowed the tempo?
I'm a referee, and I know where the refs are coming from. We have been mandated this year – it's a point of emphasis – to call hits to the head and neck area. So to me, no. You're officiating the game the way you've been told to officiate. Officials don't make the rules. We just enforce them. The coaches make the rules, the committee approves them, but they listen to coaches, and we're just doing what the coaches have been asking us to do, and that's to protect the players. If you look at college football and pro football, they're protecting their players as well in the head and neck area. To me, were some of the calls questionable? Maybe. But it's gotten to the point where it's better to justify yourself making a call versus a player getting hurt by taking a shot to the head and then answering the question, "Why didn't you call it?" That question could come from your assigner, it could come from the coach, it could come from the parents of a player who may end up injured. So to me, it is what it is, and it's not going to go away, and players have to adjust.
No. 10 Denver knocked off No. 6 Duke, 14-12, on Saturday. How significant is that win for the Pioneers and how significant is that loss for the Blue Devils?
Obviously, I think it's a nice win for Denver. To go into Durham, and I believe Duke had the longest home winning streak of any Division I lacrosse team, and to be down at halftime 8-5 and then you score seven goals in the third quarter and basically win the game in the third quarter, I think it's a huge win for Denver. But it's not a season maker by any stretch. It's the first weekend in February. But I think it's much better to win a game like that than it is to lose it, and the way they won it is even better for the Pioneers. Duke, you never get too worried about them losing in February. They've been doing that for three or four years. They'll drop a game to Notre Dame, they've lost to Harvard, they've lost to Penn, and that's a team that just gets better as the season goes along. If there's one concern if I'm Duke, it's defense. A lot of people have been saying that Duke returns eight guys on defense, and they've got the guy [redshirt senior Dan] DiMaria from Harvard at the pole to take [C.J.] Costabile's spot. They lost [redshirt senior defenseman] Casey Carroll, which I think is a big loss from a leadership perspective. But Duke is a team where their defense hasn't been the greatest over the past couple of seasons and when you look at the game on Saturday, to be up 8-5 – and I saw comments from [Pioneers coach] Bill Tierney that his guys weren't used to the size and physicality of the Duke defense, that they were kind of getting shoved around in the first half. Well, they made adjustments to be more off-ball and be quicker with their passes in the second half, and they ripped Duke apart. Jacksonville lost, 21-9, [to Duke], but they got 38 shots and a lot of those were within eight or eight yards, and Jacksonville just didn't hit the cage. Denver is a team that I think could be there and will be there on championship weekend. They're one of my top four teams in the preseason. So you're not overly concerned if you're Duke from that regard. But also, this is a team that has lost some big games in February in the last couple of years, and they've been to six straight championship weekends. So they're going to fix some things in Durham.
Who are your top five teams?
I like Loyola, Maryland, Hopkins, Denver and Notre Dame – not in any particular order. Those are my top five teams coming into the season.
Who are your top candidates for the Tewaaraton Award?
I think you always have to start with the guy who won it last year, and that's [Colgate senior attackman] Peter Baum. He's a very special player. Just a guy who makes those around him better. Another player that I really like is [senior attackman] Marcus Holman at North Carolina. Just such a great leader and tremendous player. He's a stud. I think Holman is absolutely phenomenal. I think [senior attackman] Mike Sawyer from Loyola is a tremendous finisher. I think that pure finishers have a tough time in the Tewaaraton race because the Tewaaraton people look for players who are a little more well-rounded, and Sawyer's the best shooter in the country. The other thing that Sawyer has working against him is [senior] Scott Ratliff at long-stick middie. He's [phenomenal, and he could have easily been a Tewaaraton candidate last year. But I like Sawyer. The other guys you're probably looking at, Logan Schuss from Ohio State is a sleeper. I think Ranagan is a sleeper. He's a guy that can put the ball on-cage, and he's going to run by guys this year. And how can you not mention [Cornell senior attackman] Rob Pannell? Pannell is phenomenal and he's back healthy. I'm probably naming half the country here, but another player is [junior midfielder] Tom Schreiber from Princeton is a very special player. They may have a tough road to hoe losing their goalie, their top two defenders [to graduation], and then they lost their most experienced defender [junior Rob Castelo] to an ACL. So they may be hard-pressed, but Tom Schreiber offensively is as good as anybody in the country.
Is there a team flying under the radar?
Virginia. I don't know how good Virginia's going to be this year. You lose [attackman] Steele Stanwick, you lose [midfielder] Colin Briggs, you lose [defenseman Matt] Lovejoy, you lose a lot of players off of that ball club. But [senior midfielder Chris] LaPierre back at that midfield is a great leader. They have a dangerous offensive midfield core in [junior] Rob Emery, [sophomore] Ryan Tucker and Charlie Streep, the fifth-year from Bucknell who is a tremendous player. Their questions are going to be at the attack. Who steps up and takes Stanwick's spot? I don't think you replace a guy like Steele Stanwick, but they need some leadership and productivity there. But the last time people really wrote Virginia off like they're doing now was 2011 after the Brattons dismissal and they got hammered by Duke a couple times. They won their national championship [in 2011]. So I think it's dangerous to sleep on Virginia. Right now, nobody's talking about Virginia.
Is there a team that you have questions about?
Maybe North Carolina. I think they have a ton of talent. Offensively, their attack may be the best in the country with [sophomore Joey] Sankey, Holman and [sophomore Jimmy] Bitter. They've got some great middies, but can they stop anybody? That's the big question for North Carolina. Can they stop people and can they stay out of the penalty box? Those are the two really big questions. This is a team that has not been to championship weekend since 1993. They have the pieces in place to make a run, but until they can win big games consistently, they'll remain a question mark for me.