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Preston: Denver faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste deserves Tewaaraton Award

There are some who think the Tewaaraton Award, given annually to the nation's most outstanding college lacrosse player, will be decided when No. 1 seed Maryland takes on No. 5 seed Denver on Saturday in an NCAA Division I men's semifinal.

But this race should be over. The most dominant force in the game is Denver junior faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste.

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Baptiste and Maryland senior attackman Matt Rambo are the only remaining finalists heading into final four weekend at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. But even if Baptiste plays an average game (he never plays a bad one) and Rambo scores five goals, including the game-winner, Saturday afternoon, Baptiste still should win the award.

He has been that dominant.

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"Rambo had a strong game against Albany Sunday," former Johns Hopkins and Towson coach Tony Seaman said. "But when you win like 96 percent of the faceoffs taken in a playoff game, and 74 percent for the year, wow. He is special. I love that kid.

"And he has been successful despite everyone trying to annihilate him. For my money, the award should go to Baptiste. If Denver didn't have him, they wouldn't even be in the playoffs."

The Tewaaraton selection committee needs to think outside the box. Since the award was first given in 2001, all 17 winners have been attackmen or midfielders. It appears the selection committee doesn't value defensemen or goalies very highly. Or maybe the Tewaaraton has become lacrosse's version of college football's Heisman Trophy, usually given annually to the nation's top offensive player.

Rambo is a great player. He has 40 goals and 43 assists this season and finished with eight points in the Terps' 18-9 quarterfinal win against Albany on Sunday. He can shoot left- or right-handed with precision. He can operate from behind the goal or attack from the top of the box when inverted.

His passing vision is exceptional, and it's always fun to watch him back down defenders like a power forward in the paint when he wants to score. He rides as hard as any attackman, which makes his game complete.

But Baptiste is even more dominant.

"With Maryland, Rambo is an exceptional player but they have a lot of good players you have to be worried about, because that is a good team," Seaman said. "With Denver, Baptiste is the guy. Period."

Baptiste masks a lot of the Pioneers' problems. Their defense and goalie play is suspect, but Denver doesn't get exposed as much as other teams because its offense controls the ball, courtesy of No. 9.

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In a 17-10 NCAA tournament opening-round win against Air Force last week, Baptiste won 23 of 27 faceoffs. In a 16-14 win over No. 4 seed Notre Dame in the quarterfinals Saturday, he won 21 of 22.

That's insane. That's Jim Brown-type dominance.

For the season, Baptiste has won 286 of 378 faceoffs while collecting 172 ground balls. Opposing teams have tried to attack him with extra players to wear him down at the "X" and on the wings.

He fits perfectly into Denver's offensive scheme. The Pioneers are deliberate and like to pass the ball around before finding the perfect shot. It's basketball's "make it, take it" philosophy in lacrosse. That strategy also puts pressure on opposing offenses because they have to value their possessions more than usual.

According to Seaman, Denver coach Bill Tierney lobbied for years against faceoff specialists because he couldn't find a good player at that position. But there hasn't been any criticism since Baptiste walked on the Pioneers' campus.

In fact, Tierney doesn't call Baptiste a specialist, just a really good player. He has proved that with 12 goals and two assists this season.

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"I would say he is a faceoff guy who is a very good lacrosse player," Tierney said. "He is always jumping into drills, shooting the ball, involved in meetings. He is really quicker than he looks."

Baptiste is 5 feet 10 and 215 pounds. His thick arms, thick thighs and strong build are perfect for leverage. When he picks up a ground ball on the run, few people get in his way.

"Baptiste is an unusual animal," ESPN and Big Ten Network lacrosse analyst Mark Dixon said. "If you can tie him up, he will look around, and he's very smart about putting the ball into space. Trevor Baptiste taking faceoffs is like Earl Campbell taking faceoffs. He is so big and strong, and when he gets it into space, he is tough to check away."

Everyone knows he is the biggest difference maker in the game. The Tewaaraton selection committee might want to wait to see whether Denver or Maryland advances to the championship game, but it's not about the postseason.

It's about being the best and most dominant force in college lacrosse.

Baptiste is that player.

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mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun


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