College Lacrosse

Quint Kessenich: Increased college lacrosse parity creating early season chaos

On Monday night, Richmond shocked then-No. 7 Duke, continuing a season of surprising results. Upsets are a weekly phenomenon. High Point beat then-No. 11 Virginia. Boston U. toppled then-No. 16 Navy. Hofstra stung then-No. 5 North Carolina.

It's early March and Virginia (3-3), Johns Hopkins (2-2), Maryland (2-2), Duke (4-3) and North Carolina (3-2) are all saddled with multiple losses. Meanwhile, the Ivy League has three teams in the top 10. No. 4 Yale (4-0) and No. 5 Brown (4-0) are undefeated. No. 7 Harvard (4-1) upset Duke on Saturday, then lost to Bryant on Tuesday. The Ivy's awakening mixed with the struggles of the superpowers begs for an explanation.


An Ivy League team last won the NCAA title in 2001 when Bill Tierney was coaching at Princeton. It was the Tigers' sixth title in a 10-year span. Cornell has been to championship weekend as recently as 2013 after trips in 2007 and 2009. However, the Ivy League is 0-6 over the past two years in the NCAA tournament. Four of those games were blowouts. Regular-season triumphs haven't carried over into the postseason.

So far, 2016 is different. The Ivys might be championship-weekend worthy.


"Yale has a system in place and has developed players as well as any program in the nation," ESPN analyst and former Syracuse midfielder Paul Carcaterra said. "Coach Andy Shay identifies their type of player regardless of recruiting rankings. Ben Reeves was hardly recruited and last year was the Ivy League Rookie of the year. Yale also plays with a something-to-prove mentality. They have a defensive edge to them."

Brown is a strategic outlier. In an era when teams play a similar slowdown style, coach Lars Tiffany dares to be different. The Bears are a scoring machine.

"Brown implemented a hyper-speed offense in 2015 that disrupted the Ivy League," Carcaterra said. "Think Oregon Ducks football. ... Brown plays at that frenetic pace."

Harvard has been reeling in highly ranked recruits for years. The results finally match the quality of the recruits, although the Crimson tend to be an enigmatic bunch.

"When it was popular to bash the Ivy League for not having ACC-type talent, one ACC coach told me that we all wanted some of those kids at Harvard," ESPN's Eamon McAnaney said.

The Crimson has star power.

"Harvard has four guys with Stephen Jahelka, Bobby Duvnjak, Joe Lang and Devin Dwyer that would start for any team in the country," ESPN analyst Ryan Flanagan said. "If those four stay healthy and they continue to get a high level of play out of Walker Kirby, Jack Breit and Morgan Cheek, Harvard is a team you don't want to see in May."

At the top of the polls you'll find Denver and Notre Dame, who meet Sunday in South Bend at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU. The Fighting Irish appear to be the country's most complete team. Right now it feels like everyone has flaws.


That explains why the results are so topsy-turvy. Another rationale is that the senior class of 2016 is not stellar. The Major League Lacrosse draft wasn't stocked with more than a handful of players who can make a pro roster and contribute. A substandard senior class means less stability and predictability.

Who could predict Virginia's rocky start? The Cavaliers have lost to Loyola Maryland, High Point and Syracuse. Their struggles are more than a one-year trend. The Wahoos last won an NCAA tournament game in 2012. They were 7-8 in 2013.

"UVa. is in trouble," Flanagan said. "I was high on them this year with James Pannell and Tanner Scales healthy and the rest of the team a year older. But until the Syracuse game, they just haven't looked very good. Finishing the season at .500 is going to be a challenge."

Virginia's defense is a mess. So is Duke's. The Blue Devils captured three titles (2010, 2013, 2014) for John Danowski, a coach who's known for player development and playing a hefty spring schedule featuring nonleague games against lower-ranked opponents. Typically, those games give his roster time to mature, to slow cook and to peak in May. That plan backfired Monday night with newcomer Richmond leaving Durham with a marquee win.

Syracuse (4-0) is unblemished, but isn't scaring opponents like they once did. Hopkins is off to a bumpy start highlighted by injuries and sloppy play. Maryland can't seem to shoot straight. Those cornerstone programs have always dealt with the pressure to win. Times have changed. Lofty expectations are now a universal trait.

"Parity has increased because more programs want to win, so they've done what's necessary to win," Inside Lacrosse publisher Terry Foy said. "That's seen in large-scale investment — like Loyola building the Ridley Athletic Complex and then winning an NCAA championship two years later in 2012 — to smaller-scale investment, like the MAAC lifting a ban on offering scholarships to men's lacrosse players."


The primary reason for parity is the expansion of lacrosse at the high school level. The widening recruiting base means there are more quality players to choose from.

"The gap between what is considered the top 100 and the next 100 is tighter than ever, meaning more schools are getting a chance to recruit great players," Flanagan said.

Simultaneously the recruiting timetable has shifted. Virginia, Hopkins, Maryland and North Carolina are the most aggressive early recruiters. Their coaches evaluate eighth and ninth graders, and have been offering to freshmen and sophomores. The strategy is unproven. It's equal to investing in start-ups instead of Fortune 500 companies.

"You know a lot more about a kid who commits before his senior year than a kid who commits before his sophomore year," Flanagan said. "Coaches loaded up on sophomore commits and missed on the kids who were slower to develop."

The geography of the game is shifting south and west. There are competent coaches at the high school level in non-hotbed areas like North Carolina, Florida, Texas, California, Oregon and Minnesota. All-American-caliber players come from everywhere.

Denver won an NCAA title in 2015. Bill Tierney coaches the Pioneers, and is widely regarded as the best coach in the sport's history. His philosophy now is to recruit Colorado, California and Canada, while cherry-picking the East Coast. The Pioneers' two-deep ignores the longtime hotbeds of Long Island and Baltimore.


With over 3,700 high schools and Canada feeding 70 Division I schools, quality prospects are slipping through the cracks.

"Many top-notch players are overlooked and often land on nontraditional college rosters," Carcaterra said. "There is no perfect science for identifying talent. Players are disbursed differently than the past, which has led to parity. Some emerging area players have higher ceilings and can close the gap talent-wise compared to the past."

Playing time is a major consideration. Do I want to go to Syracuse and be redshirted or go to Notre Dame and warm the bench? Or do I want to be a trailblazer and make a name for myself at a new program like Marquette, Richmond, Michigan, Hampton or Boston U.?

"The most significant challenge facing the historical powers is that, compared to 15 years ago, mid-tier recruits are more interested in starting at High Point or Richmond than being a backup at one of those programs," Foy said. "And working hard once he steps foot on campus matters more than natural ability."

Combine that with a wave of exceptional young coaches like Dan Chemotti (Richmond), Jon Torpey (High Point), Shawn Nadelen (Towson), Kevin Cassese (Lehigh), Eric Seremet (Air Force), Nick Myers (Ohio State) and you have a fruitful formula.

Economics also plays a part. Summer camps have never been more lucrative. Many head coaches make well over six figures each summer and pass that profit on to their loyal assistants. The result is that qualified assistants are staying with the profession rather than joining the rat race. What were once volunteer or part-time positions, are now full-time and can support a family.


So we have a bigger talent pool to recruit, expert coaching, plus escalating resources at the mid-major and top levels. It all equates to parity.

Lacrosse now more resembles college football and basketball, where on any given Saturday or Tuesday, a lower-ranked team can rise up and take down a Goliath. The super powers no longer hold all the cards. Let's see if this trend has staying power through Memorial Day. In the meantime, enjoy the chaos.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.