Automatic Qualifiers have swept through men's Division I and Division III over the last couple of years. These AQ's allow teams that may not have been selected by the tournament selection committee for the NCAA Championships to be invited by simply winning their conference. More conferences comply with AQ requirements each year seizing the opportunity to make the play offs one way or another. The concept is to allow for more student athletes from non-traditional schools to compete in a once in a lifetime type experience. It allows colleges to use the AQ as a recruiting tool as well to eventually level the playing field. Some conferences like the Ivy League have an AQ, but with Princeton, Brown, Cornell, etc. whichever team won the conference would probably be selected for the tournament anyway. While it does allow a team within the conference to come up big once or twice and get a surprise AQ by beating the favorites, it's not like that team didn't have to beat a few quality teams to do it. We took a look at the extreme version of the AQ and for division I the MAAC's first AQ in Manhattan fits the bill. For division III Stevens Tech has gone to the show two years in a row representing the AQ for the Knickerbocker Conference. These two teams didn't have a chance in hell to make the tournament pre-AQ and don't have to beat a team ranked in the top twenty to get a tournament birth.
Good intentions and idealism are the corner stone of our liberal college campuses today as much as any time in history. The AQ is truly born of the college spirit. As we learn later in life however, reality is based on accomplishments and hard results. The AQ idealistically is awesome, but if all it means is sending a team each year to the slaughterhouse in the name of good intentions than it has failed. Manhattan and Stevens are the guinea pigs because they have represented the weakest conferences in their divisions respectively. Can they parlay an AQ appearance in the tournament into a championship caliber recruiting class? We took a look at each team's progress by interviewing the Head Coaches and some of their players. Manhattan and Stevens Tech are crossing the same lake, but Manhattan appears to be in a canoe while Stevens is in a cigarette racing boat. In the end, as long as both teams get there it's still a good thing.
Championships aren't completely unheard of at Stevens. Stevens won championships in 1892, 1894, 1917, and 1918. In their 119th year they are the nations longest running continuous lacrosse program. That is ancient history, but the school is focused on getting back to those glory days. In 2001 they suffered a 16-3 loss at the hands of Salisbury State in the first round with their first AQ. Last year they lost to Gettysburg 16-5 in the first round. Head Coach Byron Collins on the early exits,"The first year I think we were happy to be there. Last year we played Gettysburg real tough for almost three full quarters. The guys left with a bad taste in their mouths and they truly believe that we could beat the top teams. We just didn't have the depth in some positions to do that. I think we've taken care of that."
In fact, Coach Collins seems to have reason to be much more optimistic than many might think. Stevens isn't just simply the strongest team in a weak division over the last couple of years. They were committed to change things AQ or not with only a 3-11 record three years ago. They have taken the AQ as a bonus, but have the support of the institution to try and build a championship caliber team from the President on down to alumni.
It starts with recruiting. Stevens may not seem like a huge draw to the average Joe, but to students with 1350 on their SAT's or higher it could be a perfect fit. Stevens has a strong niche for players who love lacrosse and have an even stronger drive to compete academically. Coach Collins sells it like this,"It is truly very difficult to do engineering and play division 1 with all the requirements of time and I think kids are seeing that we can go to the tournament and the commitment of the school." Collins has two very good athletes that have narrowed their decision down to Cornell or Stevens. He has received phone calls from other division I coaches who are amazed that their competing with Stevens. One of this years top recruits is Jay Wells. Wells is a pre-med all American from Vermont who will be part of a promising recruiting class. The AQ had a subliminal affect on Well's decision as he said,""To tell you the truth, I didn't know that much about the automatic qualifier, but I knew that Stevens had made it the last few years. That made it a little easier to know that I was going to a school that had made it and that had goals to do well in the tournament." Jay didn't fully understand why Stevens made the play offs, but he did recognize the Stevens name from their trips to the tournament. Nobody knows the transition from wallowing in anonymity to the institution of the AQ better than three time captain Mike Baumbach. "When I came in freshmen year it was basically a bunch of kids who came to play lacrosse and have fun... When the AQ was enacted everything changed... Everyone wanted to win big, get to the tournament, and everything got serious. It was a lot easier to recruit a team like we have(now). Every year it seems like we get better and better players."
The AQ is great, but it takes more to create a championship team and the Stevens has definitely come through. Last year they put in a 3.2 million dollar turf field (the new sweet stuff). The benefactor came to check out the final product and decided he didn't like the chain link fence that surrounded it so he donated an additional 1.5 million to put a wrought iron fence around it. It will have the feel of a historic campus complete with a building on one end line sporting bullet proof windows(for any visiting teams who might have thought it cool to try and break a window, don't bother). They are dumping another 4.3 million into renovating the locker rooms and athletic facility. If that's not enough, they also have an indoor box facility. When all is said and done they will have athletic facilities that rival the best in the country at any division level.
The greatest part of the AQ is that Stevens has been able to schedule some quality teams with no fear of not making the tournament. They've wisely added Washington College, Lynchburg, Eastern Connecticut, and Ohio Wesleyan to their schedule for this year. Stevens can learn how to play big games against top schools during the season now rather than facing their first quality team in the play offs. They can afford to lose all those games and use it as a learning experience to whoop up on the rest of their conference for the AQ.
According to Baumbach, Stevens is also putting their time in on the field and in the weight room. They practice one hour a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. They put in two hours a day on weekends and hit the weight room four times a week at 6:15 am before classes start. Coach Collins adds,"We have a plan here. We think that this class is really critical to it. We like to see this be the class that gets us there within their four years or so...Our goal is not to be an AQ team where you go every year and get crushed...We are the poster child of the AQ."
Hurdles for Stevens to overcome
Stevens has a 2,000 strong student body located in Hoboken, New Jersey. It's a Path ride away from the New York City which could be very student friendly, but Hoboken is a post college town with young career minded people who have no problem spending over four dollars for a domestic beer. Most bars ID heavily as well. This, coupled with the poor gender ratio, makes it difficult to have a good social scene within the college. Stevens may be solving world problems in their locker room, but their high academic standards bar them from getting many players who they would like to have. Other than that, it certainly looks like they got on the express train to championship material. Only time will tell.
Manhattan is a year behind Stevens which is huge. Currently, no player on Manhattan could of known that they would have gone to the tournament before they signed. Manhattan in only its fifth year at the division I level wasn't even picked to win the MAAC last year and get their first AQ. They played Geargetown down in Delaware and kept it a respectable 12-7. Manhattan played an outstanding game. They're goalie, James Amandola, was nothing short of spectacular and the rest of the team played to probably 90% to 95% of their potential. It was an impressive display and one that Manhattan players and coaches alike were proud of and rightfully so. Georgetown, on the other hand, did not play well and there in lies the problem with AQ's initially. Georgetown on a less than average day still won. Manhattan Head Coach McIntee comes from a much different angle than the Stevens people. He looks at the AQ as a great opportunity for his players and a chance to surprise someone, but he knows his team has a long road to hoe. On the Georgetown game he offered,"Everyone can say what they want to say, but the harsh reality is that there's some good coaching going on here (the MAAC) and obviously there are players here willing to commit to whatever level people throw at us for a one weekend tour. We can't play Georgetown week in and week out and play a five goal game against them. You know that and I know that....I'm OK with that. They have ten high school all Americans and we have zero." He went on to describe an even bleaker future,"The reality now is that we're going to have the sixteenth seed every year because we're the lowest rated conference. That means we're going to have to play the top seed because it's a sixteen team field and the bye's are gone."
It's not all bad news people. Recruiting has gotten better. McIntee claims to be getting better looks at recruits this year. Currently the team doesn't have any kids from the top ten schools within the tri-state area. They have no high school all Americans. They don't even have any Empire State team kids. Already after getting the AQ Manhattan is trying to lure kids from Garden City, Manhasset, Chaminade, Saint Anthony's, Lakeland, etc. They feel they have a legit chance to land some of these athletes.
Coach sells his team by saying,"We're getting more and more academically inclined kids that are coming and saying hey, it's right in my backyard. Manhattan is centrally located. Connecticut, New Jersey, and even close upstate New York is still two hours away. Delaware kids are two hours and twenty minutes away. Boom boom and you're back home again and some kids really like that. The great thing that's happening with our system and the AQ is that athletically we're going to see better kids and it's already happening. There's nine middies over at Hobart. Does a guy want to challenge those guys up in Geneva New York or challenge it here."
The bottom line is that Coach McIntee is right when he says, "There's too many kids playing lacrosse and not enough places to go. That's the reality. There's only fifty D1 goalies and fifty D1 backups, and fifty D1 double back ups and you know what. Someone's not playing somewhere and he's out of there. You want to play in the NCAA's, you've got a shot. Not just at Manhattan...The AQ means it's going to give our level of ball the opportunity to recruit against the big guys." The problem for Manhattan right now is that other than the AQ they don't have much to offer.
Hurdles for Manhattan to Overcome.
Manhattan is a case study of an AQ with absolutely no school backing. In fact, with many division I schools committing to the full 12.6 scholarships the entire MAAC is stuck with only four. Scholarships are so key to a college like Manhattan. Division I schools that play lacrosse at a high level are also the premier academic institutions. While Manhattan is a fine academic college, if a student has to pay for college and he's choosing between Harvard and Manhattan is it really much of a choice? Sure, he may get to play in the tournament, but he's got to weigh getting beat in the first round or being a back-up at a school that probably has a better campus life and reputation. If you could lure these fringe players with a free ride you might be able to bridge the athletic gap much quicker.
The second strike against Manhattan is their facilities. What's a prospective student athlete to think when he shows up on campus and you don't even have a locker room to show him. Coach McIntee knows it's an issue. "Our facilities here at Manhattan are bottom line, but we make do." His team might make do, but an athlete with other opportunities might not want to make do.
Anthony Antonelli, a senior defensemen, has seen the transition from pre-AQ to post-AQ. He sees guys working much harder because the AQ means so much more than just a MAAC Championship. Anthony is optimistic, but he thinks it will take quite a long time. His thoughts on becoming a National Champion. "Down the road I think so. Kids are starting to come to the MAAC conference and see it as a way to get to the NCAA tournament. Before if you wanted to play in the NCAA tournament you had to go to one of those big schools. I think now that kids that are the next caliber of players who could go to bigger schools are coming to the MAAC because they see they have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament and that the competition is getting better. I think pretty soon the MAAC schools will be able to compete with the bigger schools...I think it will take a while, a couple of recruiting classes. I think that's pretty far down the road, but eventually I think it will happen...15, 20 years." Look for Manhattan to make a run in 2020. You heard it here first people.
It's to early to judge the AQ, but one things for sure. It hasn't changed the championship finals at all.