Springtime In February

Springtime In February

Springtime In February

Springtime In February

While lacrosse might be “the king of spring,” seasons tend to start well before the ground thaws. “In the world of college lacrosse,” Coach Richie Meade of Navy said,” once we’re done with the IMLCA convention, and everybody’s done with Christmas, it’s lacrosse season.”

With the regular season kicking off as early as February 9th for some programs, teams might begin practice just a week or two into January. Lacrosse players could be picking up their equipment while their school’s football team is returning from a bowl game, and their school’s basketball team is in the heart of conference play.

The early start for some teams means practice in blustery winter weather, more games over more weekends, and a season that could last from mid-January to near June, depending on playoff fortunes. What it also means is a discrepancy in preparation time amongst teams. Some schools cram in several weeks of practice while others can’t even hold team meetings. The variance is a result of different schools of thought coaches employ, and different rules and circumstances programs must adhere to.

“A lot of it comes down to shifting paradigms,” Meade said. “I mean, when does lacrosse season start?”

For Meade and his Midshipmen, the season starts February 9th, against the Keydets of Virginia Military Institute. The game is one of just three DI contests being played that weekend.

Another coach that will be leading his squad into battle that weekend is Delaware’s Bob Shillinglaw. Shillinglaw has become the gatekeeper of the season in a way. For the past six years the Blue Hens have played St. Joes at least a full week ahead of when most other DI programs start.

“It’s sort of, ‘The spring has begun now because Delaware and St. Joes are opening up,’” Shillinglaw admits.

Shillinglaw starts the Blue Hens’ regular season so early largely because it’s convenient. The University of Delaware holds a winter session that runs from the first week in January until the first week in February. The session is quite popular, Shillinglaw said, guessing about 70% of the student body returns to campus for it, including all of his lacrosse players.

“We’re here, and we decided to start,” he said.

Delaware started practice January 8th. They will play their only scrimmage on February 2nd, and then begin the regular season February 9th.

With their last regular season game April 26th, then the start of the Colonial Athletic Associations’ tournament April 30th, Shillinglaw decided to bump his team’s schedule up a week so that he could avoid playing midweek games. This allows his players more time for rest, preparation, and academics, a plight that also factors heavily in Meade’s scheduling.

Because of the United States Naval Academy’s rigorous academic requirements, Meade said, he has tried to play games a little earlier in the season each year so that his schedule plays out on more weekends instead of midweek. For a team to play a Wednesday or Tuesday game, players can lose a day or more of class time depending on travel.

“Our guys, when you look at the amount of homework that they have, the amount of studies and academic pressure on them, it’s just a little bit better for us to spread it out a little bit,” Meade said. “My decision was basically to push back one week to try to play a game so that we would not have to play a game midweek.”

A full week between games makes life a little easier on the student athlete, and it gives Meade and his coaching staff a little more time to game plan. “If you have a full week to prepare, you’re going to play better,” Meade said. While some coaches might find a benefit in playing more midweek games, especially towards the end of the season when practice can become a hindrance if your team is truly clicking and few adjustments need to be made, Meade said he would gladly take the extra days of rest and preparation for his players.

For those that say the February 9th start seems unconventionally early, Meade and Shillinglaw suggest looking at schedules across the country. “Everybody is playing in the country the first weekend in February,” Shillinglaw said, “the difference being, do you count the game or not?”

Schools kick into scrimmages right at the end of January/beginning of February, pushing them to start practice by mid-January. “The point is,” Meade said, “you’ve got to be out and you got to be practicing anyway; it’s just a matter of whether that game’s going to count or not.”

Since the Midshipmen started practice the week of January 7th, the early game helps hone the focus through the first few weeks of practice. Getting into the fray early gives Meade a much better idea of the talent and character on his team than playing in scrimmages.

“It’s a lot different playing in a scrimmage and playing in a game, and I don’t care who you’re playing; scrimmages don’t count,” he said. “Once you throw that stake in the ground and say, ‘This counts,’ there’s a whole different mentality, there’s a whole different feeling. That’s one of the benefits, and that’s why we do it.”

With the level of talent what it is throughout DI, parity prevails. To combat that, most teams crave to kick into practice and preparation as soon as possible. But not everyone is allowed to get the ball rolling as early as they may like.

The NCAA allows teams to play 17 contests in a year. (This includes scrimmages and fall ball, though a one-day, multi-game fall ball tournament only counts as one contest.) To prepare for and play those 17 contests, teams are granted 132-days for lacrosse related events. As Princeton head Coach Bill Tierney explained, coaches can determine when they can start winter/spring practice by taking the last scheduled regular season game, and counting 132 days (six days a week) backwards towards January, while not forgetting to subtract the days used during the fall season. To Tierney, it seems a grave challenge that any team who runs longer than a two-week fall season could begin practice in early January without violating that 132-day cap.

Tierney’s Tigers though, fall under more stringent scheduling rules than most. Ivy League teams can’t begin practice until February 1st. They can’t hold team meetings all winter. Games can’t start until the last Saturday in February, occasionally starting earlier if that last weekend also encompasses March 1st (as will be the case in 2009).

The Ivy League created these rules with the intent of benefiting the student-athlete, whom is often under considerable academic pressure at most of these upper-tier universities. “We all talk the talk of student-athletes, but to be honest, it’s become a job,” Tierney admitted. “And I’m not saying I wouldn’t start earlier; I would if I could….that’s just something that the Ivy League rules, even if we wanted to, they haven’t allowed us to do, and do be honest with you, I’m glad that they don’t.”

Without the extra weeks of hands on preparation with their teams, the burden falls on Ivy League coaches to enter February with a plan. Staffs meet and discuss schemes, films are watched and analyzed, and practices get mapped out so not a moment is wasted.

“You understand that you’re starting on February first so you prepare accordingly,” said fellow Ivy League coach Jeff Tambroni, of Cornell. “It just means you’ve got to work a little bit more efficiently…you’ve got to prioritize some of the bigger things early on in the year and do a great job with them in limited time, and then try to make the most out of your scrimmages.”

Ivy League lacrosse players often need to take the preseason into their own hands, starting conditioning and skill work on their own. “We count on them to do things that we would do as a team, to do them individually,” Tierney said. “That breeds competition on our team, because whomever works harder is going to play.”

With the abbreviated preseason, Ivy League teams don’t often establish their true identity until they have a few games under their belt.

“There are also a lot of guys who develop a little different through games,” Tambroni said. “So not having those early season games puts a little bit more pressure on us, or puts the onus on us to be a little bit more patient, to allow guys to develop.”

But in lacrosse, like in life, timing is everything. If a team can battle through the first few weeks, they are often playing their best ball when it matters most.

“If you look at our records over the years, we’ve been a lot better towards the end of the year than we have earlier in the year,” Tierney said. “We’ve been better in the playoffs than in the month of March.”

Since Ivy League teams play about the same number of games as everyone else in DI, but do it over a shorter time frame, and without a draining preseason, the long and grueling nature of the season is somewhat reduced.

“I would say because we weren’t able to start that early, towards the end of the year I think the wear and tear on a college-age kid seems to lessen,” Tambroni said. “It gives us a chance to really peak at the right moment, or be a little more fresh as a team based on the amount of time that we’ve spent playing lacrosse over the span of the year.”

It is easier to keep players focused once you get going, Tambroni said. Starting practice on the first, but getting into scrimmages maybe a week later gives a regular season feel form the get-go. His team also plays several midweek games, which is, “a player’s dream,” as he said. “There’s very little time to really grind it out and prepare, but you’re always thinking about the next opponent.”

Tierney prefers to stretch his schedule out, playing 11 weekend games, and only two during the week, both involving little travel (Penn and Rutgers). “We feel that one of our strengths is our preparation, and you need more than a day or two to prepare for some of these great Division I teams that we play,” he said. Tierney’s aptitude for preparing his teams during the season more than makes up for the lack of preseason preparation.

“We don’t lose a game by a goal to Hopkins or Virginia last year because they had two weeks more practice than us,” Tierney said. “If at the end of the day we need to practice three more weeks in freezing cold weather and take the chance of guys getting hurt, than so be it. If you can’t get a team ready in four weeks then I think you’re either boring them or taking chances on getting guys hurt.”

Both coaches have managed to deal with their Ivy League restrictions quite well. With teams often lacking major superstars, Tierney almost always fields a team that overachieves. His Tigers have arguably been one of the most dominating programs in the past ten to fifteen years. Tambroni’s Big Red squads have restored the name of Cornell in the lacrosse world, last year running off 16-straight wins before falling with about three seconds left in their Final Four game against Duke. The annual meeting between Princeton and Cornell often determines the Ivy League crown. Clearly a few weeks less practice have not hurt these two schools.

“Regardless of if you start January 9th or February 1st,” Tambroni said, “it’s still a long preseason.”

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