Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thoughts From Lot F

Prior to the start of yesterday's Division I men's lacrosse championship game between Virginia and Maryland, TigerBlog wandered over from the official stats booth to the main press box at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

There, TB, Christian Swezey of the Washington Post and Eddie Timanus of USA Today made their predictions on the game.

TigerBlog called it Virginia 10-7. Timanus said 9-7 UVa. Swezey said 9-6 UVa. Actually, TB can't remember which one said it'd be 9-7 and which said 9-6.

Ultimately, the final score would in fact be Virginia 9, Maryland 7, meaning one of the other two was right and TB was pretty close.

As for the tournament itself, TB picked Virginia - the seventh seed - to win the championship when he first saw the draw.

It's easy to gloat when your picks come true, because nobody ever remembers the ones that don't. And, to be honest, TB has made predictions that have missed the mark way more often than the ones he's made that have worked out.

So why was he right this time?

TigerBlog wasn't looking at the seeds or records or early-season results. He was just looking at the level of talent, and he was pretty sure that Virginia had more of it than anyone else. It was that simple - and in the end, that's how it played out.

And, TB thought, the Cavs had something to prove once the Bratton twins were dismissed from the team, which gave them a little more fire than the other teams. A ridiculously deep and talented Virginia team with something to prove was too much for the rest of Division I.

When UVa needed a goal, it had more choices, more depth, than anyone else. It didn't need its top players to be playing well, or even playing, for that matter - the Most Outstanding Player, Colin Briggs, was suspended for the semifinal game for the nebulous "violation of team rules" and then scored five times in the final on a day when Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklett, who had 76 goals and 43 assists between them on the year, combined for a single assist.

In truth, not having Briggs could have meant the end of UVa's season had Bill Tierney and his Denver Pioneers been able to knock off the Cavs in the semifinal, but again, Virginia just had too many great players. This led to another truth - not having Briggs play in the semifinal made him the freshest player on the field for the final on a weekend when temps on the turf surpassed 100 degrees.

So, armed with a correct prediction on the tournament champ and with nearly getting the score of the final spot on, what else can TigerBlog say about lacrosse?

The 2011 championship weekend marked the 17th time in the last 20 years that TB has been in the press box for the event. Of those 17 trips, TB has seen Princeton go 10 times, advance to the final eight times and win six times. For the other seven, TB has been the official scorer for the two Division I semifinals, the Division II and III championship games and the Division I final.

Since his first trip in 1992, TigerBlog has seen the event grow from something that drew a niche crowd to a college stadium for a game that was televised three weeks later condensed into a 60-minute block to one that was a bit disappointing because "only" 35,661 showed up in the baking heat yesterday.

It has become a made-for-TV weekend, with start times altered to fit ESPN's schedule. It casts a much wider net for fans, and it is a mega-production at an NFL stadium.

The sport is being tugged in two different directions.

On the one hand, there is the old guard of people TB has seen at almost all of the 17 Final Fours he's been to, the ones who represent traditional lacrosse powers or media outlets.

Then there is the new generation of lacrosse fans, who picked the game up on the internet and from television and who never saw a Final Four that wasn't in an NFL stadium. This group is the "growing the game" group, and they're the ones who are responsible for the explosion in youth and high school participation, in Final Four attendance, in television exposure, in everything that has brought the game away from its tradition base.

Of course, be careful what you wish for, right?

The biggest story of this year in men's lacrosse ultimately won't be UVa's championship. Nope, 2011 will be remembered as the year that Marquette and especially Michigan added Division I programs.

Does the fact that a BCS school added men's lacrosse signal a trend? Will the 2021 championship game match Michigan and Texas, after they defeated UCLA and Florida State in the semifinals?

Or will the traditional powers always be the cornerstone of the game?

TigerBlog did see two things this weekend in Baltimore that made him realize just how much different the game is from his first semifinal experience, back in Franklin Field in 1992, one of which brought a few tears to his eyes.

In the previous years that the championship was in Baltimore, TB got to park in Lot D, which is right next to the media entrance. This time, he was sent to Lot F, on the other side of the light rail, about a seven minute walk from the media entrance, which, instead of being a bad thing, was actually good, because it gave TB a greater chance to see the dynamic of the crowd pre-game and post-game.

On Saturday, as TB walked around the outside of the stadium, he saw a group of six kids with lacrosse sticks playing catch and keepaway and checking each others sticks as they got close to each other. It's a sight TB has seen a million times before - except all six of these kids were black.

As much as the game has grown, the highest levels of the game still has very few black players. Earlier this year, TigerBlog wrote a feature about Randy Evans, a Princeton alum in Jacksonville who has developed a program to bring lacrosse to the inner-city. The sight of six young black Baltimore kids middle school age or so throwing the ball around outside M&T Bank Stadium prior to the Final Four is a great sign for lacrosse.

And then there was the big kid who was touring the press box with his family and tour guide Quint Kessenich, the ESPN commentator.

TB recognized the kid as soon as he saw him and his face, scarred with the after-effects of a horrible brush with a fire in his house that left him burned over 85 percent of his body, all of this while his father was serving in Iraq.

The boy's name is Connor McKemey, and TB first heard of his situation through Tierney when he was still the Princeton coach. Tierney had built a relationship with the family after he heard about what had happened and had heard that he was a youth lacrosse player - in South Carolina, by the way, another sign of where the game has spread.

Since first hearing about McKemey, TigerBlog has read about him in various magazines, how he fought through surgery after surgery, how his spirit never wavered, how supportive his family and friends have been, how he's returned to play lacrosse in high school because he loves the game, loves to play - and because it's a game that can be played in South Carolina these days.

And now, standing in front of him in the press box, TB wasn't quite sure exactly what to say to the kid, this 6-3 or so kid with scars all over, with a huge smile across his face to be in the press box at the Final Four, with a family who kept thanking everyone for all they'd done.

"You're a pretty inspirational person," was about all that TB could mutter.

It was the highlight of the 2011 championships.

1 comment:

BMcD83 said...

From one Carnak fan to another, kudos on the prescient pick. Now, if you would kindly divulge where the S&P 500 will be on some date in the future, I promise to give 50% of all proceeds to Princeton Athletics!

By the way, Johnny Morris, a local resident and Bucknell grad, one of whose daughters, Nellie, played for the Tigers, is very involved with the Bridge Lacrosse program that tries to expose Trenton children to the sport.