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DI v. DIII: A Fresh Take

4 - Published November 6, 2012 by in College, NESCAC Lacrosse

Laxpower is nothing if not cyclical. Having been an active poster/reader/degenerate for almost four years now,  I’ve noticed that certain topics are raised every year: Roanoke and others being accused of running up the score, posters yelling at me for ranking every NESCAC team in my preseason poll, talking about impact freshman and transfers in the fall and my personal favorite, the debate about how DIII teams would fare in DI.

There is an unbelievable amount of white noise associated with a debate that is simultaneously meaningless insofar as it is entirely theoretical and meaningful as it is clearly important to many people. By white noise I mean people who are essentially unable to do anything other than see their own perspective and make their rebuttal by simply screaming their original argument even louder. This is not enjoyable for anyone actually trying to come to some mutually appreciated understanding about the DI v. DIII dynamic.

However, I think I can offer a reasonable series of stipulations that allow us to advance the argument beyond “SALISBURY BEATS DUKE EVERY YEAR IN THEIR SCRIMMAGE I KNOW BECAUSE I WATCHED MY SON SO THEY’RE THE BEST” and the natural counter to that “NUH UH! MY SON PLAYS AT DUKE AND EVEN THOUGH HE DOESN’T SEE THE FIELD HE’D STILL SCORE 6 TIMES BTB IF THEY PLAYED A REAL GAME.” Shortly, we’re going to move past the argument about teams but for now I think we can all agree on the following DI v. DIII manifesto:

  • There is some degree of overlap between teams in the two divisions.
  • Where that overlap lies depends on a given year and the depth of elite teams in DIII. There is no absolute cutoff line and it would be impossible to establish one.
  • Arguing whether DIII Team X could beat DI Team Y is utterly pointless and inane.
  • Scrimmage results do nothing to resolve the debate in our fourth stipulation
  • The only way to resolve this is to have actual regular season cross-division games
  • Regular season cross-division games will never happen under the current system
  • Being on a DI roster doesn’t automatically mean you would be a DIII impact player
  • There are DIII players that are capable of contributing at the DI level

It is the last two points that are most interesting to me. It is far easier to evaluate whether an individual player is a DI-caliber player than it is to assess an entire team due to clear physical and skill requirements to play the game at the DI level as opposed to the largely subjective comparison of two teams that never even play a common opponent. With this in mind, I am going to go through the 2011 All-NESCAC teams and offer my analysis as to whether or not they would be able to contribute at a DI program. I chose the All-NESCAC list because the NESCAC is the greatest conference ever they are the players I am most familiar with and in turn the players that I can offer the most in-depth and accurate analysis of.

Without further adieu:2011 1st Team All-NESCAC>

D.J. Hessler, Attack: I have concerns that Hessler’s slight frame would lead to the bigger defensemen in DI being able to push him around and his lack of a dangerous outside shot doesn’t assuage these concerns at all. That said, Hessler was one of the most gifted feeders in any division these past few years and there is no question he would find a place on a mid-level DI roster as the guy capable of quarterbacking their offense. He’s 20 or 30 pounds from being a top flight DI contributor.

David Hild, Attack: There will always be spots on DI rosters for guys with the size and shooting ability of Hild. He’s not going to be asked to dodge against poles anymore but definitely makes sense as a spot up shooter who can make a pole pay if he takes a bad angle. The most intriguing move for Hild would be back to midfield where he could draw a shortstick and perhaps retain some of his effectiveness as a dodger. Either way, you can definitely find a contributing role for Hild to play at any mid-level DI program, if not higher.

Sean Kirawn, Attack: Just like there is always a place for a big guy who can shoot, elite interior finishers never go out of style. Kirwan was arguably the best inside scorer in all of DIII last year. He was adept at using his thick frame to absorb checks and protect his stick as he finished spot feeds from Hessler ad nauseam. An underrated aspect of his game was his crafty pick-setting work with Ryan Molloy. Knowing how to set picks and how to come off of them is an unappreciated skill and one that Kirwan excelled at. However, his non-existent ball-handling ability is a cause for concern and likely turns him into more of a specialist on a bottom-half DI team.

Andrew Conner, Midfield: He has size, can handle and shoot on the run. Looks and sounds like a DI midfielder to me, though probably not at most of the stronger programs due to concerns about his straight-line speed. Remember, Conner is going to be defended by much bigger players than he saw in DIII and this necessitates that he have something other than brute strength and short-area quickness to rely on. I’m not sure he has the sustained speed to get consistently get separation on dodges down the alley. He’s definitely somewhere in the DI mix, I’m just not sure at how high of a level it would be.

Kevin McCormick, Midfield: By the end of last year, McCormick had made it a reasonable debate as to whether he or Matt Witko was Tufts’ best midfielder. McCormick did his scoring much more efficiently, though some of that was likely due to Witko drawing the pole most of the time. Nonetheless, McCormick proved himself an adept feeder and finisher, using his speed and quickness to burn defenders. There is no reason to expect he wouldn’t be able to do so at the DI level, as he has sufficient size as to not disadvantage himself. He fits at any lower-level DI school.

Owen Smith, Midfield: 2011 Owen Smith was not as explosive or dangerous as years past. Whether it was due to injury or fatigue, Smith lacked the burst that previously made him such a force dodging downhill. Never a great shooter on the run, it looked like he was laboring through his dodges just to take that mediocre shot. He still drew the attention his reputation demanded and even showed flashes of his past dominance at times, but there was quite plainly something missing. Perhaps the answer is different if we’re talking about the 2010 or 2009 version, but I have serious doubts that 2011 Smith could contribute on any DI team save for the bottom of the barrel. Count this one as a no in my book.

Matt Witko, Midfield: Pretty similar to a guy like Conner in both his skill set (size, solid athleticism, excellent shooter) and limitation in the DI game (foot speed). As with Conner, I know he fits in somewhere. Determining exactly where is very difficult to say.

Alec Bialosky, LSM: The first guy I can unequivocally say would not fit in the DI game. Fast midfielders would destroy him defensively and no amount of offensive production can compensate for that. If you can’t cover, you can’t play. It’s that simple.

Craig Bunker, FOGO: The fundamental truth is that a good faceoff guy is a good faceoff guy, no matter the division. I think Bunker could contribute at virtually any DI program. His only limitation is that he isn’t much of an offensive threat, but if you’re winning draws as often as he is, that can be forgiven.

Ted Bascom, Defense: Bascom has everything except the size needed to be a good DI close defenseman. Fortunately, he easily has the athleticism to make the transition to pole and would be effective as a LSM at any mid-level DI program. I can even see him contributing on the offensive end as he has a pretty good handle that would allow him to be effective in transition.

Clay Hillyer, Defense: A big guy with excellent short-area quickness and a physical style, Hillyer fits as a close defender at a mid-level DI program. By big I mean big in the DIII sense, because a defender his size would surely be about average size at most DI schools. As will begin to be evident, size difference accounts for a huge factor in comparing the two divisions. Of all the All-NESCAC defensemen, he is probably the only one who truly fits as a close guy in DI.

Matt Rayner, Defense: Another guy without the size to play close in DI, Rayner would easily transform into a devastating LSM. He has a top gear that very few guys have at any level, which allows him to be aggressive defensively and to push the ball effectively in transition. Part of me thinks Rayner would actually have a greater impact for Middlebury playing LSM, but that’s a topic for another day. In any case, a surefire DI player who likely could find time at LSM at all but the most elite programs.

Peter Johnson, Goalie: Trinity’s MVP last year and unquestionably a DI goalie. Not a whole lot of analysis needed here, just watch him play. A complete player in cage.

That covers the entire first team. Only two guys (Smith and Bialosky) didn’t pass muster as DI contributors. This isn’t really surprising as the best players from the deepest DIII conference should pretty much all be DI-quality players if we acknowledge that there is some overlap between the two divisions. We’ve also established some basic requirements of size and speed for certain positions that will really manifest themselves as we break down the 2nd team.

2011 2nd Team All-NESCAC

Devin Acton, Attack: Ask yourself this: what is Devin Acton really good at, what skill makes him elite? He isn’t particularly fast, has good but not Hild-esque size and can dodge, feed and shoot pretty well. Yet nothing specifically stands out as being his deadliest asset. Simply put, Acton is excellent all-around player who relies on his versatility to be successful. He exemplifies the power of the triple threat stance in basketball in that because you have to respect every part of his game, you cannot focus your efforts on shutting down one particular aspect. His extraordinary success as a freshman may not translate to the DI game however, as I think he loses enough of the athletic separation between him and his opponents to lose his effectiveness. In three years, if you ask whether or not he can contribute in DI, I think the answer will be a resounding yes. As he is now, there just isn’t a skill you can point to and say “Yeah, he can definitely do this in the DI game.”

Ryan Molloy, Attack: I’m going to try to be nice. Really, I am. I’ve been harsh on Molloy in the past when people have said that he can handle the ball and dodge, which is a position I stand by. I think Molloy and Kirwan made a fantastic tandem inside and that Molloy was instrumental to Tufts’ team success. That said, Molloy was definitely Robin to Kirwan’s Batman. In the end, is it really reasonable to expect the third best attackman on a DIII team to be a DI-quality player? Unless we’re talking about Salisbury and Stevenson, I don’t think so. DIII was the right fit for Molloy and he has a ring to show for it. Not so bad, eh?

Evan Redwood, Attack: Remember what I said about Acton being good because he does everything well? Take that, then take the opposite of that and you have Evan Redwood. Redwood has one elite skill in his speed, and he maximizes his effectiveness using it.  However, being no taller than 5’6″ severely limits his ability to play anything other than DIII ball. There is virtually no chance that a DI school would ever recruit Redwood, much less play him based on his stature alone. In DIII where lack of size is less significant, Redwood remains a dangerous player.

Ian Deveau, Midfield: There may be some better athletes in the pool of NESCAC midfielders, but no one has moves like Deveau. He is a very smooth with his movements and has a slick stick that lets him get separation not just through athleticism, but through the creativity of his dodges. He isn’t a big guy, but I have no problem envisioning him on a decent DI team.

Alex Fox, Midfield: Watching Fox play lacrosse is awkward, not because he isn’t effective, but because he moves and shoots in a way that makes him seem almost new to the game. It just doesn’t look smooth. Then you realize he just stung a 15 yard shot while sweeping right to left and you remember that the kid has all kinds of talent and it doesn’t matter what he looks like out there because six-foot midfielders that can shoot on the run as well as he can are pretty rare in DIII lacrosse. Another guy who looks at home as a DI midfielder.

Mark Mangano, Midfield: A tough call given that he has good athleticism and size and has the field presence to shoot and feed, but Mangano is ultimately undone by his lack of consistency as a shooter. Potential ability only counts so much against the ability to actually capitalize on that potential. The execution wasn’t there consistently enough to see Mangano as a DI contributor.

Gabe Kelley, LSM: A well-kept NESCAC secret is that Gabe Kelley wasn’t all that good in 2011, largely due to injury. He was actually a worse defender than Bialosky in 2011 and would have no chance of dealing with the explosive athletes that run DI midfield. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, if you can’t cover, you can’t play.

Corey Jacobs, FOGO: I stand by what I said about Bunker, that a good FOGO is a good FOGO at any level. Jacobs projects as a lower level DI player however due to his limited stick skills.

Chuck Czerkawski, FOGO: Pretty similar assessment as Jacobs, there’s a reason the two were tied for 2nd team All-NESCAC. Another lower level DI guy.

Matt Eagan, Defense: Probably one of the single hardest players on this list to assess. Eagan is the best takeaway guy in the NESCAC right now and accomplishes that by throwing all kinds of junk that inherently causes him to sacrifice body position. While he is very effective at forcing turnovers in NESCAC play, the degree of difficulty doing what he does increases exponentially when you put him against bigger and better athletes. Ultimately, I can see him on a low-level DI team as a takeaway specialist, just not at a higher level program or as a guy you use for sixty minutes.

Kevin Helm, Defense: Helm tries to do what Eagan does, only with significantly less success. Helm is short, but appears to have the strength to still play close at the DI level. However, I don’t see any way that Helm’s style of defense that eschews technique for gambling translates to making a DI team, much less as a contributor. Put it this way: if you’re throwing kayaks as a guy is driving from X, you should probably reevaluate your priorities.

Mike Robinson, Defense: You’re never going to believe this, but here’s another NESCAC defenseman who is small and fast. Like Rayner and Bascom, Robinson becomes a LSM at the DI level (and should this year for Wesleyan too with Kelley gone) and would likely be excellent at using his speed to his advantage both offensively and defensively a la Rayner. Most likely a mid-level DI fit.

Ryan Deane, Goalie: Deane would not have been my choice for 2nd Team All-NESCAC last year and I don’t see him being a particularly successful DI goalie considering I saw him as a second-tier NESCAC goalie by the end of last year.

Of the thirteen players selected as 2nd team All-NESCAC last year, only six project as DI contributors. Admittedly, this is not a science and is only representative of absolute fact my opinion, but I think it illustrates an important point. There are a lot of DIII players who are good enough to be DI players, but those players are usually spread across any number of teams. After those players, there are a good number of players that have one notable deficiency that keeps them from being a surefire DI prospect, be it size, speed or what have you. These are the borderline DI guys and there are a lot of them in the DIII lacrosse world.

That may sound like a shot at DIII lacrosse and those players, but it isn’t. The reality is that there are also a lot of those borderline DI guys playing DI ball right now. They are the guys on the team for four years who only contribute as role players, the ones who only play as seniors, or those that end up getting cut as juniors or seniors. Some of them manage to contribute more than others, but the reality is that they lose out on the experience of being a significant player on a college lacrosse team. Go to any lower-level DI practice and you will see quite a few guys who couldn’t step on the field for the Salisbury and Tufts of the world, while others look like they’d be right at home running with the Gulls and Jumbos.

Let’s look at this another way. Go through the rosters of some of the better DIII teams in the country and look for guys who transferred from a DI schools. Find a bunch of them, then see how many of them are contributing in a significant way, how many are studs and how many just ride the bench. Sure, you’ll find your share of studs and contributors, but you’ll also find a good number of former DI guys sitting on the bench at a DIII school. The DI v. DIII debate can be summarized as follows: The designations DI and DIII determine what teams compete against each other for a national championship. They do not automatically dictate the skill levels, for better or worse, of the players involved.

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