by Jac Coyne | MCLA.us
LA CROSSE, Wis. – My first MCLA tournament was in 2008. Frisco, Texas. Nice facility.
I got my feet wet for the first time watching the opening round of the tournament, but it produced just one upset – No. 9 Georgia annihilated No. 8 Sonoma, 19-5. Eight-nine games are always a crapshoot.
Georgia was going to get roasted by top-seeded Michigan in the quarters, anyway.
Or so I thought.
The Bulldogs had the Wolverines on the ropes for the entire game. The upset was in the works for almost the entire second half. It took some great faceoff work and clutch scoring for Michigan to advance.
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UM would end up barely winning that game, 10-8, before going on and grabbing the national title. It was the first of three-straight crowns, which set up something special.
“I talk about that game all the time,” said former Michigan head coach John Paul. “I just brought it up the other day when I spoke to the current Michigan team.
“We had no way of knowing it then, of course, but had we not come back to win that game, after all the huge changes we had made and the demands we made of the players that year, it would have probably been my last game as the Michigan coach. Chances are, there would not be a Division I team at Michigan.
“And thus, no Big Ten lacrosse.”
I suppose the loss could be considered a positive in the grand scheme of things, but it underlines the kind of talent that flows through Athens. When UGA is running hot, they’ve always been dogs.
Alas, the heat went off for a bit. Between 2008 and 2022, Georgia made only one appearance at nationals – a 17-5 one-and-done dismissal at the hands of Arizona State in Greenville.
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Last year in Round Rock – bolstered by head coach Holin Axley and a dynamic roster – the Bulldogs returned to the Big Dance. The Dawgs handed Simon Fraser its only loss of the season in the first round before losing a last-second heart-breaker to Liberty in the quarterfinals.
Thanks to the 13-3 campaign and the quarters run, Georgia checks in at No. 5 in the New Balance Preseason Coaches Poll. It’s a stark contrast to last year’s opening ranking when the Dawgs were halfway down the “receiving votes” list – 32nd if you do the painstaking math.
UGA’s station may have changed in the polls, but the vibe remains the same.
“Right now, it feels a lot like last year,” said Axley. “We feel like we have a really talented team that can win a lot of games, but we also know we’re going to have to continue to evolve as the season goes on.”
The evolution will commence this weekend when Georgia starts its season with a whopper. The Bulldogs head to No. 12 South Carolina in a game that will mean far more than just poll rankings. This is a subdivisional game that will resonate in April when the SELC tourney rolls around. Barring a surge from Alabama or Vanderbilt, it would appear that both will make the conference playoffs, however seeding is always important in a stacked league.
Georgia still has two dominant players in the sophomore duo of Sam Wheeler (50g, 28a) and Rory Cavanaugh (43g, 15a), but the graduation of goalie Reed McCall leaves a big void. McCall finished his career with a spectacular season that will not easily be replicated.
Sophomore Stephen Sutton and freshman Liam Demko will attempt to provide UGA with an adequate replacement.
“We have two young goalies competing to be the starter right now,” Axley said. “We haven’t officially named a starter yet, but we are incredibly confident in both of them to lead our team. Both possess every skill you need to be an elite goalie at this level.”
Then there’s the matter of the Gamecocks. Although under new management, South Carolina appears to be loaded with premium talent once again this year.
The Bulldogs snapped a pretty significant losing streak against USC in the '23 regular season, but still got tripped up in the SELC playoffs.
“We hadn’t beaten USC in I’m not sure how many years until last year, so it was unfortunately pretty one-sided,” said Axley of the South Carolina rivalry. “Getting over the hump last year was big for us, but we still lost to them in the conference semis. We’re hoping to add some wins to our side of the rivalry going forward.”
The opportunity will present itself on Saturday afternoon. And if the Bulldogs are running hot, this could be the start of something big. It won’t be easy.
“South Carolina always has one of the best home field advantages in the MCLA,” Axley said. “It’ll be on us to tune out any chirps from the fans, as I’m sure they’ll let us hear it from the start of the game.”
GAMES I’M FOLLOWING
Tampa at Miami, 7 p.m. – Friday
Tampa tests its wings in the MCLA, and it won’t be an easy initial flight. The Spartans go against a Hurricane outfit sitting just outside the Top 25. Having subdivisional games right out of the gate is always daunting because the loser here is behind the eight ball to make the conference tournament right out of the chute. As far as SELC D-II goes, this is a pretty big game.
No. 19 California at Santa Clara, 1 p.m. – Saturday
Cal might be unrecognizable when they roll out. They graduated a bunch of great players and the top guys still in school went abroad. In a way, it makes them more dangerous, but the Bears will be young. Since midway through the ’22 campaign, Santa Clara is 5-12. The Broncos will be gunning for a bounce-back year, increasing the intrigue level of this non-subdivisional WCLL contest.
No. 4 Georgia Tech at Clemson, 2 p.m. – Saturday
This one is more about Clemson, as Georgia Tech has been a steady presence for the past decade. The Tigers are just two years removed from a national semifinal appearance, but didn’t even qualify for the ALC tourney last spring. Granted, Clemson was bolstered by an influx of since-graduated Furman transfers, but there is still plenty of talent on the roster. Are the Tigers ready to return to form?
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No. 13 UC Santa Barbara at No. 16 San Diego State, 2 p.m. – Saturday
This matchup joins UGA-South Carolina as the two contests featuring Top 25 squads. Lucas Menendez leads a powerful Gauchos team looking to repeat as WCLL champs. San Diego State, which reestablished itself on the map by opening last season with a dismantling of preseason No. 17 Arizona State, beat UCSB in early March as part of its 8-0 start. Brian Davito will once again be the big gun for the Aztecs.
West Virginia at No. 8 Florida, 7 p.m. – Saturday
One of these days, West Virginia is going to smash down the door and enter the top tier of the MCLA. They’ve been building for a while, and Brian Houk appears to have a solid squad heading out on their opening southern swing. The Gators lost plenty of talent last year and will be breaking in some new guys, but still have a formidable core. Florida is obviously a heavy favorite, but it could get interesting.
SLIDES & RIDES
- Most of the intriguing Division II action involves crossover games with Division I or scrimmages as St. Thomas, North Dakota State and Kennesaw State spark up the season with inter-divisional tilts. There are some mildly interesting contests in the ALC and SELC, but we’re still a week away from the junior circuit getting into full swing.
- Speaking of Division II, UNC-Charlotte is well on its way to a spot in the ALC postseason after roasting a pair of conference teams to start the season. The 49ers outscored Citadel and Charleston by a combined 47-16. With Ryan Parody and Cole Donner – who teamed up to win 51-of-64 (79.7 percent) of the faceoffs – Charlotte is looking more and more like a wagon.
- The first Warrior Player of the Week and PEARL Goalie of the Week awards will be dispensed on Tuesday. Coaches, get your nominations to [email protected] by noon on Monday. There will be an honor roll for those deserving recognition, as well…the first New Balance regular season poll will be released on Feb. 21.