Note to Seniors and Best Conference, Part III
An Open Letter to Seniors
Most teams are celebrating Senior Night (or Senior Day) this week. For many seniors, competitive soccer will end in the next few days. For the rest, the postseason beckons, where your career can end—somtimes unexpectedly—in just 90 minutes. Regardless, time is short. Some words of advice from someone who’s been there:
Enjoy it. That’s why you played Division III soccer, right? Because it’s fun and you love the game. You aren’t required to be here. You’re not being paid, you’re not on scholarship, you don’t get to be on SportsCenter. So don’t forget what brought you here in the first place. Celebrate a goal—like really celebrate it (no yellow cards, though; get creative). Nutmeg someone, even if it’s just in practice. Try a new move out when you run at the defense. You’re facing your last practice, your last road trip, your last home game. Don’t let those go to waste.
Appreciate everyone else that helped you in your career. Thank your parents. Your last few games will be just as tough for them as they are for you. They’re the ones who drove you to practice for years and sat through 100-degree weather, rain, snow, wind, and who knows what else to be there for you. Thank your coaches. Most of them do this just because they want to help young men like you become better, on and off the field. I’m sure you know the people who have been your support system, so make sure they know their efforts meant something to you.
Play hard for your teammates. I hope these guys have become your best friends over the years, and that your team feels more like a family and less like twenty guys that show up for two hours and kick a ball around. So play for each other. I’m not big on the rah-rah stuff, but these are the guys you’ve gone to battle with for years, so make sure you do right by them.
Most importantly, play hard for yourself. You’ve put so many hours and so much effort into this sport. Play your last few games like it was all worth it. No regrets. My challenge to you: when your career ends—however it ends—make sure you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you left everything on the field. Beyond that, let the chips fall where they may.
Closing the Conference Debate – Who’s the Best in 2015?
Now, taking a sharp left turn, I’m finally going to close this conference debate. To recap, I looked at the numbers, and in Part II of this series concluded that the best conferences over the last decade have been: (1) NESCAC; (2) NJAC; (3) UAA; (4) NCAC; (5) Commonwealth; (6) IIAC. I also noted some qualitative measures that might come into play, including conference depth, coaching, and hypothetical matchups between conferences. Today I’m going to look at conference strength in the context of the 2015 season.
First, a brief comment on qualitative measures. It’s hard to take many of these into account, because they’re ultimately judgment calls. Coaching, in particular, is very difficult to measure. It’s also partially captured by the numbers, because the best coaches should win the most often. But some measures are useful and comparable, even without seeing these teams play. Depth matters, as it’s much easier in conferences where the bottom teams are weak. Transferability matters—what would happen if you took the NJAC’s top dog and dropped it into the UAA? So using the last ten years as a starting point and looking at the teams this year, here’s how I’d rank the conferences:
(1) NJAC: Top to bottom, I cannot remember the NJAC ever being as strong as it is this year. To put it in perspective, six of the eight regionally ranked teams in the South Region of the NCAA Regional Rankings are from the NJAC. And that’s not even including Rutgers-Camden, a team capable of beating anyone in the country. The depth is ridiculous, as seven teams have already reached ten wins. Now, I’m not sure if the NJAC has a single team that I’d pick to make the Final Four today. But I wouldn’t want to face a team that has gone through this gauntlet.
(2) NESCAC: The NESCAC is not as strong as in years past. In my opinion, there are fewer elite teams and there is less depth. But the conference still has my clear number one in Amherst, and its top three of Amherst, Tufts, and Middlebury match up favorably with anything any other conference has to offer. The NJAC nips it because of overall depth, but at the top the NESCAC is great.
(3) NCAC: Perhaps my conference bias is showing, but I think the NCAC is deeper than it’s ever been. DePauw joining a few years back has upped everyone’s level, and six teams have already reached double-digit wins. Kenyon is looking to build on consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances, OWU is coming off a Final Four and always a threat, and DePauw has already beaten Kenyon and another traditional power in Loras. The NCAC gets third because it has multiple teams capable of reaching the Final Four to go along with its depth.
(4) SUNYAC: This may be surprising, but hear me out. The SUNYAC boasts eight teams that have already reached ten wins—more than any other conference. It has four regionally ranked teams and a returning Final Four participant in Oneonta. I don’t know if anyone outside the Red Dragons is really capable of reaching the Final Four, but top-to-bottom it’s been a very, very good league.
(5) Centennial: The Centennial and the UAA are neck-and-neck this year. The difference? I think the Centennial has two legitimate Final Four threats in Franklin and Marshall and Haverford. I also like the style of play I’ve seen from this conference, and with so much parity this year I think teams that can score goals on a regular basis will have the edge come tourney time.
(6) UAA: Per usual, the UAA is extremely deep, with seven out of eight teams over 0.500. But I’m not sure who outside of Brandeis can make a deep tournament run. I really like what Brandon Bianco, a former coach of mine, has done at Case Western, but Case might not even make the tournament. And, on some level, my study on conference strength has shifted the UAA into the “prove it” category when it comes to NCAA success.
(7) Liberty League: There’s a definite gap between my top six conferences and the remaining five. But, of those remaining, the Liberty League has the most depth and some teams capable of making some NCAA noise. St. Lawrence in particular has been inconsistent at times, but the Saints have been on a roll recently and are due for some NCAA luck and a deep run.
(8a) IIAC: The IIAC always has one deep threat in Loras, and this year it has a handful of other good teams, but I’m just not sure that it has that second or third team capable of making the second weekend of the tournament as it has in years past.
(8b) CCIW: These conferences are very similar, as both have one team that clearly has Final Four potential (here, Wheaton (Ill.)) and a handful of other teams that are pretty good.
(10) CAC: The lack of a true top dog pushes the CAC all the way down to the bottom of the top ten. I think the conference has several good teams, including Salisbury, Christopher Newport, and a resurgent York (Pa.), but no team has really proven itself to be a favorite in 2015.
(11) Commonwealth: Frankly, I think the Commonwealth on the whole is probably better than in previous years, as Lycoming has led the charge to increase the overall depth. Messiah, however, has not hit the heights of previous years, and considering the Falcons basically were the Commonwealth for my conference strength analysis, a dip in their fortunes means a dip in the conference’s fortunes.
Bottom line, the combination of depth and multiple teams capable of making deep, deep NCAA runs is really the separating factor for a good conference. This pecking order will probably change depending on the 2015 NCAA Tournament, but I’d guess at least three, if not all four, of the 2015 Final Four teams will come from these eleven conferences. That would line up with the last decade, as these conferences have produced 75% (30 out of 40) of the Final Four participants since 2005.
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
Short and sweet this week.
1. Amherst (14-0-1, D3Soccer.com No. 1) – A first blemish against Trinity (Conn.) probably wasn’t a bad thing, as it takes some of the pressure off a perfect season. Exit question: is it better to lose early in the NESCAC tournament like Tufts did, or to win the whole thing and keep momentum?
2. Kenyon (14-1-0, No. 2) – Kenyon grinded out a huge 2-1 win at No. 17 Ohio Wesleyan (13-3-2) to take control of the NCAC. As a warning to future opponents, you’d be well served to score first, as Kenyon’s midfield pressing and strong goalkeeping make it difficult to come back.
3. Calvin (17-0-1, No. 4) – Calvin is one game away from going 14-0 for the second straight season in the MIAA. Quite a feat, but time will tell if the Knights are for real.
4. Thomas More (13-1-1, No. 6) – I know it seems high, especially considering the Saints really haven’t played anyone in weeks, but this team continues to roll and rightfully stands on top of the Great Lakes region at the moment.
5. Haverford (13-3-0, No. 14) – I’m sold. The Fords have played seven games versus ranked opponents, as many as anyone in the country, and have won the last four. I watched their takedown of Franklin and Marshall Saturday, and Haverford’s ability to attack with devastating, reckless abandon in the first half was made even more impressive by its ability to close out the game in the second half. The Fords are the hottest team in Division III right now.
6. Montclair State (17-2-0, No. 8) – If the Redhawks were trying to send notice, I got the message. Montclair closed out the regular season in emphatic fashion by obliterating Rutgers-Newark (13-6-1) in a dominating 6-0 victory. Any team that finishes atop the best conference in the country by five points has earned its ranking.
7. Franklin and Marshall (15-1-0, No. 5) – I’m not going to punish the Diplomats too much for losing on the road against a white-hot Haverford team. I liked F&M’s play, and if they can show a better eye for the final pass and a more clinical approach to finishing in the attacking third, everything is still on the table.
8. Trinity (Texas) (15-2-0, No. 3) – Trinity finally gave up a goal (the horror) but continued to roll along. Coach McGinlay has his boys playing good soccer right now.
9. Brandeis (13-2-1, No. 7) – Brandeis enjoyed a week off and came back to beat Lasell, but the lack of goal-scoring punch has to be worrisome. On the other hand, Brandeis has played the country’s toughest schedule by far and navigated it exceptionally well. If the Judges can finish off the UAA in style, that momentum gives them a great chance to make it to Kansas City.
10. Elizabethtown (15-1-1, No. 10) – Congratulations to Coach Skip Roderick, who notched his 500th win last Saturday. The Blue Jays have the Landmark wrapped up, but would like to seal a perfect conference record by beating second-place Scranton tomorrow.
Trending Up: MIT, Middlebury, Wheaton (Ill.), Washington U.
Trending Down: Whitworth, Plattsburgh State, Rutgers-Newark, Wesleyan
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.