October 1, 2012

Dear Men's Top 25 Voters

I know your job is not easy.  I know that picking 25 teams out of 400+ is challenging.  I know that even five weeks in, there may still be 20 to 30 teams that can make a case for the final few spots in the Top 25.  I know that your time is limited, you have many other priorities, and Division III soccer doesn't get national exposure and coverage to allow you to see many of the top level teams across the country.  I applaud your service, thankless though it may largely be, in recognizing the top teams and giving Division III soccer fans a great discussion piece.

Given the challenge and the limitations you work within, you do a good job.  Obviously I don't agree with all your selections or where each team is positioned each week.  It's all up to debate and you understand that, maybe more than most as you weekly grapple with sorting out your own ballot.  There is no expectation that everyone agrees on the Top 25 and there is no right or wrong Top 25.  And I think one can respectfully question the rankings at times when it's unclear what the reasoning would be for one team being ranked and another being left out, or one team being ranked above another.

In that light, I humbly and respectfully offer the following questions, observations, comments, reminders and suggestions for whatever they are worth as you go about casting your vote today and in future weeks.

• Please do not put much if any weight on who wins overtime games between similarly ranked teams.  Some losses can do more to confirm one's ranking than an easy win that tells us nothing.  The fact that a game went to overtime can be an indication that the close ranking was correct.  #10 Rutgers-Camden and #9 Montclair State were knotted at 3-3 after 90 minutes before the latter, the home side, won in extra time.  There's nothing in that to suggest creating a larger gap between the two in the rankings by moving the winner up and/or the loser down.  If anything, each defense conceding 3 goals in regulation might make a stronger case for both team sliding down a bit more than anything else.  And how about #11 York (Pa.) dropping a 1-0 double-overtime decision at #2 Messiah?  That seems to be just the result that one would expect if the rankings coming into the game were correct.  Shouldn't York's ranking be solidified with such a result, not put in jeopardy?

• Please reconsider earlier season results instead of just looking at the past week.  Sometimes what seems like a quality win or a bad loss in the first couple weeks needs to be re-evaluated once more games are in the books and we have a better feel for who really is good and who is not.  Franklin & Marshall beating Oneonta State, a Final Four team in 2011, seemed like a big win at the time and it helped them get ranked in the first poll.  Turns out Oneonta State struggled mightily the first couple weeks of the season and that victory doesn't look so special in retrospect.  It seemed a bad loss when Stevens dropped a 1-0 decision to NYU, who finished under .500 overall and last in the UAA in 2011.  Now that NYU remains undefeated and has climbed the rankings, the loss isn't such a negative mark.  And yet, last week, Franklin & Marshall at 6-2-0 with a 2-1 loss to #19 Swarthmore was still ranked at #20 while Stevens also at 6-2-0 but with a win over #19 Swarthmore was seven spots out of the Top 25.  And that ties in very nicely with my next discussion item . . .

• Please do not weigh early season blemishes heavier than recent blemishes.  Often a couple early blemishes can make it extremely difficult for a team to get a fair shake at the Top 25 again that season, while a team that starts hot and gets themselves ranked early is often given the benefit of the doubt when they finally do pick up their blemishes.  Is a team that is 7-1-1 with the tie and loss coming in their first three games really inferior to a 7-1-1 team whose blemishes came in the most recent three games?  With such short pre-seasons and the turnovers due to graduation, early results are less indicative of success down the stretch than mid-season results.  Last year, Swarthmore started 5-0-0 which got them a #3 Week 3 ranking and even two losses in week 4 only dropped them to #14.  Even after picking up a third loss, they were still ranked #17 in the Week 7 poll.   Meanwhile, Oneonta State was in the midst of a 19-game unbeaten streak and a sweep of the SUNYAC, but since they lost two of their first three games they only managed to get ranked for the first time in the Week 10 ranking, the last one before the NCAA's, when they were 14-2-2 and had claimed the SUNYAC Championship.  Texas-Tyler was a similar story.  They lost 3-0 to Trinity (Texas) in the first week of the season, and despite going 13-1-1 in their next 15 games, they were still unranked at 13-2-1 in the Week 9 poll while half the Top 25 had more blemishes than them.  Swarthmore missed their conference playoffs.  Oneonta went to the Final Four and UT-Tyler to the Elite 8.  By mid-season both teams had similar records to many in the Top 25, but they couldn't crack the inertia of the Top 25 until the last pre-NCAA poll, and only barely at #22 and #24.  Who will be the Oneonta's and Texas-Tyler's of 2012?  Or can a better job be done to break the inertia which tends to give the benefit of the doubt to teams already ranked while holding unranked teams to a higher standard?

• Please reconsider the disparity between the ranking of Ohio Wesleyan and the non-ranking of Christopher Newport. They opened the season head-to-head at Newport, playing to a 2-2 tie.  The next day Ohio Wesleyan lost 0-3 to Virginia Wesleyan (3-5-1) while Christopher Newport was edged 2-1 by #11 York (Pa.) (8-2-1).  Then in the next three weeks, Ohio Wesleyan beat four teams with a combined 14-20-3 (.419) record, tied Capital (5-2-3), and beat ranked Ohio Northern (10-2-0).  Christopher Newport during the same period beat five teams with a combined 20-28-6 (.426) record and tied Greensboro (6-2-2).  Ohio Wesleyan was ranked #15 last week and Christopher Newport was only receiving votes, effectively ranked #31.  The only real differences in their resumes was that Christopher Newport lost to ranked York (Pa.) while Ohio Wesleyan lost to a sub-.500 Virginia Wesleyan and beat ranked Ohio Northern.  This past week Ohio Wesleyan went 1-0-1, tying conference foe Hiram (9-0-1), while Christopher Newport went 2-0-0, edging conference rival Methodist (7-2-1) in overtime.  Ohio Wesleyan is 6-1-3, Christopher Newport is 7-1-2.

• Please don't forget that Stevens' two losses came against Top 10 teams in the first 10 days of the season, 0-1 away losses at #6 Carnegie Mellon and at #8 NYU.  The Ducks had beaten #19 Swarthmore (7-1-1) two weeks ago but were only receiveing votes in last week's poll, effectively ranked #32.  Comparing Stevens to the ranked team they defeated, Swarthmore has beaten one ranked team, Franklin & Marshall (7-3-0) and tied and lost to two good but unranked teams, good for a #19 ranking versus Stevens #32 ranking.  Or, take #7 Loras, who before the past week had lost to #25 UW-Platteville (10-1-1) and tied currently unranked Washington U. (5-3-1), good for a #7 ranking versus Steven's #32 ranking.

• Please take into account strength of schedule as best you can, especially in the non-conference slate.  Plattsburgh State jumped out to a 10-0-0 start good for a #17 ranking last week.   Their non-conference schedule was full of teams from the NAC, GNAC and Skyline and a few teams from the Liberty and Empire 8.  Collectively their non-conference opponents have a record of 35-53-5 (.403).  If that was good enough for a Top 25 ranking the past two weeks, Eastern Connecticut State might have a point if they question why they didn't get more support.  They ventured to play Western New England (CCC), Merchant Marine (Landmark), and Ramapo (NJAC) before taking on a few schools from the NECC, NEWMAC, and MASCAC.  Those out-of-conference opponents combined for a 26-30-3 (.466) record, and Eastern Connecticut was 7-0-0 before last week's rankings in which they were only "Receiving Votes", effectively ranked #33, sixteen places below Plattsburgh.  Even DePauw remained three places ahead of Eastern Connecticut in the pecking order last week despite a conference loss to Hiram (9-0-1) and a 4-0-2 record against a non-conference slate which included four HCAC schools and resulted in a combined opponents' record of 22-30-8 (.433).  I'm not necessarily advocating for Eastern Connecticut, now 9-0-0, to be ranked with or in place of Plattsburgh State (10-1-0).  There may be teams with a extra blemish or two who are equally or more deserving than either of these teams because they have played a tougher schedule.  Dickinson, for example, who were lower in last week's rankings than all three of the teams discussed above, may have a case.  Their lone loss came out of conference at #2 Messiah and their lone tie came in conference at #19 Swarthmore.  Even removing Messiah from the list, Dickinson's non-conference opponents still have a better combined record, 21-24-3 (.469), than those above; include Messiah and there is no comparison.  Should Dickinson have been below Plattsburgh, Eastern Connecticut, and DePauw last week?  With two more conference wins this week, should they remain below those three again this week?

I am looking forward to your new Top 25.  Will undefeated Hiram make the cut after their tie with Ohio Wesleyan?  How high will Olivet climb?  Will Trinity's hold on the No. 1 spot loosen as Messiah, Amherst, and Carnegie Mellon had big wins this week and NYU continues to be perfect?  Will Plattsburgh State survive their first loss?  Where will Salisbury land after losing in overtime to conference rival York?  Will Stevens and Christopher Newport get back to familiar territory, or do they still have more to do to convince you?  Could Carleton climb into the rankings at 9-1-0 and head of the MIAC class with two big conference wins last week?  Will undefeated Frostburg State and Scranton gain any support?  Should they?  I don't expect to agree with it all, and what fun would that be anyway?  But if I found myself nodding in agreement more than ever, I wouldn't complain about that either.

It's not an easy job.  Thank you for your hard work.

Sincerely,
Christan Shirk



Jim Matson, Christan Shirk, Ryan Harmanis, and other staff writers and contributors help cover the games and results across the nation.

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Oct 1: Dear Men's Top 25 Voters
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