Wednesday, May 5, 2004


Middlebury College has dominated New England Small College Athletic Conference men's lacrosse for years now. The Panthers have won the three conference championships since the tournament was initiated in 2001. Head Coach Erin Quinn's team won three consecutive national championships from 2000-02, and played in the national title games in 1999 and 2003.

As the host and #1 seed of the 2004 NESCAC Tournament this weekend (May 8-9), Middlebury may the favorite, but their position of dominance in the league seemingly isn't as strong as it's been recently. The Panthers (12-1) will play fourth-seed Amherst (11-4) on Saturday at 12 noon, followed by #2 seed Tufts (13-2) against #3 Wesleyan (13-3) at 3:00 pm. The championship game is set for Sunday at noon.

"Any of the four teams could win it," Tufts coach Mike Daly said. "I don't think Middlebury is down. They have the same amount of skill level at every position. I think everybody else is just catching up with them. The rest of the league and the rest of the coaches have done a great job recruiting. Certainly Middlebury's notoriety has helped all of us recruiting in that it brings some exposure to the league."

Tufts played the Panthers in the championship game a year ago, losing 15-10. That experience, along with four strong classes of skilled players recruited by Daly and his staff, has the Jumbos eager for a better result this weekend. The difference between the four teams is so slim, Daly thinks it's the basics of the game that will ultimately determine Sunday's champion.

"As basic and fundamental as it sounds, the team that shows up, the team that throws and catches better, will win the games," he said. "So many factors go into it, but literally yesterday at practice all we did was play wall-ball. Stick skills and throwing and catching still remain the #1 priority for us."

The 2004 Jumbos are the most talented team in the program's history. They have skill, depth and toughness in all four classes. With a 13-2 record entering the semi-final, the team broke last year's record for most victories in a season. They are ranked 10th in this week's USILA national poll and second in New England.

Tufts has reached this level of accomplishment despite a year full of adversity. Senior David Taylor, a 50-point scorer in 2003, left the team to prepare for a military commitment. Tri-captain Matt Malatesa (Winchester, MA/Winchester), the heart and soul of the team's toughness, hasn't played since April 7 after breaking his collarbone. Regulars David Harty (Sudbury, MA/Lincoln-Sudbury) and Billy Granger (Setauket, NY/Ward-Melville) have been lost with injuries as well.

"Guys have stepped right in and moved right along," Daly said. "I think part of that is toughness, but certainly we have good players and good depth, too."

The Jumbos are led by reigning NESCAC and New England Player of the Year Bryan Griffin (West Islip, NY/West Islip), who set a single-season scoring record this spring with 74 points on 40 goals and 34 assists entering the semi-finals. Behind all the goals and assists is a player who works as hard as anyone Daly has ever seen.

"I think what results in those numbers is the unbelievable chip on his shoulder," the sixth-year coach said. "He just has something to prove to somebody. I'm not sure who. Thankfully it's resulting in his work ethic and dedication to the game. That happens a lot behind the scenes. He spends three hours a day committed to his lacrosse life, watching film, shooting, lifting weights, and doing all the things necessary for him to be the player that he is."

More than a supporting cast to Griffin, several Jumbo co-stars are having strong seasons. Junior midfielders Devin Clarke (Ridgewood, NJ/Ridgewood) and sophomore Mike O'Brien (Concord, MA/Middlesex) could play for any team in the country, Daly said. Clarke has 26 goals and 13 assists in 15 games, while O'Brien has 23 goals and eight assist. The team's depth has allowed freshman Mark Warner (Wading River, NY/Shoreham Wading River) to develop without any pressure. He has 14 goals and 21 assists. Granger helped make up for the loss of Taylor with 17 goals and 11 assists. Sophomore Michael Hughes (Branford, CT/Branford) went from being a second-line middie at the start of the year to a player who scored five goals to lead the team to a 10-7 regular-season victory at Wesleyan. Sophomore Casey D'Annolfo (West Hartford, CT/Phillips Exeter), senior Drew Innis (Weston, CT/Kent), sophomore Evan Saulsbury (Silver Spring, MD/Georgetown Prep) and sophomore Adam Delaney-Winn (Winchester, MA/Winchester) have all played significant roles at midfield.

The team boasts of the same depth on defense. Senior tri-captain Tom Mulcahy (Ossining, NY/Ossining) and junior Jordan Guynn (Dresher, PA/Germantown Academy) are the foundation of the midfield defense and provide the energy, excitement, dedication and the hard work that is paramount to successful defense. Sophomore Rory Doucette (Merrick, NY) and freshman Matt Lanuto (Duxbury, MA/Duxbury) and have done well filling in for Malatesta on face-offs. Freshman Brett Holm (Longmeadow, MA/Longmeadow), a Rookie of the Year candidate in the league and region, Harty and senior Marco Cedrone (Falmouth, ME/Bridgton Academy) have all done a fantastic job in that long-stick middie role.

The last line of defense is a veteran group with three senior starters and junior goalie Luke Chicco (Merrick, NY/Calhoun). Seniors Jesse Miller (Falmouth, MA/Falmouth), Dave Richman (Baltimore, MD/Friends of Baltimore) and Charles Savicki (Duxbury, MA/Duxbury) have been equal in their steadiness and protection of the goal. Chicco, who has 13 wins, a 7.71 goals against average and a 62.3 save percentage, is also right in line with the team mission of competitiveness.

Tufts won three games total in the two seasons prior to Daly's promotion to head coach in 1999. Those days are long gone. Now a Top 10 team, the Jumbos are a lacrosse force to be reckoned with.

"I do think part of it has been an evolutionary process of learning how to win, learning what is needed to do to win, and then fulfilling it," Daly said. "The guys who were in the program years previous certainly set a foundation of work ethic, of toughness. That foundation is there, and now to combine that with four skilled recruiting classes, that's probably the biggest difference."