Nova, St. John's among surprise teams


The month of February is a feeling-out period in men's lacrosse -- fans are feeling out what their favorite teams have under the hood, and coaches are feeling out their rosters. March, however, is when everyone starts to settle in. The weather is warmer, coaches can see where to improve upon weaknesses and fans can lock in on who is legit to make a run for a conference title. We've just begun an exciting month. Here are five burning questions as the competition ramps up across the nation.

1. Which teams are the biggest surprises in 2009?

Villanova, St. John's and Hobart. All three are undefeated this season with quality wins under their belts. Nova is off to a 4-0 start with convincing wins over Rutgers and Penn. St. John's took down Georgetown at home on Feb. 28 in the Red Storm's ECAC opener. And a 7-2 win against Bucknell on Saturday put Hobart at 4-0 on the season as the Statesmen prepare for their conference opener Saturday against Georgetown.

2. Who are emerging as the top players to watch?

Most programs have played three to five teams already, and as the preseason hype disappears, players are being judged on their production. Who is vying for player of the year and first-team All-American honors? Which players are stepping up and emerging, proving themselves legit?

1. Kenny Nims, Syracuse
Nims has been a point machine. The senior attackman has 10 goals and nine assists this season and is a great playmaker for the Orange.

2. Scott Rodgers, Notre Dame
The senior goalie was a backup last year for the Fighting Irish, so there were no external expectations for him as a first-year starter this season. In taking over for Joey Kemp -- the best goalie in the nation last year -- Rodgers' .647 save percentage is very impressive.

3. Mark Kovler, Princeton
The undefeated Tigers are off to a 4-0 start after going 7-6 last year and missing out on the NCAA tournament. With a nice mix of veterans and freshmen this season, senior middie Mark Kovler is a great addition to the pack. Kovler returns this season after missing the last six games of 2008 with an ankle injury and brings back with him a vicious left-handed whip shot.

4. Garrett Billings, Virginia
Billings might be the nation's best goal scorer on the nation's best team. The senior attackman has been just as unstoppable.

5. Kyle Wharton, Johns Hopkins
The sophomore attackman is a tremendous left-handed shooter with a big windup and a powerful shot. He scored five goals Saturday against Hofstra to lead the Blue Jays with 11 this season. He looks to be emerging as an elite player on the national level.

3.. What are the most intriguing developing story lines?

As the weather gets warmer from the end of winter through spring, attendance for lacrosse games increases. Although March is usually hit-or-miss, April is the point in the season when more students and alumni show their faces.

Not this season.

This year, the crowds already are coming. The Carrier Dome hosted 16,595 fans when Virginia visited Syracuse on Feb. 27 in an early-season clash that proved the Cavs as the undisputed No. 1 team. Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium held more than 17,000 when Maryland beat Duke in the 2009 Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic on Feb. 28. Georgetown had too much demand for Multi-Sport Field's 3,000-person capacity when Syracuse came to town Saturday, as the Hoyas had to turn fans away from the sold-out event.

To get these kinds of crowds this early in the season is a very good sign. And with a tripleheader at the Meadowlands in early April and then a doubleheader at M&T Bank Stadium on April 11, featuring rival matchups Army-Navy and Maryland against Johns Hopkins, the numbers won't go down any time soon.

Tight race
After beating Syracuse, Virginia is the unanimous No. 1 team. Syracuse is no doubt No. 2. After beating Georgetown this past weekend, the defending champions look stacked. The Cavs and Orange appear to be two locks for Final Four.

After that? Well, it comes down to only … 11 teams.

In my opinion, about 11 quality teams are vying for the other two spots in championship weekend, and which two make it in depends on several factors. Princeton, Maryland, Georgetown, Hopkins, Notre Dame, Duke, UMBC, Cornell, UNC, Hofstra and UMass are all within a goal or two of one another. But it's still early in the season. That second tier of teams is tight and tenuous. There's still plenty of time to see who will rise up.

Depending on which teams gain momentum from a big win, which coaches make astute adjustments to personnel and tactics and which players improve their weaknesses, we'll see who will emerge from that pack.

ECAC lacrosse

4.. Which conferences are separating themselves from others?

The ECAC so far looks as though it will earn multiple NCAA tournament bids, as Georgetown, Loyola, Hobart, UMass and St. John's are all off to better-than-solid starts. Many teams have high hopes in this very competitive conference. The downside to that is that much like the Big East in men's college basketball this season, ECAC teams will inherit some in-conference losses. But the strength of schedule that the ECAC competition provides will help on selection day, and I could see three or four of those teams in the NCAA tournament.

That said, many important conference games remain among those teams. What appears like a routine Saturday game in March -- such as Loyola at St. John's this weekend -- actually will be a very important game. The team that wins the ECAC will earn one of the six automatic conference bids, but the rest of the teams in the league will have to fight for the other top two to four spots in the standings if they want to grab one of the 10 at-large bids.

5. Is there a changing tide in the number of quality of Division I lacrosse teams?

Although there haven't been too many crazy upsets this season and the top 10 teams are still the usual suspects, there is an apparent change in the middle of the pack. Fifty-nine teams play Division I lacrosse, and the quality of teams 10 through 40 has improved dramatically in the past decade.

Harvard beat Duke to open this season. St. John's beat Georgetown last month. These are things we wouldn't have seen in the past. But as the quality of players at the high school level increases and lacrosse spreads throughout the country, there are more top-level players to go around.

Years ago, the MAAC conference had part-time employees as coaches and no scholarship opportunities. That has changed. Recruiting is better, coaching is better and kids are training harder during the offseason. Those midlevel-ranked teams have All-Americans on their rosters, and they're coming up and beating up on teams that are historically in the top 10 every year. If a team hasn't done its homework or doesn't take another team seriously, it will pay the price. There are no easy games anymore.

Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He can be reached at quint@insidelacrosse.com.