You’re looking through box scores on your phone after a busy weekend of college lacrosse and as you scroll through the usual scores of Maryland and Penn State cruising to wins you do a double take as you scroll back up. Wait Duke lost to who?
In February and March, rankings are not set in stone and those Top 20 teams are not invincible. Every team has a chance to surprise the lacrosse world with an upset win. The gap between the Top 20 and the next 21-50 teams is smaller than ever before and the shot clock has helped to level the playing field.
Think of High Point taking down Duke and Virginia, Colgate beating Syracuse, Monmouth defeating Villanova in 2017, and several other recent big time upsets that shook up the rankings.
What is the formula for an upset?
Well, there are a lot of factors that go into any college lacrosse game early in the season. Elements such as long distance travel, installing new offensive and defensive sets, weather, playing a non-traditional opponent, how detailed a coach’s scouting report is, players being injured or sick, and even how fired up the team is in warmups. Playing a Top 20 team means all the pressure is on them to win. The unranked team can play with a chip on their shoulder or knowing that if they lose it is not the end of the world.
Lacrosse is unpredictable and that is part of what makes it so great. There is no way to know when an upset is coming. It manifests itself as the game unfolds.
The numbers won’t tell you everything about why one team won and the other lost. Looking at Air Force’s win against #7 Duke this past Saturday, you would have thought Duke dominated the game.
Groundballs and shots are usually good indicators of which team is controlling possession and getting more scoring opportunities, but having a lot of shots is different than how many times the ball actually goes in the net.
Air Force goalie Braden Host was all over the Duke shooters as he made a whopping 17 saves to keep his team in the game. His defense was also forcing dodgers to spots where Host had the best chance of making a save. Air Force scored on almost 40% of their shots.
Winning more faceoffs helps, but does not automatically equal success. In games like these, when a team wins faceoffs tends to be more important than how many they win. Getting a big goal and then following it up by winning the faceoff and scoring again in quick succession helps turn the tide and start a run.
There are intangibles that won’t show up on a box score that truly make the difference in a game. A team rallying behind each other and feeding off one another’s energy fuels the players on the field.
A big play that makes the bench go crazy builds the belief that you’re better than your opponent like Air Force freshman Brandon Dodd oozing confidence in his first college game with this backhand feed.
My favorite early season upset of all-time will always be when I was a freshman at Canisius and we beat #13 Albany in March 2014.
Albany had all three Thompsons and they would make it all the way to the NCAA Quarterfinals that season. We came into the game pissed off after losing to Detroit Mercy a few days before and played like we had nothing to lose.
We dominated the game from the start scoring off of the first two faceoffs. This was before the shot clock so Coach Mearns used the clock to his advantage as we milked several 3 or 4 minute possessions where we spun the ball around and then ended with a goal. The Albany crowd were yelling at the refs to do something, but we were just using the rules to our advantage. We kept the ball out of the Thompsons’ sticks as much as possible.
Current Colorado Mammoth defender and Boston Cannons middie Tim Edwards played out of his mind. Timmy scored 1 goal and had eyes in the back of his head as he dished out 7 assists while running the point on man-up. He also went 9 for 13 on faceoffs and had 6 GBs. That has to be one of the most complete games by a midfielder in the past decade of college lacrosse.
Our defense worked as a unit and did an amazing job limiting the Thompsons and their offense. Adam Donner put on one of the best one on one defensive performances I’ve ever seen going up against Lyle holding him to 1 goal and 3 assists, which was the best case scenario considering he was averaging 7 points per game that season.
We won 14-10 and shocked the lacrosse world.
February and March are unpredictable for college teams at all levels. Unranked teams will push Top 20 teams to the edge and some will get those elusive upsets.
Who will be the next team to upset a Top 20 opponent?