September 19, 2011

Who's top dog after 3 weeks?

By Christan Shirk

With Christopher Newport's draw at Oneonta St. this week, the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 should be up for grabs this week.  In last week's poll the Captains had evenly split 20 of the 25 first place votes with Messiah, so Messiah's pair of wins will surely push them ahead.  But five first place votes went elsewhere last week and that number could grow.  Though I personally think this should be a much more open contest than it's likely to be, there's little reason to think it will be other than Messiah sitting atop the poll when it is released tomorrrow.  However, with a few other schools making solid cases for being the top team at this stage, it will be interesting to see what voters who gave Christopher Newport top billing last time around do with their votes this week. 

Do they hold faith with the Christopher Newport?  After all, a 1-1 tie after stepping off a long bus ride to play a top SUNYAC school (Oneonta St. was co-regular season champions last season) in blustery upstate New York isn't anything to be ashamed of, certainly no more so than Messiah being matched by Hiram who went 6-12 last year.  And the Captains did defeat Vassar 4-0 on the same road trip to close out the week.  However, the previous week Virginia Wesleyan had them on the ropes before the comeback and overtime game-winner. And they struggled to overcome a mediocre Marymount in a contentious 2-1 win.  Marymount was subsequently dominated by the aforementioned Virginia Wesleyan and Catholic to the tune of 7-0 and 5-2, respectively.  Probably Top 5, certainly Top 10, but Christopher Newport would be expected to slide down as that unconvincing 3-game stretch before the Vassar win probably will have voters moving their first place votes elsewhere.  

Messiah routs Gettysburg Do they simply throw their votes to Messiah and solidify them as the No. 1 team?  Messiah stumbled against Hiram after getting a tough season opening win at Ohio Wesleyan.  From there the Falcons got a 1-0 win against Haverford and ninety minutes of steady rainfall and a 2-1 victory against a solid Catholic side before finally seeming to hit their stride in a 5-0 rout of Gettysburg and a 3-1 defeat of upset-minded DeSales.  Messiah is still far from post-season form, but they are improving and getting some injured players eased back into game-shape.  Their reputation and the Ohio Wesleyan win probably got them a higher ranking than they deserved last week, and when you add in two more wins they seem a safe bet to go top.  It's probably a question of whether they do so by a narrow majority or by near consensus.  Deserved or not, if Messiah hits high gear soon it may be tough to dislodge them.

Or could the voters get behind another candidate in strong enough numbers?  That's unlikely both because of Messiah's starting position from last week and because there isn't just one other candidate but rather a few.  A case could be made for Ohio Wesleyan, St. Lawrence, and Swarthmore.  Washington U., Hobart, and Amherst could conceivably grab some first place votes as well.  

Given their head-to-head loss to Messiah, it might seem odd to suggest that Ohio Wesleyan could make a claim to be the No. 1 team in the nation, but I believe they are as deserving as anyone including Messiah.  Take away a miscue that gifted Messiah their first goal, and that is a tie game and it is probably fair to say that the Battling Bishops were the better team for long stretches of the game as reflected by a 18 to 10 shot advantage and twice as many shots on frame, 12 to 6.  Ohio Wesleyan responded to the Messiah loss with a 8-0 drubbing of Hamline the next day and then the next week had no problems with Wheaton (Ill.) in a 3-1 win and crushed Carnegie Mellon 7-0.  Seemingly narrow 1-0 and 2-0 wins over Otterbein and Capital this past week were actually two more dominating performances where they outshot their opponents by a combined 58 to 12, including a 24 to 5 advantage in shots on goal.  Not to take anything away from Messiah or other contenders, nor to suggest who will be the strongest come the post-season, but when you look beyond mere results, I do think Ohio Wesleyan makes the best case for the No. 1 ranking after three weeks.

St. Lawrence have gotten off to their best start since 2003 and have done so without 2010 All-American forward Brendan Gorman, who is likely out for the season after a summer soccer injury.  But they still have nine starters back from last year's 17-3-2 squad and they have jumped out to a 5-0-0 start having finally beaten Rochester after going 0-4-2 against them since beating them 2-0 as part of a 6-0-0 start in 2003.  It's also the first time in that same span that they picked up two wins against the pair of Geneseo St. and Rochester who they play the second weekend of the season, having gone winless in those match-ups from 2004 through 2009 before edging Geneseo last year.  And they didn't just beat Rochester, they dominated them to a final score of 4-0, outshooting them 24 to 8 with nine on frame to Rochester's two.  Despite the one-goal margins of victory, St. Lawrence was similarly dominating in all their other wins except the season opener against Oneonta St. who just tied Christopher Newport.  Oneonta scored twice in the first 17 minutes, and only managed one more shot on target the rest of the way.  It's been all Saints ever since, and one wonders how much more convincing they would have been to this point had Gorman been leading the front line.  It's probably going to be a tough decision for both the player and the coaching staff on re-shirting the senior if there is a chance he could be fit for a run at the national title this November.

Swarthmore, who has become a constant in the Top 25 the past few years, is a perfect 5-0-0 with three shutouts and a pair of 2-1 wins over Rutgers-Camdem and Franklin & Marshall.  In a fairly even match, they came from behind with two second half goals against Rutgers who scored early.  In their Centennial Conference opener they came within 96 seconds of shutting out the Diplomats for the fifth straight year in a fairly dominating performance (shots 21-6, SOG 9-4). 

Washington Univ. defeats Greenville Washington U. is a perfect 6-0-0, but have played an easy schedule to date.  Four of their opponents are under .500 on the season and the only real test has been Central, an improving team from the IIAC who finished fourth in their conference with a 13-5-3 overall record in 2010.  Despite conceding the an early goal to the Dutch, Washington had little problems with the visitors thereafter, firing 21 shots to Central's 10, and not allowing a single shot on frame in the second half.  They Bears did keep the Dutch opposing keeper busy with 10 goal-bound efforts in the second stanza, one getting by for the game-winner.  Washington will probably need a quality win and some slip-ups by the other top ranked teams to get a seriously look for the top spot.

Trinity (Texas), as is typical, is dominating teams with large advantages in shots and shots on goal.  Unfortunately their finishing has left them down more often in recent years than had been the case for about a decade, and this year they have already picked up two early season ties that flatter their opponents.  Even the 1-0 win over Greenville was much closer than it should have been.  The voters recognized the nature of their two ties when they placed them at a lofty No. 5 last week, and the subsequent 4-1 win over Redlands, one of the top west coast programs, helps their case.  But two blemishes this early basically disqualify a school from No. 1 consideration.  

The surprising Ohio Northern, who garnered two first place votes last week, took themselves out of the running this week with a tie and a loss.  Given the nature of their mid-week tie, it didn't need to be too damaging if it had been their only blemish.  They had survived an even first half with Wittenberg and were in the driver's seat after scoring shortly after the break.  Then with under ten to play and a perfect 7-0-0 in their sights, the Polar Bears scored an own goal and despite a flurry in the overtime periods, could not get to winner.  It was always going to rule out a climb in the rankings, but the real slip-up came when their potent offense was halted by Transylvania.  The 3-0 win flatters Transylvania as Ohio Northern generated more offense, but they did hold the Bears to just 11 shots, less than half their 23.6 average coming in.  Transylvania isn't a bad team, but not the measuring stick for the Top 10 team and to have been handcuffed that way raises questions.  Ohio Northern has a high-risk, high-reward intra-state encounter with Ohio Wesleyan this Wednesday.

Having been ranked No. 9 last week suggests Hobart will not challenge for the top spot yet, but a first place vote or two would not be completely out of the question.  They have run their record to 6-0-0 with road wins over Babson and Wheaton (Mass.) and home victories against Medaille and Rochester.  No signiture wins perhaps, but a handful of solid wins.  Voters might be understandably cautious with Hobart after handing them the No. 1 ranking following their season opening upset of Messiah last year only to have the Statesmen play .500 ball the rest of the way, falling completely off the voters' radar by mid-October.  But this year's squad is more experienced and senior-laden, having lost just one starter to graduation and indications are that they will have more staying power than last year.

Given the strength of the NESCAC, 4-0-0 Amherst probably deserves a mention here.  Having beaten conference rival Middlebury 3-0 this weekend probably gives them top bragging rights in New England which could get them some looks for the top spot even if they were only ranked No. 17 last week and have fewer games played due to the NESCAC's traditional late start.  They built a two goal lead in the first half hour of an otherwise even half and then withstood a Middlebury onslaught in the second half and even notched a third goal somewhat against the run of play.  But between this game and the previous day's 3-2 win over Bates who they left back in the game after opening a 3-0 lead, there are still plenty of question marks and anything more than slipping into the Top 10 would probably be pre-mature at this point.

Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.

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Christan Shirk


Christan Shirk is a Messiah College graduate (1993, Civil Engineering) and has been a keen and passionate observer of D-III soccer for over a decade and a half. Never more than a rec-league player himself, Chris brings an analytical approach and nationwide perspective to He loves D-III soccer history, statistical number-crunching, and off-the-radar action, all of which he gladly shares with his readers when he's able to find time to write. [see full bio]

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