Q&A with ESPN's Mark Dixon

The start of the 2012 college lacrosse season is a little more than a week away, which is music to the ears of ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon. Dixon, who begins his seventh year as an analyst, was kind enough to share some of this thoughts on the upcoming campaign.

There were some fairly significant changes in the offseason, including the introduction of Michigan’s program to Division I lacrosse. What kind of impact do you think that will have on the national landscape?

I think it’s absolutely huge when you talk about a school like Michigan. I guess schools now get characterized as BCS schools because football is the main sport for a lot of these institutions. So Michigan is the first BCS school since Notre Dame to add Division I men’s lacrosse. So I think that’s huge, and they’ve done it organically. They started as a club team and elevated themselves to operate as a Division I lacrosse program. Over the last couple of years, they’ve won MCLA championships. [Coach] John Paul has a significant role in that. They scored a really nice assistant in Judd Lattimore coming over from Bucknell. So they’ve got a nice coaching staff in place. It’s going to be rough sailing for them, this year in particular. When you look at their schedule, you’re hard-pressed to find a win. They’ve got Detroit Mercy in their first game of the year, and that might be their best bet. Or maybe Mercer in the middle of the season. But I think what this does is it gives credence to the sport in the Midwest. You’ve seen Ohio State build a pretty significant program, you’ve seen Notre Dame building that program, and of course out West, you’ve got Denver, which has been to a national semifinal. So I think as the sport continues to evolve, a place like Michigan – and you’ve also got Marquette coming in – I think it’s huge for the sport. They’ve already got several commitments from good recruits. I think Michigan hurts Ohio State, they hurt Penn State in terms of recruiting because of that Big 10 atmosphere that they’re able to offer, education, experience. That’s something that was unique to Ohio State and Penn State. Now you’ve got Michigan in the fold, and I think that hurts Ohio State and Penn State in recruiting. I think it’s great for the sport. Everyone knows Michigan football, the Big House, and not only is their presence huge, but the commitment given to them by the athletic department. Michigan doesn’t do anything half-hearted. They go full force. I think when you look at it, it’s going to continue the pattern of kids who are playing the sport who are football players and may have gone to subdivision football or Division III, now Michigan becomes another outlet. It’s just going to help grow the sport.

How much time will John Paul have to turn the program into a winner?

When Bill Tierney – who has won six national championships – went to the University of Denver, his athletic director said, ‘It’s OK if we don’t win a game our first two years.’ But he was taking over an established program that had been to some NCAA tournaments. So I think with John Paul at Michigan, they’re not going to settle for anything less than success. But I think you put in a three-to-five-year plan. And what is success? I think ultimately in 2012, success is winning their first Division I lacrosse game and maybe getting three or four win in 2012 could be the benchmark. But even prior to that, let’s land some decent recruits, and they’ve done that. They’ve been able to get some nice commits from student-athletes. So I think that’s the first thing. And then the second thing becomes, ‘OK, let’s shoot for .500.’ Does that come in Year Two or year Three? And then ultimately, it’s got to be, ‘Let’s get to our conference tournament.’ So I think with a program like Michigan, and John Paul has said – and it’s no knock on his players – that he’s got a club roster right now. He doesn’t have a Division I roster yet. He’s got a handful of players that might able to compete for starting spots in other Division I programs, but that’s only about a quarter of his roster. So I think looking at what they’ve got and looking at the commitment the school has made, going .500 and competing for a spot in the ECAC tournament could be three years out.

Twelve programs changed head coaches in the offseason. Is that a positive or negative sign for the sport?

I think it’s a positive in that it shows that these schools feel like they can win now and want to win now. Most of those schools were what you would consider to be your mid-majors. But there a couple in there that a lot of people feel like they can be giants. Rutgers is one that comes to mind. Towson, year in and year out, was in the NCAA tournament back in the mid to late 90s. And under Tony Seaman, they went to the national semifinals in 2001 and several NCAA tournament appearances. Those are places that have put an emphasis on winning. It’s a negative in that a guy can no longer coach at a place for 20, 25 years and retire and get a gold watch and ride off into the sunset. It’s more competitive from a recruiting aspect. It’s more competitive from the stance of, ‘OK, what are you offering to the student-athletes facility-wise? What are you offering experience-wise? What opportunities can you provide after graduation?’ It has become more and more of a big-time sport, and therefore, there is more pressure. And I think you’re going to continue to see more emphasis and more pressure being placed on success – whatever that definition of success is. There’s various levels of success. Obviously, success at Towson has been defined as winning the CAA championship and making it to the NCAA tournament. Success at a place like Holy Cross might be winning five games or making it to the Patriot League tournament. Ultimately, I think it is a good thing for the sport in that lacrosse is becoming more important. It could be negative in that athletic directors don’t know what they’re doing or don’t recognize the sport and might jump the gun a little bit. But I think that remains to be seen.

So is there a palpable pressure on coaches to win immediately and consistently?

Really, the pressure comes in summer with the recruiting. You have kids that are sophomores and they haven’t played a minute of varsity lacrosse, and yet they’re committing to Johns Hopkins or Virginia or Maryland. So I think the pressure to get the top kids is out there. And then once you get those horses in the stable, you think, ‘OK, we’ve got to win. Your recruiting class is ranked No. 2 by Inside Lacrosse, but you haven’t been to the NCAA tournament.’ So I think it definitely ramps up the pressure on coaches. … I think the other thing to keep in mind here is the alumni bases. I’ve said for years that the only ones at schools that really bellyache about not having success are the ones at Hopkins, Syracuse and Maryland. I think they have the most passionate and vocal alumni bases. But this past year, we saw – according to a number of sources – Navy’s alumni network, which was instrumental in ousting Richie Meade. I know Towson, for years, the alumni base was grumbling about the lack of success. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the change from Tony Seaman to Shawn Nadelen, but you’re seeing more and more alumni bases that – as this sport grows – the players who played in the 70s, 80s and even 90s now are more passionate about the sport and want to see their schools either reach a level of success, sustain a level of success, or get back to where the program used to be.

You weren’t shy about anointing Virginia, the reigning national champion, as the top team in your preseason poll. What do you like about the Cavaliers?

I like Virginia because of the way they came together last year as a team. For years, it had all been about the individual at Virginia. And they finally put it together from a team aspect and won the national championship. I would characterize it as a legacy of leadership that has been left by Bray Malphrus and John Haldy, in particular. Bray Malphrus was just incredibly impressive as a senior. He entered 2011 as the poster child for why hits to the head were being targeted by officials because he made a living out of knocking the heck out of people. But he transformed himself into more of a leader and just an incredible presence. I think playing that zone defense really helped. He went from being a long-stick midfielder to being the central cog in that zone. And Haldy on the offensive end -- they’ve got [senior attackman] Steele Stanwick, who has been that offensive leader even through the trials and tribulations of Virginia lacrosse over the last few years culminating last year with some suspensions and some dismissals. But Haldy was a glue guy. And I think when you look at Virginia’s team this year, they’ve got [senior defenseman] Matt Lovejoy coming back, and he had been viewed in the past as a little bit of a thug. But now he embraces the role from Malphrus, and offensively, they still have Stanwick there as the glue guy. And not only is he the glue guy, but he’s the best player in the country. I just like those bookends at each end of the field. Obviously, they’ve got to replace Adam Ghitelman, who I think was incredibly underrated. But I think they’re going to have a capable goaltender behind that really strong zone defense. I like the middies. I think [sophomore midfielder] Rob Emery is ready to break out and have a significant season. And then of course, you’ve got the attack. You’ve got [junior Matt] White, [senior] Chris Bocklet, some nice freshmen coming in. I look all over the field, and they’ve got as much talent as anybody, but their biggest thing is their experience from last year and the legacy of leadership that has been left by Malphrus, Haldy and Ghitelman. I think they’re really going to pick up from where they left off, and I think they’re in a great position to become the first repeat champions since Syracuse in 2008 and 2009.

You also had Penn at No. 10 in your poll. What has impressed you about the Quakers?

For that 10th, I wrestled between Penn and UMass. But what I like about Penn is they get back [sophomore] Maxx Meyer on defense. He played some long stick for them last year as a freshman and was exceptional. He missed their last three games with a leg injury, and Penn lost three in a row and allowed double digits [in goals] in each of those games to Virginia, Harvard and Notre Dame. I think he anchors that defense. I like their goaltender, [sophomore] Brian Feeney. I think he’s going to be exceptional. And I like that they have someone who could be a stud face-off man, a kid by the name Joe McCallion. He’s a freshman out of Haverford. He was probably the most heavily recruited face-off man in the country. They got him, and they struggled there, especially down the stretch. If they can win face-offs, the trick for them will be to find goal scorers. But I think that defense, outside of Princeton, might be the best in the Ivy League. They’re going to nickel-and-dime their way to some wins, and they’re going to know where they stand pretty quick. If you look at their first six games, they’ve got Duke, Carolina, Villanova, Princeton and Cornell. And they’ve got Lehigh, who is going to be improved this year. So trhey’re going to know where they stand very, very quickly. They’ve got a gauntlet of a schedule, but I just think that schedule is really going to help prepare them for the NCAAs. They could surprise some people.

Is there a team that is getting a high ranking that you’re just not sure of?

A lot of people have Duke at No. 1, and I don’t know why, but I just haven’t fallen in love with the Blue Devils the way that some of the other folks have. I love [sophomore] Jordan Wolf on attack, but I’ve got questions about whether their midfielders can dodge enough to create. They’re all terrific athletes and great shooters, but are they going to be able to penetrate defenses and open it up for guys like Wolf to do their thing? It just seems like year in and year out [junior goalkeeper Dan] Wigrizer is on the hot seat. Even though he’s won a national championship, he still has [senior] Mike Rock breathing down his neck. I think I put Duke at [No.] 4. The other teams that I think might be a little high is Hofstra at 11 and Villanova at 10. Hofstra just loses so much from the offensive end. They also lose Mike Skudin as a close defender, and they lose both of their short-stick defensive midfielders. They just lost a ton to graduation. I’m not saying that they might not be there at the end of the year. They might be in that 10 or 11 spot. But for right now, I thought they were a little high. That attack rolled off the tongue for the last three or four years with [Stephen] Bentz, [Jamie] Lincoln and [Jay] Card. They only played together for two years, but that whole attack is gone. They do get some terrific middies back, but I just think early on, they might struggle. And the reason I say Villanova is because when you talk about all the seniors from last year, I think the one senior that is going to be missed the most by his team is Brian Karalunas, the long-stick middie. He did so much for those guys – creating transition, generating turnovers. They’re really going to miss him. And the other thing is, [senior attackman] Kevin Cunningham, who is their best offensive player, has had hamstring issues, and if he goes down, that’s going to be tough for the Wildcats. Villanova is a team that everyone just loves and for good reason because they’ve worked so hard and do so many nice things. Coach [Michael] Corrado has done a great job with those guys, but I just think Penn right now might be a little higher. It’s only preseason though.

Considering what Denver accomplished last season, is this year the Pioneers’ best shot at becoming the first team west of the Mississippi River to capture the national title?

Yes. I think with the offensive firepower that they have – and they were incredibly impressive against the United States national team this past weekend – [senior attackman] Mark Matthews is smooth and slick and [senior attackman] Alex Demopoulos is very unselfish and makes things happen. I love their midfield. [Sophomore] Jeremy Noble – in addition to Rob Emery at Virginia – is my breakout player for 2012. He was dynamite last year, especially against Virginia in the national semifinals. The key for Denver though is replacing that defense. All three starters at close and the short-stick D-middies have to be replaced. But if I’m going into that situation, [head coach] Bill Tierney and [defensive coordinator] Trevor Tierney might be the tandem to have a year where the defense’s cupboard needs to be replenished. Denver just has incredible offensive firepower, they’ve got good face-off men. The trick is, who’s going to play defense? But here’s another key for Denver. As I look at their schedule, they’re at Penn State, at Notre Dame, at Air Force, at Fairfield. They get several neutral-site games, and teams have to go out west there. So if they secure home field in the first round [of the NCAA tournament] like they did last year, they know what it takes to travel, especially in the tournament, and they have the experience of running through a forest fire in 900-degree weather in Baltimore last year. They know what it takes to get to the game’s ultimate stage. However, they don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. They don’t want to be that flash in the pan. So I think Coach Tierney is definitely going to remind them of that every single day. Last year doesn’t matter. This is a new year, a new focus. But they’re going to win a lot of games [by a score of] 14-12. They’re going to give up a lot of goals, but at the same time, it’s going to be really, really hard to keep Denver off the scoreboard.

Who are your leading candidates to take home the Tewaaraton Award in June?

I think it’s going to be between [Cornell junior attackman] Rob Pannell and Steele Stanwick – at least here in the preseason. Those are just two very special players, guys who have really set themselves apart from the rest of Division I lacrosse. But you have to invite five. Along those lines, look for Mark Matthews of Denver to be in the mix. I think [junior midfielder] John Ranagan from Hopkins could be somebody that will get a look. And I think [senior defenseman] Chad Wiedmaier or [senior goalie] Tyler Fiorito from Princeton. If Princeton can reverse their fortunes from last year – and they’ve given some love to Joel White as a defenseman and John Galloway as a netminder – I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wiedmaier and/or Fiorito invited to DC after the season for that Tewaaraton ceremony. But I think right now, it’s a two-horse race between Rob Pannell and Steele Stanwick.